Review: Spider-Man: Far From Home

Distributor: Sony Pictures Releasing

Director: Jon Watts

Writer: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers

Starring: Tom Holland, Samuel L. Jackson, Zendaya, Cobie Smulders, Jon Favreau, J. B. Smoove, Jacob Batalon, Martin Starr, Marisa Tomei, Jake Gyllenhaal

Genre: Superhero

Rating: PG-13

We’ve had a quite a run with this Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) thing, haven’t we? Many of us in on the discourse are still trying to parse out what exactly that even was. I’m usually won over by the approach suggesting that the MCU is arguably the most expensive television series ever produced. It at least helped me to better accept the rather incomplete aftertaste of most installments. Ever since at least Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it was beginning to seem as though every entry was just a feature-length trailer for the next entries. Seen in an episodic paradigm, such ironically piecemeal offerings are generally more tolerable.

It also helps me at least to better accept the total lack of stakes in the vast majority of these films. Honestly, last year’s Avengers: Infinity War was the first time in the entire franchise’s run in which a real sense of danger, loss, and the story coming to an end without all iniquities being resolved in a matter of two hours or less was present and palpable. This year’s Avengers: Endgame gave a satisfying conclusion to not only the year-long cliffhanger of Infinity War, but to the entire MCU project. After that, I could honestly say that these flicks have made the most of their welcome. It’s not so much that I was fed up with the MCU in any negative manner, but more so that I’d had my fill.

Clearly, Marvel and Disney hadn’t had their fill of our money, though. So the MCU trucks on. How odd that the first post-Endgame entry we get is distributed by Sony. At present, nothing actually from the Mouse House has a confirmed release date. This is gonna be interesting…

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Mass destruction during Elementals battle sequences, including frightening moments when it looks like characters could fall to their deaths. Peter/Spider-Man is routinely hurt, thrown around, shot at; in one case, hit by a train. Innocent passersby are hurt by collapsing buildings, super-strong water/fire/air monsters. Drones are used to hunt and fire at people. A person is struck by a tranquilizer dart. Nick Fury waves his gun at Peter and the door of his hotel room. Some scenes of violence aren’t what they seem. It looks like one character is shot, and another one actually is. Peter gets stitches, is moderately injured. In a frightening vision, Peter imagines his dead superhero friend as a corpse emerging from the ground.

Language/Crude Humor: Occasional strong language includes “d**kwad,” “bulls***,” “b****,” “ass,” “damn,” “badass,” “oh my God,” and one cut-off “what the f***” in a mid-credits scene.

Sexual Content: Flirting, a few quick kisses. Peter is shown shirtless a couple of times. In one scene, he’s changing in front of a female S.H.I.E.L.D. agent; a student walks in, misinterprets situation. Another time, Peter changes in same room as MJ, who’s facing away at first but sort of sneaks a look. Happy jokes about a “pay-per-view movie” without a title that Peter once ordered at a hotel (adult film joke that may go over younger viewers’ heads).

Drug/Alcohol Use: Peter reminds Mysterio that he isn’t twenty-one and therefore can’t join him for an alcoholic drink. Adults around Peter drink at a pub. An underage young man tries to drink his free drink while traveling in first class, but he’s stopped.

Spiritual Content: None.

Other Negative Themes: None.

Positive Content: 

Spider-Man’s core message continues to be “With great power comes great responsibility.” Peter takes that seriously, looking for ways to keep family and friends safe–complete strangers, too. Other messages include balancing personal needs and desires with good you can do for greater community; believing in yourself and your abilities; allowing yourself to grieve those you’ve lost; communicating with others to avoid misunderstanding or danger, or even to confess a crush. Courage, humility, perseverance are also themes.

Peter is courageous, generous, kind; he’s willing to put himself in danger to save friends, strangers. He’s also still a teenager who makes impulsive decisions and mistakes, like when he accidentally sets EDITH on a classmate or gives away something precious before completely thinking it through. Ned is a supportive, loyal best friend. Happy does his best to be available and be somewhat of a mentor to Peter. MJ is perceptive, observant. The villain isn’t what he initially seems; he’s manipulative, vindictive, theatrical, egomaniacal. Peter’s high school/peer group is realistically diverse; his friends and classmates represent wide range of races, body types.

