By Jim Slotek
The awkwardness comes from the ongoing attempt to shoehorn an Avengers identity onto Marvel’s most popular character (a character that doesn’t entirely belong to the Disney/Marvel cartel, still possessing as it does a Sony corporate tattoo).
This third Spider-Man series has ridden on the charm of, at long last, a web-slinger who’s every bit the high school kid he was envisioned as by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Holland’s coming out party, Spider-Man: Homecoming was practically the super-hero film John Hughes would have written, with teen drama, comedy, sidekicks and crushes.
Yes, Tony Stark/Iron Man dropped in and out like a campus recruiter, but it never lost its human focus.
A good chunk of that spirit remains in Far From Home. Spider-Man has gone on to be a de facto Avenger, survive the events of Infinity War and Endgame. And yet the movie opens (to the rage of the more spoiler-minded Film Twitter types) by making light of the universe-shaking events in those movies.
Without going into too much detail, it’s a mawkish “fallen heroes” segment, designed to get laughs (and provoke the people who haven’t gotten around to seeing Endgame yet). It leads into high school life, where normal complications have been twisted by “the blip,” which means some students are now, physically, years older (which means at least one character has gone from dweeby kid to hunk).
And it leads from there, like an ‘80s teen comedy, to yet another class road trip, involving Peter (who’s so turned off of the super-hero biz, he makes an attempt to leave his Spider-Man costume behind), his best friend and secret-identity confidant Ned (the naturally-funny Jacob Batalon), his crush MJ (Zendaya) and Betty Brant (Angourie Rice) who seems like a nicer version of Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick in Election.
Their relationships are so fluid, a brief boyfriend-and-girlfriend status is forged during a flight to Rome (other location shoots to follow).
Just to hammer home the comedic point, the two hapless teachers/chaperones are played by Silicon Valley’s Martin Starr and J.B. Smoove, who’s stolen so many scenes as Leon on Curb Your Enthusiasm, I laugh just seeing his face. That this movie is directed by Jon Watts, formerly of The Onion News Network, goes a long way towards explaining the vibe.
Unfortunately, there is still a Marvel tale to be told here. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is back from, wherever, determined to play whack-a-mole with every threat from outside that faces mankind. And he’s intent on dragging Spider-Man back into the fray.
Meanwhile, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), the late Tony Stark’s right-hand-man (or “that sweaty guy” in MJ’s description) has a legacy to deliver, a debatably fashionable pair of sunglasses that answers to the name EDITH, and connects Peter, at a mere command, to Stark’s multi-billiion dollar weapons collection. Quite a lot for a teenager to handle.
Fury’s first mission is to get to the bottom of the appearance of a group of “elementals” – giants ostensibly from a parallel Earth, composed of, respectively, earth, air, fire and water. This intel comes courtesy of a dimensional traveller named Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), dressed in the usual superhero tights and cape and a goldfish-bowl-shaped lava lamp on his head, and soon possessed of the public nickname Mysterio.
There’s more going on here, of course. There is a villain, and maybe a sort-of message that Earth is becoming too super-hero comfortable.
Once the cards are on the table, the great time to be had with Peter and friends is reduced to mere friends-in-peril, surrounded by what seem to me to be cheesy and numbingly repetitive CGI. It’s interesting that Gyllenhaal was once tagged to play Spider-Man himself, because he can’t seem to find anything more than a superficial super-hero vibe (never mind when he has to go deeper).
There are plot holes a’plenty that I can’t ask about out loud. I will say that the trope scene in the movie where the villain explains, for no apparent reason, everything about what he’s doing and why, may be the most clunkily expositional I’ve ever seen (some people I’ve discussed it with think it’s played that way deliberately for laughs. But if so, they didn’t go far enough. It just sort of sits there, like a first draft of a scene no one bothered to edit).
On another note, I practically never mention them, but the end credit bits are worth waiting for, narratively speaking.
Having finally honed the most enjoyably human superhero in the Marvel Universe, it seems “off” to want to ramp him up with tech. Just for fun, it would be a nice turn to see a Marvel movie with nothing but people playing out a story, with maybe a sprinkle of FX instead of igniting a sustained, hour-long demolition.
They have the ingredients for it right here. It’s just half-baked at this point.
Spider-Man: Far From Home. Directed by Jon Watts. Starring Tom Holland, Jake Gyllenhaal, Zendaya. Opens wide, Tuesday, July 2.