There’s an odd existential dread that accompanies appreciating Spider-Man: Far From Home. Some of its most poignant moments don’t work tied wholly within the MCU’s Spider-Man series. They instead rely on the foundational poingnancy of the decade-long buildup and conclusion present in Avengers: Endgame.
Which is why despite the many successes of this new film, it also feels confused. It so tenderly wants to be a dramatic exploration of Peter Parker (Tom Holland) and his fallout from rocketing up from friendly neighborhood wall-crawler to universe-trotting savior back down to a reluctant high school hero, a series of transitions that seem to always been aligned with his desires but contrary to his needs. But instead, this movie works best as (and is, consequently, best when) a teen romcom.
The setup is all there. Peter is about to set off for a summer trip all across Europe with his schoolmates. He’ll get to see some sights with his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), get away from the pressures of being the local and extremely famous superhero in Queens, and, most importantly, finally tell MJ (Zendaya) how he feels about her. And all of these brush up against their own precision obstacles.
Ned has embraced an unlikely romance with prim and proper Betty Brant (Angourie Rice); Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) wants Peter to team up with mysterious newcomer Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) from another reality to battle the world-ending Elementals; and everything in the universe seems to be pushing MJ and young stud Brad Davis (Remy Hii) together instead of MJ and Peter. It’s a fantastic foundation for director Jon Watt’s take on the classic high school vacation flick.
But it frequently and dramatically collides with the MCU-wide arc that Peter bears on his shoulders. His mentor and surrogate father figure Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr. archival footage) sacrificed himself to save the universe and end Thanos’ reign of terror, and now Peter is worried that Tony gave up his life in vain. Is the world better with Peter in it instead of Tony, no matter the cost? Was there a way Peter could have stopped this inevitable turn?
It’s a notion he’s reminded of at every turn. His suit is thoroughly Tony’s aesthetic, crafted entirely by his hand. Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) is working a charity organization that handles the fallout from The Blip (a colloquialism for the years missed by those taken and returned by Thanos’ snap). Fury harangues him to fulfill his role as one of the few remaining Avengers to protect the planet from new threats. And now it comes to a head as Peter receives a new posthumous gift from the late Tony that he also believes he doesn’t deserve.
It is, in a way, of the MCU telling the Uncle Ben story without involving Uncle Ben. But it is a promising thesis nonetheless: how do people react to responsibility when faced with trauma and loss. And it provides genuinely one of the most delightfully cathartic moments the monolithic MCU has ever hewn at the start of the last act. The problem is that the movie immediately shirks its own responsibility in exploring this idea in favor of teen romance.
Or, rather, it would be a problem if this wasn’t where the movie shined. Instead, the first act as the kids prepare to leave for their trip feels like a stumble out of the starting blocks. But once it gets going, the movie is a slick and refreshing ride, and it largely comes down to a handful of impeccable performances.
Holland once again is the perfect Peter Parker. Without his webs, he is clumsy and awkward and insecure. With his mask on, he is powerful and deft and confident. But he is always joyously buoyant, even as things continually drift from his grasp and out of his control. And pairing him with the equally pitch-perfect Zendaya is incredible. She’s punchy in all the ways he’s not, but she’s also just as unsure of herself, just under a veneer of performative and assertive aggression. Their stolen looks to one another are a treasure.
Gyllenhaal is also a sort of revelation. Not necessarily that we didn’t know he’s a terrific actor but that he imbues the classic character Mysterio with the appropriate degrees of wholesomeness and suspicion. (It’s probably not much of a spoiler, but stop reading here if you have absolutely no familiarity with the most popular of Spider-Man lore.) He at once hints that there’s more to Quentin Beck’s claims and makes you want to ignore these doubts.
And once the, uh, shine wears off, it is full-on theatricality. It’s borderline Nic Cage-level overacting and it’s undeniably fun. He rips into the conceit with a reckless sort of abandon, pulling in recognizable bits and pieces of Nightcrawler and Zodiac. What a loony turn and gosh if only the MCU didn’t view villains as disposable one-shot commodities.
These performances team up with zippy writing and taut pacing to create some thrilling moments. The action is both outlandish and grounded—digestible and overblown—while progressing dramatic arcs. There’s even a scene that rivals Doctor Strange for most delirious MCU sequence. And it does this while being funny and heartfelt in equal and grand measure.
It just takes so long to get there, and once it gets there, the spectre of that first act lingers. Was there a point, other than getting everyone where they needed to be both physically and emotionally? Not really, unless you count doing the requisite legwork as the first MCU film post-Endgame. And the shifts between the two modes is protracted and inefficient and clumsy.
It leaves Far From Home as far from as intimate as Homecoming, but this bigger playground results in some bigger plays. It’s a slick, bubbly ride with a sweet and emotional core, and really, there’s not much more you can ask for than that.
Final score: 8 out of 10