Review

Is John Watt’s Spider-Man: Far From Home the epilogue to the MCU or the introduction to a new era in whatever the MCU is going to be from now on? Are those mutually exclusive? Probably not, but for the vast majority of its running time, this title is anchored to the past. It almost drives with its face glued to the rear-view mirror.

At the very start, we get a montage of those who have fallen in the effort to restore what was lost after “The Snap”, affectionately covered by the late Whitney Houston’s rendition of “I Will Always Love You.” As seems to have been the case in Endgame, Tony’s death is given all the glamour and fanfare while others are not. As much as Tony’s arc over the course of the MCU was supposed to mitigate his narcissism, it seems that this is his one character trait that has escaped the grave. Far From Home is festooned with Mr. Stark’s imagery, and his legacy operates as the central plot focus for just about the entirety of the run.

What’s more awkward about that is that one would be quite right in thinking about how half of the Earth’s population suddenly returning to existence should be the central focus of every news cycle for at least a few months. The social, economic, political, and existential ramifications of this cataclysm would be absolutely staggering in actuality. Instead, much like the world-ending “drama” of Thor: Ragnarok, everything pertaining to the catastrophe of Thanos’ schemes is played off as a joke. “The Blip” it’s called. Yes. Billions have been erased from existence for five years, and that’s called a “blip”. Can’t let too much heavy material get into this cheesecake, I suppose.

Another element to the Blip is that those who returned are the same age as they were prior to The Snap.  Those who survived aged normally, so there is a throwaway moment of a “blipped” character remarking “My younger brother is now older than me.” In a wonderful stroke of convenience, Peter Parker (Tom Holland effecting as ever) and everyone immediately related to him that would play a significant role in this movie were also “blipped”, so the whole cast seems to have adjusted to this nightmare quite smoothly. A little TOO smoothly, in all honesty.

Okay, okay, sorry to start this off in such a dour manner. As I stated in the introductory blurb, I’ve had my fill of this series and I’m ready to sign my check and go home, but the managers are just insisting that I stay for the free dessert samples that they’re advertising, so here we are. It’s not as though the treatment isn’t enjoyable in and of itself. Everything works just as well as it’s always worked, and I have to say that the construction of the plot this time around had dips, turns, and surprises that I never expected. Okay, they weren’t completely unexpected, but suffice it to say that some of the reactions I witnessed among my fellow viewers were to die for.

How exactly are Peter and the gang faring after a five-year-long hiatus from existence? To put it bluntly, things couldn’t be better. In fact, things are going so well, that young Parker is contemplating something like an early retirement from his role as an Avenger, preferring to remain a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Of course, neither the producers at Sony, Disney, or Nick Fury (Sam Jackson) are willing to let him off the hook that easy. With so many former Avengers gone or missing, Pete can be rest assured that more responsibility –and by association, more power– will be asked of him.

Poor young Parker seems to have these high expectations follow him just about everywhere, even in the most personal of spaces. When his class is scheduled for a trip to Italy, he makes the decision to leave behind his entire Spider-man persona, only to have that follow him against his will. Peter’s top priority while in Europe is to hopefully establish reciprocal romance with the deadpan priestess of wokeness that is MJ (Zendaya). The chemistry between Zendaya and Holland is palpable, and their scenes together provide all the emotional and dramatic heft that one would hope for. Pete seems to have some competition with the tall and model-perfect Brad Davis (Remy Hii), but of course, it’s Spider-Man and all that he entails who keeps the poor kid away from the girl of his dreams more than anyone else.

I’m fairly certain that most folks expect us to see how Far From Home on net balance compares to pretty much everything that was the MCU up to this point. After decisively ending an apocalypse drama over ten years in the making, how the energy and enthusiasm for the Marvel brand can be maintained is a fair question to ask. Watts and company have a huge legacy to live up to, a task made all the more difficult with this being the first Marvel movie without a signature Stan Lee cameo. My concerns lie elsewhere. 

Yes, this is first and foremost yet another MCU movie, but it is also another shot at a Spider-Man flick in less than a year after the release of what was arguably the greatest Spider-Man entry of all time. Last year’s Into the Spider-Verse was a masterpiece that drastically raised the bar on what superhero cinema, animated family filmmaking, and a Spider-Man movie could be even on a conceptual level. So consider me spoiled to anything Spidey-related as well as anything Marvel-related for a while.

