Now that “Avengers: Endgame” has ended chapter one of Marvel Studio’s cinematic universe, parting with a few of its founding fathers along the way, “Spider-Man: Far from Home” is apparently being called upon to lay the foundations for the second chapter. Not to actually launch the next stage, but to act as a kind of bridge between the two. Peter Parker, the most popular Marvel comic book hero of all time, has been given a maintenance assignment: to stitch together what remains unraveled and at the same time to suit up for a new venture. Even a fictional universe seems to need occasional infrastructure work.
Tom Holland entered the well-worn shoes of Spider-Man just three years ago, becoming the third cinematic representation of the character in 14 years, following Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield. The president of Marvel Studios, Kevin Feige, had long wanted to integrate the popular hero into his universe, but a legal wrangle with Sony Pictures forced him to wait for many years. The compromise that was eventually reached allowed Sony to make “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” which was the best animated feature of the last year.
Marvel’s part of the compromise, Holland got a low-key launch in “Captain America: Civil War,” followed immediately by the release of “Spider-Man: Far from Home.” After two Avengers episodes, he is back in an autonomous movie, whose spirit and plot constitute a direct and simple – but slightly different – sequel to “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (2017).
The plot of “Far from Home” returns Peter Parker from space to his role as the neighborhood Spider-Man in Queens – to his easygoing, humorous high school and the home of Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). Peter, his computer-expert friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) and his love interest, MJ (Zendaya), who were all among the half of the population that turned into dust when Thanos snapped his fingers, had returned to life two months earlier. The fact that Peter and his friends were frozen at the age of 16 while the half of the world that didn’t fade away aged by five years gets only a passing mention, and the heroes move forward in life with no difficulty or psychological hardships. The bizarre point of departure of 21-year-olds in the body of 16-year-olds is discarded within a few minutes, whereas the plot returns to the realms of high-school high jinks and superhero action, this time in the glittering wrapping of a road movie.
It’s summertime. Peter’s classmates are on a kind of annual school outing in the form of an unclear vacation in classical Europe. Peter, who hasn’t yet recovered from the death of his father figure and mentor Tony Stark, leaps at the opportunity to be a teen for a few weeks. Moreover, this is a perfect opportunity to confess his love to MJ, with the aid of an infantile romantic plan that only a high-school kid could come up with. However, this is of course not a real option for a spider-man in a world that has just lost its reserves of Avengers.
Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) doesn’t let up, and the chaos accompanies him to the first stop on the trip. Waiting for him in Venice are the first of the villainous Elementals – monsters made of the four elements – but fortunately a new partner shows up. Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a superhero from another dimension who fights the bad guys with a head in the shape of an aquarium that’s just waiting for a goldfish. Together they easily overcome an amorphous, scaly aqua-monster.
A new role
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Jon Watts, who also directed “Homecoming,” restores to Spider-Man a youthful nonsensical spirit, in the positive sense of the term. The fast-paced humor that drew inspiration from 1980s teen movies, especially those of John Hughes, is unleashed for a second time, but appears to have shrunk in scale. The development that Peter undergoes in his second autonomous film (but the fifth in the Marvel universe) shows that his role in the new world has changed. In the absence of Iron Man and Captain America, he’s called upon to grow up, and fast. In return, he benefits from a greater emphasis on standard Marvel action – at the expense of the comic effect. His repeated efforts to evade the task of saving the world don’t really work with the tough boss Nick Fury, while fire, air and earth monsters pursue him amid tourist traps from Prague to London.
The prevailing expectation of Spider-Man to fill the void left by the Avengers, and particularly Iron Man as the first Avenger, is utilized by the screenwriters, Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, to teach Peter Parker a few quick, constrained lessons. Thus Holland reveals in sprightly fashion the childish, stubborn and heartrending desire of Peter, who doesn’t understand how much he developed in the war of the worlds. Like a puppy that grew fast but doesn’t yet understand its size, so too Spider-Man displays the skills and self-confidence of a front-rank Avenger who fights aliens and saves the world. But none of this translates into self-confidence in his life as Peter Parker, such as Tony Stark and Steve Rogers projected naturally. Peter tries with all his might to pretend he’s normal, and the young guy is still awkward, but it’s only a matter of time until the confidence he feels among the skyscrapers will be there when he’s on the ground, too.
The action scenes, which are always the main event in Marvel films, turn “Spider-Man: Far from Home” into an average and quite forgettable movie – except for Mysterio, whom Gyllenhaal plays with aplomb. I won’t expand on the hero’s story, because every description would be a spoiler, but what makes the action less impressive is also what creates one of the most interesting characters seen in the 23 Marvel films.
It’s not a bad tradeoff. The Marvel actors are often more talented than the roles given them, and sometimes actually look embarrassed at the words their character spouts (consider Anthony Hopkins in “Thor).” Gyllenhaal was given a rare opportunity to play a complex, multilayered character, and he does so marvelously. When Fury, MJ and even Ned get roles that are too small, it appears that Gyllenhaal fills the void with the aid of a winning smile and anger that’s not pent-up. As such, he succeeds both in arousing thought about the superheroes phenomenon and in providing one of the best twists of all the Marvel pictures.
“Far from Home” is an effective summer film, and better than most of the blockbusters now playing in movie theaters. That says more about the current meager crop than it does about the movie itself. Even so, the director, Jon Watts, with his light touch, Tom Holland with his charm and Jake Gyllenhaal with his talent deliver the goods the audience expects. Still, the film doesn’t rise above the role that’s been assigned to it within Marvel’s multistage strategy as a way station between “The Avengers” and the next big thing the studio is planning.
This film exposes the seams between the two stages of the universe and perspires with a synthetic effort to change the balance of forces in the battle of the superheroes, now that a few positions have been left vacant at the top of the Avengers pyramid. As a result, the film is unable to be truly autonomous – though for Marvel fans that’s also what makes it intriguing. It looks as though it paid off for Spider-Man to shed his independence and become a salaried employee in the Marvel corporation. After five movies, he can at last smell promotion.