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Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)

DIRECTOR: Jon Watts

CAST: Tom Holland, Jake Gyllenhaal, Samuel L. Jackson, Jon Favreau, Cobie Smulders, Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, Tony Revolori, Marisa Tomei

REVIEW:

Coming on the heels of The Avengers: Endgame (it arrives with the other film still in theaters), Spider-Man: Far From Home (the third MCU installment of the year) serves as both epilogue and new jumping-off point, while also giving Tom Holland the chance to swing back into theaters in his second solo outing. To the second point, Far From Home is half of a tedious high school comedy and half of a worthy Spider-Man adventure. The first half leans hard into the weakest elements of 2017’s Homecoming, but the second half surpasses it.

The titular “far from home” refers to the high school field trip that Peter Parker (Tom Holland) embarks upon, which the teenager looks at as a chance for some much-needed R&R after being brought back from the dead (or whatever we’re calling it), along with half the population of the universe, in the climax of Endgame and mourning his late mentor Tony Stark/Iron Man. For Peter, it’s a chance to get away from Spider-Man and all it entails, hang out with his annoying BFF Ned (Jacob Batalon), and figure out how to confess his feelings to his crush MJ (Zendaya). Of course, if that’s all that happened, we wouldn’t have much of a movie, and soon the vacation destinations are menaced by elemental monsters which threaten to destroy Earth from the inside out. To this end, Peter is recruited by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), who team him up with the mysterious Quentin Beck/Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), who claims to be a soldier from a parallel dimension. Peter really doesn’t want anything to do with any of this, but Nick Fury is not one to be defied by a high school student, so when Peter tries to duck out of the superheroing, Fury pulls strings from behind-the-scenes and manipulates the field trip itinerary to steer Peter, like a piece on a chessboard, into the right place at the right time. Much as all the poor kid wants to do is hang out with his friends and see about a girl, Peter’s less-than-relaxing European “vacation” is just getting started. And meanwhile, all might not be as it seems, and some of those around him might not be what they present themselves as.

Far From Home suffers from uneven material. The first acts are a drag, with too much aimless meandering and too many jokey bits that fall flat, as we follow Peter along on his fumbling misadventures. Tom Holland is earnest and charming, but his ensemble of annoying supporting characters are neither as amusing nor as likable as the filmmakers seem to think they are (for an unnecessarily extended period of time, it feels like we’re trapped in a largely unfunny high school comedy). The movie gives a perfunctory attempt at showing the aftermath of “The Snap” (or “The Blip”, as we’re apparently calling it now), when the world was shocked by half its population vanishing, then shocked all over again five years later when they all reappeared as suddenly as they left, but it feels like shallow window dressing. Much like Homecoming, Far From Home aims so hard at maintaining a gee-whiz lighthearted breezy tone that it glosses over stuff like this as much as possible (there’s tons of issues that would arise from a real situation like this, but the movie isn’t interested in exploring them). It’s also eye-rollingly contrived that everyone relevant to Peter’s storyline was conveniently “blipped” along with him so they’re all conveniently still the same age and still in high school together, including the annoying Ned, the also-annoying Flash (Tony Revolori), their annoying chaperones Mr. Harrington (Martin Starr), who unnecessarily has a bumped up role this time, and new addition Mr. Dell (J.B. Smoove, whom some might recall previously co-starred with Tom Holland in a car commercial promoting Spider-Man: Homecoming), Ned’s girlfriend Betty Brant (Angourie Rice), and Peter’s budding love interest, who is named Michelle Jones instead of Peter’s comics love Mary Jane “MJ” Watson, but nicknamed “MJ” anyway, in what feels like the filmmakers trying to have it both ways when they should have either just adapted Mary Jane or committed fully to letting Michelle stand on her own as an original character rather than muddying the waters by slapping the “MJ” nickname on her. This is reflective of the wonky versions of most of the characters apart from Peter himself, and Mysterio (who is adapted faithfully, although the movie employs a little misdirection that might not make it seem that way at first), such as “Ned Leeds” being Ganke Lee in all but name, Flash Thompson In Name Only, and Angourie Rice playing a character who looks like Gwen Stacy but is called Betty Brant. Remy Hii’s character, tossed in as a superfluous romantic rival for Peter, is pointless and could have easily been left out of the movie. For those who felt Homecoming made Peter overly inept for comic relief purposes, Far From Home‘s first half leans hard into this angle (such as when he gains access to Stark Industries’ full arsenal and inadvertently activates, then narrowly thwarts, a drone strike on his own tour bus).

