Spider-Man: Far From Home is a consistently entertaining, winningly-acted film that works best when it embraces the quirky and larger-than-life, both in its performances and its style. It is sometimes overly beholden to its place within the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe, and often suffers from the visual blandness that plagues these films, but it plays just enough unusual notes of humour, strangeness, and pathos to stand out.
The film begins in the aftermath the earth-shattering events of Avengers: Endgame: Thanos has been defeated, and those who he erased in the event known as ‘the blip’ — including Peter Parker (Tom Holland) himself — have returned to life after five years. After these traumatic events, Parker is understandably eager to take a break from Spider-Man duty and enjoy his school’s summer trip to Europe — where, as he reveals to best pal Ned (Jacob Batalon), he intends to finally reveal to snarky classmate MJ (Zendaya) his feelings for her. Inevitably, the universe has other plans; with Peter’s mentor Tony Stark dead, many, including Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and Stark’s former bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), are eager for Spider-Man to step up and replace Iron Man as the world’s top superhero. Events are further complicated when the class trip is interrupted by the sudden and inexplicable emergence of the Elementals; strange beings formed out of the classical elements with a penchant for unleashing destruction upon populated landmarks. No sooner is Peter seeing a water being tear through Venice, however, than a new hero arrives to fight the monsters; one Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), an earnest sort wearing a cape and possessing vaguely defined powers. Dubbed ‘Mysterio’ by the press, Beck claims to be from another dimension which the Elementals destroyed, and soon becomes Peter’s latest surrogate father figure. It quickly becomes apparent that Peter’s hopes of a quiet vacation are dashed, as he’s forced to join Mysterio and Fury in battling this new threat.
As with its predecessor Homecoming, director Jon Watts’ second Spider-Man outing works best when it leans into the personalities of its cast. Tom Holland has made the role his own quickly, and the unguarded likeability, pluck, and vulnerability he brings to it are once again irresistibly charming. He grounds the character in youth, everything loveable (the enthusiasm, the idealism, the romance) and irritating (the impulsiveness, the occasional entitlement, the inability to see the bigger picture) about it, in his spritely, acrobatic but awkward movements and the nervous energy he exudes. His Peter Parker is very much a kid, much more so than any prior incarnation of the character, and the film gains additional laughs and poignancy from his overt youthfulness. Many of the film’s best scenes are those which focus on the young characters having protracted conversations, and the film is smart enough to quickly involve Peter’s classmates in the main plot and keep them around – their presence in certain action beats, especially, lends some unexpected twists. The stand-out among the kids is, once again, Zendaya’s MJ: the actress has a superb deadpan delivery (when one scene sees her flip the entire tone of a scene with one line, her off-hand reading makes it work even better), and her performance here is a low-key, funny, and touching study of both the rebellious thrill of adolescent ironic distance and the humanity that often hides beneath it. She and Holland have a natural chemistry that compensates for the script’s occasionally thin treatment of their relationship. Speaking of which, Ned and Betty Brant (Angourie Rice) earn some of the film’s biggest laughs with a sub-plot that almost plays like a meta-joke on Marvel’s own track record of somewhat underdeveloped romances.
The show is almost stolen from the kids, however, by Gyllenhaal, who brings his customary commitment to never playing a role the easy or obvious way. He plays straight-arrow decency very well, but also eventually gets to display the expressionistic, uncanny flourishes of mannerism and physicality that make him such a compelling, unpredictable actor. At certain points he even appears to be channelling the controlled-explosion intensity of his Nightcrawler performance.
Much like Gyllenhaal’s performance, Far From Home as a whole is at its best when it goes for the unusual and the unexpected. After its more standard prologue, the film opens with a school TV broadcast featuring a terrible video tribute to the fallen Avengers, complete with hilariously accurate touches like Comic Sans text and visible watermarks, and scored to Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ – the pathos of Endgame filtered through the ineptitude of adolescent self-expression. It’s appalling and funny and oddly, endearingly authentic – the kind of genuinely quirky, jarring joke too rarely seen in blockbuster cinema. There are some moments of visual invention here, too, as an unexpected plot turn leads the film into some hallucinatory, surreal sequences. It’s not quite on the level of the imagery on show in last year’s animated masterpiece Into The Spider-Verse (which is now the gold standard for Spider-Man films, and maybe superhero films in general), but it’s still exciting to see a comic book film embrace the visual dynamism of the medium it’s adapting for once, and for younger viewers these moments will be genuinely scary. The film also has the pleasant surprise of a terrific villain; once emerged, they’re a figure equal parts absurd and terrifying, chillingly violent but rooted in a laughable, very recognisable narcissism.
The typical flaws of contemporary franchise filmmaking do still seep in, sadly. Outside of the aforementioned flights of fancy, the visuals are sadly undistinguished: the shots are mostly bland coverage with little sense of contrast or composition, and the editing has no rhythm or dynamic to it. The action scenes are the usual soup of weightless CGI, lacking any physical palpability nor any connection to story and character. The story’s emotional underpinning, meanwhile, has an unfortunate tendency to tell rather than show. The film’s arc is intended as a conclusion to the father/son relationship developed between Peter and Tony Stark, with the former finally accepting that he can be his own man, and while this does pay off in a sweet scene between Holland and Favreau, too much of the build-up to this is accomplished through monologue and exposition. There’s a lot of discussion of how much Tony meant to Peter, but not a lot of actual dramatization of such – as if Watts and screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers were afraid fanboys would jeer if they spent too long on emotional exploration. A subplot relating to Tony’s posthumous gift to Peter – EDITH, an AI with access to all of Stark Industries’ databases and an orbital weapons system – is also deeply misjudged. The film here makes Tony look like an idiot and Peter bizarrely unsympathetic (he immediately uses the tool for selfish purposes and nearly gets his classmates killed in the process), and, for a film about a superhero inextricably associated with the relationship between power and responsibility, displays a baffling lack of curiosity about if Peter should even have this technology. It feels more akin to the crassly indulgent, teenage-boy wish fulfilment of the Kingsmanfilms than the idealism associated with Spider-Man.
On the whole, however, Far From Home is a worthy second solo voyage for Tom Holland’s exceptionally likeable take on Marvel’s wall-crawler, with just enough of its own spirit to stand out. Like its protagonist, the film as its best when it forgets about the bigger, flashier heroes out there and does its own thing.