By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – June 27, 2019)
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. – King Henry (King Henry IV, Part II)
With very few exceptions, perhaps the most difficult task in all of the superhero movie genre has been landing on the right actor to portray Peter Parker, not to mention his alter-ego, Spider-Man. It’s not that the role is tough in and of itself – or at least more taxing than playing many other cape-wearers – but that those that have done it before have walked away from a franchise that had promise and then squandered it. While Spider-Man 2 was a definite high point and even the first Amazing Spider-Man brought new life to the franchise, neither Tobey Maguire, nor Andrew Garfield seemed particularly invested in the character.
That’s why 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, felt so refreshing and vibrant. Finally, it felt like someone who actually could have been Peter Parker was cast to be Peter Parker. Tom Holland, now a 23-year-old, can still pass for a high school kid, despite being post-20 when that film released. Holland has a childlike quality about him, an innocence, and there’s a “what am I doing here” feel to the writing of a teenager thrust into a responsibility he never anticipated, never asked for, and sometimes only begrudgingly wishes to accept.
The interest level for Far From Home should be at an extreme high coming off Avengers: Endgame, with the events of that film leaving the Marvel Cinematic Universe fan community curious over what’s next. This is the coda, the add-on to that monstrous hit, showing what happened after the “blip” and its subsequent correction five years later. Parker developed a father-son bond with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and as such, it was clear Marvel was preparing the viewer for Spidey to take center stage as a possible replacement for the Iron Man character in the next phase of the MCU.
Far From Home isn’t the best Marvel film of the year, but it’s still plenty of fun and, while dropping some definite tidbits of an uncertain future we can’t predict just yet, works as a standalone film as well. No question you’ll enjoy it more if you’ve been riding with Marvel since 2008, but it’s a good summer movie on its own. That said, the first 20-25 minutes are almost too loose and unfocused. The early stages of the film are spent with Peter Parker and his classmates, including the returning best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon), and of course Michelle “MJ” Jones (Zendaya), as we see what life looks like for high schoolers and more everyday folk after the sacrifices of Endgame.
This segment of the movie isn’t dull, it’s just unimportant. Much of it is entertaining in a teenage rom-com kind of way, with a particular highlight being the way Far From Home opens after the Marvel Studios intro, which I definitely will not spoil for you, but you’ll love. Just before something of note actually happened, I thought to myself that something of note needed to actually happen, because we were being lulled to sleep in the theater. Luckily, when it hit, it struck well and then never let up until the final credits rolled.
No superhero film works without a good villain, and Jake Gyllenhaal’s Quentin “Mysterio” Beck fits the bill. Spidey fans dig the master of illusion quite a bit, and the presentation and execution of the skulduggery works exceedingly well, even if the way it unfolds is rather predictable. Beck battles a group of natural forces named the Elementals (Hydro Man and Molten Man among them), which feels straight out of Captain Planet, because it basically is. We find out quickly he’s from earth, but Earth-833 of the Multiverse, in which there are many earths. This is a concept fans of the comics who have holds at their local shops have known about and debated for decades, both in Marvel and DC universes.
Gyllenhaal has solid chemistry with Holland as Mysterio and Spidey work together on behalf of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) to save the world from a dire threat. It’s all happening while Parker’s class is on a European trip led by Mr. Dell (J.B. Smoove) and Mr. Harrington (Martin Starr), so this is the European Vacation stage of the Griswold journey, if you want to take it there. Considering Homecoming was co-written by the pair behind the 2015 Vacation release, I won’t mock you if you do.
Thus, we have a setting that spans Prague and London, spots in Italy, and we see the characters we care about operating in a new landscape. Of its 129 minutes, probably 100 of them are either action packed or heavily story-driven on a larger than one-film level, and Michael Giacchino’s score is terrific. Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers put together the script, adding to their Marvel work from Ant-Man and the Wasp and Homecoming, not to mention the excellent Jumanji: Return to the Jungle and Lego Batman movies. The Marvel predecessors are decent predictors as to the tone of Far From Home. That’s not a bad thing.
Because of the climate in which we live, one other thing jumps out about 2019’s Spidey film that will no doubt lead to some eye rolls from some and cheers from others, depending on your beliefs. The underlying message and plotline behind the movie is without question a reaction to “fake news,” misinformation, and propaganda, and there is zero doubt the writers want the audience to relate what’s happening in their story to Donald Trump. It’s about as heavy-handed in the second half of Far From Home as you’ll ever see without being overt, but it finds a way to get MORE overt before it ends. This isn’t surprising, particularly if you spent time playing 2018’s video game, which portrayed Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson as an Alex Jones type conspiracy theorist.
It’s weaved throughout the plot, although the heart of the movie is in Parker, his friends, his relationship with Fury, and also his growing friendship and relationship to Harold “Happy” Hogan (Jon Favreau), who takes Peter under his wing in some ways in the absence of Tony Stark. This portion of the story is so well-done and it makes you want more from these two (and the ideas behind it) in the future. Happy plays an instrumental part in convincing a Spider-Man lacking confidence or experience that his old boss believed in him in so many different respects and that he absolutely CAN succeed Stark.
That’s the subtle tenor of Spider-Man: Far From Home. Parker doesn’t hate being Spider-Man, but he doesn’t feel he’s good enough. He’s still a teenager in 2023, dealing with the aftermath of the blip and the snap, and he doesn’t think he’s special. He wants a regular life, but he also wants to make Tony Stark and May Parker (Marisa Tomei) proud. He’s afraid to let Nick Fury down, so he doesn’t want to take his phone calls. His life has been inexorably altered and he’s walking through the most impressionable time period imaginable. Holland plays Parker’s vulnerability well, even though admittedly there are times where I don’t see the quick wit or the quips I’ve come to expect from the character.
Spider-Man: Far From Home won’t disappoint you, and once you stick around through the ENTIRE credits, which you had better do, you’re going to have more questions that won’t be answered for a while. It’ll be great for message boards and forums and social media, but it might leave your brain hurting a little bit as well. The mid-credits coda is one of the more effective of its type ever seen in a Marvel film, so do not get up and walk out of the theater.
It’s very good, but I’ll stop short of calling this one “great.” Gyllenhaal’s work is strong, Holland is still quite good, and those you’d expect to shine do, just as in the predecessor and other Marvel efforts. A solid B, maybe a B+ feels about right for a letter grade. I enjoyed it quite a bit, it’s a lot of fun, visually it’s a feast, sometimes a trippy meal (made me think this one might actually be a blast in 3D, which I basically never consider anymore), but it meandered a little too much in the first half hour for my liking, and following Endgame, there’s a new bar for these movies. It isn’t a disappointment in any way, will be a great July 4 experience for the family, and will leave you salivating for the next chapter and the new direction for Marvel Studios.
I’m your friendly, neighborhood @JMartZone.