With that said, don’t walk away from this review thinking Far From Home to not be worth the price of admission, dear reader. Writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers make some intriguing insights into some of the ancillary material established in previous MCU entries. Stark’s heroic snap brought an end to Thanos’ reign of terror, but it would be foolish to think that the only outcome from there. After successfully snagging Peter in the middle of his European tour, Fury introduces a new player to the board in the form of one Quinten Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), a heroic alternate-universe edition of the classic Spider-Man villain Mysterio.

As detailed in a prologue taking place in Mexico, the rip in space-time caused by Tony’s snap invited powerful elemental titans from the same dimension where Beck hails. These massive creatures threaten to tear the world asunder, and so this new Mysterio and Spidey must team up to bring them to a halt. Some of the strongest praises I could give to this movie would almost inevitably contain spoilers, so let that be sufficient to say that this is some of the best handling of a number of popular Spider-Man characters I’ve seen in quite some time. 

Fantastic displays of the latest in over-the-top CGI technology is an essential part of the MCU’s oeuvre, and Far From Home carries on this tradition shamelessly with every sense of self-awareness imaginable. Some sequences make a leap at Doctor Strange levels of imaginative imagery that I wished were used more often. It’s a fascinating demonstration in more ways than one, albeit rather hollow. Come back and read this again after you’ve seen the movie, dear reader.

The whole delivery works best when it’s simply trying to be something akin to a Disney Channel direct-to-video teeny bopper production with better acting talent and a higher budget. Pete’s classmates are the same diverse and crackerjack bunch we remember from Homecoming. Jacob Batalon does some fine work as the dorky best bud Ned, and his summer trip fling with the blond Betty Brant (Angourie Rice) was a continuous offering of comedy gold.

Even the teachers that chaperone the troupe (Martin Starr and J. B. Smoove) get plenty of screentime to deliver some of the biggest laughs. Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) continues the trend of every potential male lover in Aunt May’s (Marissa Tomei) range of sight being irresistibly smitten with her, causing Peter endless comical discomfort. In fact, director Watts seems to be bent on putting Peter in as many discomforting situations as possible, not the least of all being in the seemingly omnipresent shadow of Tony Stark.

Many a character spends some time at one point or another urging Peter not only to retain his position as an Avenger, but to also take on the mantle of the new Iron Man, or at least the new Tony. After wondering nearly aloud how Rhodey must be feeling about all this, I can see how one might be tempted to place the young prodigy in the late billionaire’s boots. Yeah, there’s the obvious parallel of Peter being an impressive engineering prodigy, but another thing I notice is the flippant attitude that both Pete and Tony have towards the classic superhero concept of a secret identity. Honestly, how often does this kid mill about in his suit unmasked while in public areas where anyone could potentially see him? I guess Sony and co. are paying more for Holland’s face than they are for a CGI Spidey mask that they could make themselves onscreen. Gotta get your money’s worth.

Sorry for the cynicism, but “getting your money’s worth” does appear as the driving force behind whatever the MCU is due to be from here on out. By the end of the after-credits scenes, it will be perfectly clear that Spidey’s going to have his hands full for a while. This leaves the questions regarding whoever else in the Marvel lexicon Disney plans to keep around largely unanswered. From the first moments of 2008’s Iron Man to the last moments of Endgame, all tales were in service to the collection of the infinity stones and Thanos’ eventual defeat. What’s going to be the meta-narrative now?  hat MacGuffins will give motivation to have all these wildly disparate characters operate under the same roof? Here, it’s effectively Stark technology in the form of an augmented reality software Tony affectionately named “E.D.I.T.H.” (“Even Dead I’m The Hero”). Please don’t tell me that of all the things that Mr. Stark left behind, the one thing that will get the lion’s share of attention in future installments is his bloated sense of self-importance.

Positives

+ Authentic teen drama + Grotesquely self-aware + Best Mysterio ever

Negatives

- Peter is still largely reactionary - Tony’s ghost hangs over the film too heavily - Self-aware approach undermines the drama at times

The Bottom Line

The worth of this film will depend on how it is interpreted. Is this the continuation of a story that has been for all intents and purposes concluded, or is it the beginning of a whole new direction with a new set of characters yet to be developed? One hopes for the latter, though that will require a bit more to look forward to…

 

8

Tyrone Barnes

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