(FULL DISCLOSURE: Spoilers for Avengers: Endgame will be unavoidable for many obvious reasons. So I’m going to write this review with the assumption that you’ve either seen Endgame for yourself or had somebody spoil it for you by now. You’ve been warned. By the way, can I please come live in that rock you’ve been living under, at least until the 2020 elections are over?)

All of the movies in Phase I of the MCU may have been crucial in their own way, but it was Captain America: The First Avenger that most firmly established the Tesseract, which would later go on to be the central MacGuffin of The Avengers and the first of the Infinity Stones that powered the entire Infinity Saga. While The Avengers may have been immediately followed by Iron Man 3, it was Captain America: The Winter Soldier that did the most heavy lifting in picking up the pieces and defining what the post-Avengers MCU would look like. And then of course we have Captain America: Civil War, such an enormous game-changing crossover that it might as well have been Avengers 3.

Second only to the Avengers films themselves, it’s easy to make the case that the Captain America films were the most pivotal in the entire MCU. But now that Steve Rogers has passed the shield, it appears that Marvel is positioning Spider-Man to take center stage. Which makes sense, given that the Webhead has easily been Marvel’s most iconic, beloved, universally recognized character since his introduction in 1962. And of course now that Marvel finally has some degree of control over the film rights of the character, they’re eager to make up for lost time.

So here we are with Spider-Man: Far From Home, a movie ideally positioned to pick up the pieces of Endgame and define where the MCU will be going in Phase IV. Especially because as of right now, we don’t really know where Phase IV is going. Yes, it’s an open secret that the Black Widow standalone movie entered production two months ago (Better late than fucking never!!!) with a full cast in place, and there are signs that Marvel is gearing up for an Eternals movie. This in addition to the Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Doctor Strange, and Guardians of the Galaxy sequels that are all either rumored or conjectured to be in various phases of development. Hell, that’s not even getting started on all the 20th Century Fox franchises and characters that have finally returned to Marvel, or when and how the PTB ever plan on integrating the Fantastic Four or the X-Men into the MCU.

Right now, we know next to nothing about any of these movies or plans because Marvel hasn’t made any official announcement about their upcoming slate. They were reportedly waiting to make the big announcement until after Endgame and Far From Home. Which means that everything I just typed could be obsolete within a week and you probably know more than I do right now.

Anyway, Far From Home opens with the immediate fallout from The Blip, which is now what we’re calling the incident in which Thanos snapped his fingers and made half the human race disappear, only for those same people to reappear five years later without having aged a day. Conveniently, it appears that Peter Parker (Tom Holland again) and all of his high school friends and family were among those who got Blipped, and so they get to appear without five years’ worth of age makeup for this film.

That said, there are very serious repercussions for suddenly disappearing without a trace only to spontaneously reappear five years later. If somebody got Blipped at age sixteen and hasn’t aged a day in five years, are they technically an adult? What if somebody reappeared in the middle of traffic? What about those who came back only to find that somebody else moved into their old place and took all their stuff in the interim?

In theory, Spider-Man is the perfect character to examine all of these angles, since he’s always had one foot in the mundane and one foot in the superpowered. In practice, the Blip fallout is pretty much entirely contained to the first fifteen minutes, quickly supplanted by all the “hero stuff” he needs to do — and the “high schooler stuff” he wants to do — in the here and now.

For whatever reason, Midtown High has decided that immediately after the Blip (to say nothing of the cataclysmic events of Endgame) would be the ideal time to take a handful of students on a summer trip to Europe. Of course Peter is in attendance, and hopeful to win the affections of MJ (Zendaya). We’ve also got Peter’s best friend (Ned Leeds, played once again by Jacob Batalon), who’s just struck up a whirlwind romance with Betty Brant (played in this iteration by Angourie Rice). Of course we also have Tony Revolori on hand as the preening rich pretty-boy Flash Thompson, and Brad Davis (Remy Hii) is on hand as a rival for MJ’s attention. Rounding out the tour group are Martin Starr and J.B. Smoove as a pair of bickering chaperone teachers.

With the obvious exception of Peter, and the occasional exception of MJ, all of these characters are comic relief. And some of them fare better than others. Batalon is still a riot as Peter’s hapless sidekick, and the flirtatious Ned/Betty fling makes for a hilarious contrast against Peter’s own romantic troubles. It’s always fun to see Flash get the piss taken out of him, especially given how much he idolizes Spider-Man and hates Peter. Brad Davis is a sore spot — a Blipped kid inexplicably played as a young teenager in a grown adult’s body. The teachers come within a hair’s breadth of wearing out their welcome, and I was disappointed to see J.B. Smoove — a far more talented comedian who specializes in this type of character — get something like a third of the screen time given to shrill, overbearing Martin Starr.