Fortunately, although we spend more time globe-trotting around Venice, Prague, Berlin, and London with Peter’s gaggle of annoying schoolmates and teachers than is necessary (or enjoyable), the movie eventually kicks into gear, especially when the “surprise twist” (which won’t be surprising to anyone familiar with a certain character from the comics) kicks in around the halfway point and we can get into the real plot and the real villain (SPOILER WARNING: it’s not CGI elemental monster blobs). Director Jon Watts did not distinguish himself with Homecoming‘s perfunctory action sequences, but here he does an excellent job with trippy and illusionary imagery in several sequences and delights in making both Peter and the audience uncertain of what’s real at various given points in time (there’s slight shades of both Doctor Strange and Inception at certain points here). The grand finale, with Spider-Man versus a swarm of armed drones, is a far superior climax to the plane crash from Homecoming, and finally lets Holland’s Spidey step up to the plate in a big way and show why he’s worthy of the superhero title (providing catharsis from an earlier emotional scene between Peter and Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan, to whom Peter vents his feelings of inadequacy over his attempts to step into Iron Man’s shoes). When it comes to Mysterio, and all that the role entails, Far From Home is fully successful at doing it justice; this could have been a tricky character to translate from page to screen, but Far From Home nails it. Somewhat less successful is the romance subplot; like the exploration of the post-“Blip” world, the Peter/MJ dynamic is lacking in depth. For those who stick around for the ubiquitous mid and post-credit scenes, the first tosses in a cameo sure to be fan-pleasing, along with indicating the plot direction of the sequel, while the second makes another surprise reveal that raises more questions than it answers.

In already his fifth appearance as the webslinger (albeit only his second solo movie), Tom Holland gets enough strong moments to reaffirm himself as the best onscreen incarnation of Peter Parker/Spider-Man, even if his material is of uneven quality. Moments like his tearful confession to Hogan of his feelings of unworthiness to take up Iron Man’s mantle carry more depth than any scene in Homecoming and, amid the “meh” high school rom com shenanigans, cement his “rightness” in the role (too bad all of his material can’t consistently use him to his full best advantage). Jake Gyllenhaal’s “good guy” demeanor serves him well in the early scenes of Beck and Peter’s “bonding”, but it’s when all is revealed that Gyllenhaal really starts having fun (whatever else its numerous flaws, this new Spidey franchise is now two for two when it comes to featuring strong villains, following Michael Keaton’s Vulture in Homecoming). Zendaya gets an expanded role, but feels a little flat as Peter’s love interest, and she and Tom Holland don’t really “click”, at least not to the extent Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst did in Sam Raimi’s films. Jacob Batalon and Tony Revolori are once again in a competition for who holds the dubious honor of being the most gratingly obnoxious (Batalon wins out, mostly just by virtue of having the bigger role). Samuel L. Jackson gets significant screentime, but he and Holland don’t replicate the same level of enjoyable give-and-take that he shared with Brie Larson in Captain Marvel; Holland “clicks” a little more with Jon Favreau, whose Happy Hogan also gets a substantial supporting role (and is now dating Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May, to Peter’s chagrin).

Ultimately, Far From Home is half a tedious high school comedy and half a good superhero adventure. It’s unfortunate that we have to slog through a tiresome opening act to get to the good stuff, but once we do, it does justice to Spider-Man and Mysterio and serves up a big-scale, CGI-heavy climactic action extravaganza that lets Marvel’s most iconic and popular superhero finally step up to the plate in a full-fledged way. Let’s hope his next outing lets him go on to even bigger and better things.

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