***MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THOSE OF YOU EASILY CONNED***
I have a love/hate relationship with Marvel Studios. On the one hand they’re owned by Disney, a mega-conglomerate bent on monopolizing the film industry. On the other hand they keep on putting out near perfect escapism, the sort of blockbuster not completely devoid of brains, the sort of mainstream entertainment that gives Hollywood a good name. Spider-man: Far From Home is yet another example of such delight in a year where Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame have already delighted in so many different ways. The plot might be a rehash, but director Jon Watts can work around it and he does, treating us to a clever high school comedy and one summer romance to write home about.
Besides witnessing the great Michael Keaton chew scenery, the best parts of Homecoming were Peter Parker’s everyday interactions at home and school, among his cheery classmates and drowsy teachers. Watts and writers John Francis Daley and Jon Goldstein offered a more grounded, more real approach to high school. Gone were the syrupy dialogue, 50’s bullies and squeaky white surroundings of Raimi’s pictures, replaced by a Queens as diverse as real life, complete with kids name-dropping porn, getting prolific on social media, and dealing with scary fathers at the front door of their big date. That cheeky/real tone continues in Far From Home, where Tom Holland proves he is the best Peter Parker and the best Spider-man in one, and there’s no denying it after his fourth major outing (not counting his bit role in Endgame) as a quirky teenager and web-crawler. Tobey Maguire will always garner respect for introducing the world to the many foibles of Parker and his alter-ego. Like his predecessors, Holland manages real acting amid green-screen hijinks while also endearing himself to the audience in a way Maguire and Andrew Garfield never could. Their writers failed them, rendering Parker overly serious at times and occasionally not a good sport. Holland’s Parker has ups and downs, particularly in the wake of Endgame and a certain hero’s epochal goodbye. That doesn’t mean he’s a sourpuss or serial crier from beginning to end. He’s a witty scientist in an awkward sixteen year-old’s body. THAT is Peter Parker. Here he’s beside himself over a girl, as always, and who could blame him when it’s frumpy-cute Zendaya stealing glances across Europe? Their chemistry anchors the film and provides a welcome counter-balance to the computer-generated onslaught.
In fact, there’s simply too much of it. Jon Watts evokes John Hughes in his talent for wrangling a young ensemble or maintaining a zippy pace without rushing for the next set-piece. He’s no visionary or cinematic tour de force though, and that comes through when assessing how much CGI is utilized for moments as simple and mundane as Spidey tripping or standing or kneeling. Too many moments feature mo-cap Holland instead of real Holland in a red and blue suit on set. Such rubbery fakery can smell of laziness when the effects aren’t up to snuff. For the most part, Watts and animators avoid anything truly embarrassing, like the climactic fight in Black Panther or a midtown Manhattan green screen in Infinity War. Regardless, rubbery Spidey can’t hold a candle to some of the best shots in Raimi’s Spider-man all the way back in 2002. Compare them side by side and you wonder how much effort Marvel and Sony are putting forth if 2002 can beat 2019. But I digress, because maybe that was the point. With Mysterio, master of illusion, serving as main villain, Watts and producer Kevin Feige have fashioned a story revolving around our collective ability lately to fall for the biggest cons (Trump allusions?) and suspend disbelief for the most ridiculous of fantasies. In other words, we’re marks for Hollywood titans shoving rather empty spectacle down our throats. Fortunately, Marvel and Sony’s Far From Home isn’t one of them. Jake Gyllenhaal is here to make sure of it. Beyond the adorable romance, there lays Quentin Beck. A con artist from “an alternate universe,” he’s in Europe to battle a gaggle of “elemental creatures” for all the world to see. There’s a vacuum in the world hero department, and it’s down to Parker and the man with a plan in a fish bowl helmet to figure out who will be “the next Iron Man.”
Gyllenhaal has been on the cusp of a comic-book movie since 2004 when it was rumored he might replace Maguire in Spider-man 2. Since then he’s been rumored for what seems like nearly every big comic book role in town, and finally he’s found one. His Mysterio is a self-absorbed, highly functioning psycho with a Tony Stark-sized chip on his shoulder. He’s out for blood and fame after getting screwed by a major corporation, and Jake’s having a bit of manic fun channeling Lou Bloom and Johnny Wilcox. Similarities between his story and Homecoming’s Adrian Toomes elicit feelings of a rehash, of Marvel playing it safe and trying to emulate that predecessor to a tee, and those feelings are apt. It’s clear there was some trepidation about risking too much for what amounts to a big after-dinner mint. Far From Home is the sweet, frothy dessert to Endgame’s five-course meal, and that’s a good thing. The beauty of Spider-man isn’t gravitas, it’s a heavy heart in the middle of personal crises. The filmmakers understand that and have found new avenues for delivering the web-head’s patented message of responsibility without resorting to “with great power comes great responsibility.” More than anything, they’ve found avenues for including the comic’s vast and impressive supporting cast. Ned Leeds, Betty Brant, Nick Fury, Happy Hogan, MJ, and a special cameo fill out Parker’s world and ensure there’s more to it than heroes, villains, and girlfriends. Also refreshing has been Marvel’s willful avoidance of secret identity woes. The first couple of decades in superhero cinema relied greatly on the inherent drama of keeping one’s secret. A couple decades of most anything will render it dull and overwrought. There’s still some of that, often in the service of funny asides or humiliation. However, Far From Home disposes of cliches and morose dwelling on the matter as Ned, Fury, Happy, and Aunt May are all in on the act.
Perhaps it’s a summer fling, and come fall I’ll resent Marvel and Disney again for rendering other fare obsolete in the minds of fickle mainstream audiences. For now I tip my hat to them and Sony, for there’s a reason they are ruling the world right now. Far From Home is no Endgame, and it doesn’t have to be when it’s this gratifying. Even a rehashed plot and wonky effects can’t stop Holland, Zendaya, and Gyllenhaal from delivering on what we expect from these characters on a sunny European vacation. Against all odds, Spider-man has found sustained new life in his third iteration. Assuming this brand of fun never ends, here’s to the next ten years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.