Synopsis: After the universe-altering events of Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, all Peter Parker (Tom Holland) wants to do is go on a school trip to Europe with best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) and hopefully make a move on his crush MJ (Zendaya). However, this is an MCU movie, so that plan predictably does not work out when Elementals from another dimension invade Earth, followed closely by enigmatic new hero Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal).
1. Spider-Man: Far From Home (henceforth shortened to Far From Home) occupies an uncomfortable position between two films, namely Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse. It has the unenviable task of being a direct sequel to the former (arguably the biggest movie of all time) and providing a coda to the entirety of the hugely successful Infinity Saga. Once viewers have experienced the massive battles and time-travel shenanigans of Endgame, surely Far From Home‘s battles involving only one (gasp!) superhero must feel underwhelming in comparison? As for Spider-Verse, not only was it the last theatrically released Spider-Man film, but it might be the very best one (Spider-Man 2 probably edges it by the breadth of a web) thanks to its boundless creativity in plot and art style. So even before its release, Far From Home was caught in the middle of two epochal superhero movies that had pushed the boundaries of what the genre could be. How then, would it hold up in comparison? Would it sputter or soar? Would it be an epic fail or a great success? Which would it be?
The answer, of course, is neither. In a depressingly familiar situation, Far From Home is merely ok. Alright. A resounding ‘eh’ grade.
2. First, the good. The young actors in this cast continue to shine in their respective roles. This is Tom Holland’s fifth go-round as Peter Parker, and he remains as excellently suited for the character as when he first began, being able to sell both Peter’s enthusiasm and his fears. Zendaya has a great deal more to do than in Homecoming, and does a fine job in conveying the character of ‘cool outsider with a heart of gold’. She also has palpable chemistry with Holland, which is a bonus (and not always a given in the MCU*) Jacob Batalon is excellent comic relief, and this time is gamely joined by Angourie Rice in an expanded role. The running joke of Ned and Betty’s whirlwind holiday romance provides most of Far From Home‘s best laughs, and much of it is thanks to the comic timing of Batalon and Rice. Tony Revolori adds a little range to the cocky douchebag personal of Flash Thompson, and experienced comic ringers Martin Starr and J.B. Smoove do a fine job in their roles as teachers. Another huge plus is Jake Gyllenhaal, bringing his signature crazy eyes and weirdo energy to the role of Mysterio, Peter’s would-be new mentor.
3. The excellence of the cast leads in to one of the strongest points of Far From Home (and the MCU Spider-Man series in general), which is all of the teenage/school stuff. Both Far From Home and Homecoming are essentially John Hughes-style teenage rom-coms stitched together with typical MCU action sequences, and the adolescent drama/comedy is definitely the unique selling point for this series, seeing that no other superhero movie right now does anything remotely similar. The screenwriters and director Jon Watts have a very good ear for the way teenagers speak and interact, with that mix of bravado and insecurity so unique to that time in life. The friction caused between cataclysmic oh-no-must-save-the-world responsibilities and more mundane oh-no-someone-else-is-sitting-next-to-my-crush concerns** also serves as one of the more reliable sources of both dramatic tension and comedic release, which makes sense considering that this has been a constant source of conflict in the world of Spider-Man.
4. What a pity then, that the superheroic stuff is so staid. Enough digital ink has been spilled (by me and many others) on why the action scenes in the MCU tend to be the weakest parts of their respective films, so I will not rehash the subject (except in this footnote***). It was a problem with Captain Marvel, and it is a problem in this one too. They just feel so tacked-on and uninventive, which is a problem exacerbated by the fact that the action scenes in Far From Home take place in interesting locales like Venice, Prague, and Tower Bridge in London. Could the people responsible not try to integrate these settings better instead of just having them be scenic backdrops? Someone needs to force whoever is in charge of the Far From Home action scenes to watch John Wick 2 to learn exactly how to incorporate an exotic European city to your action sequences. Credit where credit is due, however, there is one very well-done action scene at the end of the second act that really uses the possibilities of the characters’ powers and VFX technology to their fullest extent. If the rest of the film had lived up to it, this would be a far more positive review.
5. I will end off on a more speculative note. Homecoming posited the MCU Spider-Man franchise as the ‘grounded’ one, a development that I found (and still find) to be welcome. However, just as the character of Peter Parker struggles to accept his role as the seeming heir apparent to Tony Stark, the film similarly struggles to maintain its individuality amidst the pressure to incorporate the big CGI battles of the MCU. I understand that Spider-Man is (by far and away) the Marvel Comics character with the most name recognition and the biggest fanbase, but is it really necessary to pander to that by removing everything which made him special in the first place? The inclusion of ridiculously advanced technology and more global concerns do not sit very well with the direction this franchise established in the previous movie, and I hope that the next one (because there is always a next one) manages to pull Peter Parker away from Avengeriffic concerns and back to that tension between great power and great responsibility****, which is where the character of Spider-Man truly belongs.
* The worst romantic chemistry in the MCU, ranked – 1) Hemsworth and Portman (Thor series), 2) Cumberbatch and McAdams (Dr. Strange) 3) Evans and Van Camp (Captain America: The Winter Soldier). The best romantic chemistry in the MCU, ranked – 1) Downey and Paltrow (Iron Man series), 2) Pratt and Saldana (Guardians of The Galaxy series), 3) Evans and Attwell (Captain America: The First Avenger)
** Well-encapsulated in a hilarious running joke of Peter almost killing a romantic rival using his newfound Avenger powers.
*** In order, 1) Overuse of CGI and a lack of practical stunts/effects resulting in a sense of weightlessness and a lowering of stakes, 2) Action scenes being taken over by VFX teams and second-unit directors who tend to hew more closely to the Marvel house style rather than trying for more inventive staging, 3) The ‘Sky-beam’ effect, where the hero battles a horde of faceless enemies (to show how powerful they are) rather than a consistent singular threat that has some kind of connection to them, which results in rote action sequences that feel unmotivated. Also, if you’re paying attention, this is precisely the reason why I (and many others) rate Captain America: The Winter Soldier so highly, because it largely avoids all of these pitfalls.
**** [MILD SPOILER] In this regard, the de rigeur mid-credits scene is extremely intriguing. While I appreciate the return of a certain character (and the fact that he is played by literally the only person qualified to do so), the scene further removes another thing that made the MCU version of Spider-Man unique and pushes him closer in circumstance to Tony Stark, which I am not sure that I like. Still, it’s up in the air how the MCU develops its version of Spider-Man, but I have to say that with the success of Spider-Verse and the announcement of multiple sequels, it is no guarantee that Tom Holland and co. will remain the standard bearers of the character in the public consciousness.