It’s perfectly clear that all of these characters were built to be walking punchlines, as opposed to credible human beings. Then again, the MCU Spider-Man films were built from the ground up to be high school coming-of-age comedies in the vein of John Hughes. God knows that John Hughes pictures were all about teenage archetypes, and at least the filmmakers had the good sense to update those stereotypes into something more consistent with the 21st century. That said, Hughes’ pictures (at their best, anyway) always had a strong beating heart, the kind of which is virtually absent with these characters.

But let’s get back to Peter and MJ. Peter is absolutely mad about MJ, and the attraction makes close to no sense. Peter Parker, after all, is a lovable dork with his heart on his sleeve, always eager to do the right thing and make the best impression. Compare that to MJ, the iconoclast with the sardonic sense of humor, the constant expression of apathy, and an affinity for serial killer podcasts. Then again, a huge part of Peter’s problems (Trust me, we’ll get to them in a minute.) is in the fact that he cares too much. He wants to save everyone and do everything, even though he can’t. I submit the possibility that maybe he envies the girl who doesn’t seem to care at all, and maybe wants to be with MJ precisely because she’d be totally fine with him dropping everything to stop bank robbers on the other side of town.

But then the movie progresses and a funny thing happens: Peter and MJ both let their masks slip. (Yes, the trailers have already spoiled that MJ finds out about the secret identity.) It turns out that when the chips are down and MJ is presented with extraordinary circumstances, she really is every bit as courageous and kind-hearted as Peter is, and the off-putting persona is simply an image that she projects for the sake of popularity, or maybe protection. And by the way, NONE of this is made explicit in the text. It all comes through in Zendaya’s performance and her chemistry with Holland. Beautifully done.

Alas, it is the eternal curse of Peter Parker that he can never be happy. He always has to choose between his life as a normal teenage boy and his responsibilities to do as a superhero what nobody else can. And that dilemma reaches epic levels after the Blip, in a time when galactic threats have become the status quo and everyone on Earth wants to know what the plan is for the next one. That last point is especially huge, now that Spider-Man is a superhero in a time when Iron Man is dead, Captain America is retired, Thor and the Guardians are off-world, Doctor Strange is off in whatever dimension, Black Panther is busy running his own country, and Captain Marvel… well, you get the idea. There’s a deficit of available superheroes, is the point.

(Side note: If you still haven’t seen Captain Marvel for whatever reason, now’s the time. Don’t ask why.)

Which brings us to the most prominent character in the movie who isn’t actually in the movie. This iteration of Spider-Man has been living in Tony Stark’s shadow since he first stepped into frame on Civil War, and he’s still there even after Tony Stark died. Again, there’s a deficit of superheroes and everybody wants to know who will fill the void left by Iron Man. There’s a lot of pressure on Spider-Man — as a friendly neighborhood superhero who makes himself known and available to the public — to step up. It certainly doesn’t help that Tony Stark himself mentored Spider-Man, made him an Avenger, and even bequeathed him with our MacGuffin for the film.

Stark gave his life to save the rest of the world, and the rest of the world remembers him for that. What they’re conveniently forgetting is that Stark would never have made that sacrifice play until he finally did. The one other time he came close, he was traumatized by the revelation of how small he was in the grand scheme of things and overreacted by making goddamn Ultron. Iron Man was a hero who saved countless lives with so many brilliant inventions, yet Tony Stark was also a paranoid alcoholic egomaniac with crippling daddy issues and more money than sense.

On the one hand, as Peter grapples with his fuck-ups and failings, it’s sweet of him to find solace in the knowledge that even his late mentor constantly second-guessed himself and made mistakes that were literally apocalyptic in scale. On the other hand, now that Stark is dead, the darker half of his legacy is about to come roaring back in a huge way.

Getting back to Spider-Man, Stark himself was always cautioning Peter from punching above his weight class. It was Stark who encouraged Peter to find his niche as the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, and not as the savior of mankind that Iron Man tried to make himself into. Sure, Spider-Man went into space and fought in the battle for the Infinity Gauntlet, but that was very solidly an anomaly, and he also had help from several other Avengers at the time. Going even further up that steep difficulty curve and staying there — on his own! — is a huge ask. Especially for a teenage boy just getting started back in high school after most of his fellow students grew five years older without him and he just fought in the most epic battle of all time with the fate of the universe at stake after coming back from the dead and OH MY GOD, NICK FURY, THE KID NEEDS A BREAK!

Yes, it’s Nick Fury and Maria Hill (Welcome back, Samuel L. Jackson and Cobie Smulders!) forcing Spider-Man into combat against a world-ending threat. While the constant spectre of Tony Stark is a passive encouragement for Peter to give up his public persona and pick up the Spider-Man gig full-time, it’s our favorite SHIELD honchos (Remind me, is SHIELD a thing again? I’ve lost track.) exerting the active pressure and keeping Spider-Man in the fight. It’s not their best decision — in fact, Fury and Hill make a number of bad decisions over the course of the film. And if it seems like the two of them are less competent than we’ve come to expect… well, there’s a reason. Whoo boy, is there a reason.

This brings me to our villain of the movie, and no, it is not a goddamn spoiler to say that Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the villain. He’s only one of the most iconic baddies in Spider-Man’s vast rogues gallery, and his entire persona is built around illusions and misdirections. Of course he’s the bad guy, his pretending to be a good guy is entirely in character for him, and I’m not going to waste any effort pretending otherwise.

It’s the matter of what Mysterio’s game is, and all the various ways he screws around with Spider-Man, that’s where the surprises are.

There are fans who’ve been clamoring for Mysterio to appear for twenty years, in no small part because the character lends himself to all sorts of mesmerizing VFX possibilities. Indeed, there are one or two sequences — most especially the one just after the hour mark — when Mysterio is operating at his full potential and it’s a stunning assault on the senses. Especially on IMAX. It certainly helps that Gyllenhaal has no shortage of charisma — whether he’s earning Peter’s trust or chewing the scenery with nefarious gusto, he’s always a treat to watch.

While the filmmakers took their time in bringing out Mysterio, it makes a lot of sense to bring him out now and in this way. As I’ve said a few times now, there’s a deficit in superheroes, and it makes sense that Mysterio would try to exploit that for his own purposes. What’s more, after so many movies of dealing with killer robots, magic demons, and endless swarms of aliens, the people of this world are ready to believe just about anything. Which makes them ripe pickings for a master scam artist like Mysterio.

Last but not least… well, how do I put this without spoilers? As in the comics, Quentin Beck isn’t a superhuman, just an ordinary guy with a knack for special effects who plays at being a superhuman. It plays perfectly as an extension of the Vulture from Spider-Man: Homecoming, and the central notion that there’s no place for normal people in the MCU. In this world of capes and superpowers, how is your typical man on the street supposed to make any kind of difference?

(Side note: I have to wonder, without those ordinary people on the street, what exactly are the superhumans trying to change the world for? Why are the superheroes doing all these extremely dangerous things — hell, why did Iron Man sacrifice himself — if not for the chance that non-supers would have a better chance at happiness in a safer place to live? It’s not an issue ever raised in the movie, it’s something that only occurred to me just now. I sincerely hope that some superhero filmmaker out there thinks to raise the point in a movie sometime, I’d like to see that.)

Getting back to an earlier point about Mysterio, he never would have worked in either of the previous Spider-Man film franchises because during the Maguire and Garfield eras, the Spider-Sense was (let’s be honest here) absurdly overpowered. There’s no way Mysterio’s illusions and tricks would have worked on a Spider-Man whose ability to sense danger bordered on precognition. Compare that to the MCU iteration, and a Spider-Man who’s still growing into his Spider-Sense and learning how to use it. In this context, putting him up against Mysterio and forcing him to hone that power makes all kinds of sense.

That said, at least the previous franchises showed the Spider-Sense in a cool way that clearly showed when it was in effect. Compare that to this movie, in which the Spider-Sense is apparently used without much of any sign at all — not even the wavy lines of the comics. Additionally, I find it suspicious that never once in this movie (not even once in the entire MCU to date, I’m pretty sure) is it ever referred to as the “Spider-Sense”. Instead, it’s given the cutesy and barf-worthy name of the “Peter-Tingle”. At this point, I have to wonder if this is a rights thing. Does Sony own the exclusive rights to the phrase “Spider-Sense” or something? Even now, in the end credits for this picture, I notice that “Columbia Pictures Inc.” is listed as the author of this movie for copyright purposes.

And yes, you had damn well better stay through the credits for this movie. You’re going to regret it so hard if you don’t stay for the mid-credits stinger AND the end-credits stinger.

Let’s close out with a few nitpicks, some miscellaneous notes, and one huge drawback. To start with, Mysterio’s methods and master plan depend heavily on a certain plot device that would’ve made a huge difference if it had been around during Endgame. Just saying.

Major points are due for a surprise cameo role that goes all the way back to Iron Man, and another that goes back even farther.

While Michael Giacchino’s main theme for Spider-Man is growing on me, I’m still not 100 percent sold on it. Of course Giacchino’s a grandmaster and I love hearing all the ways he experiments and tinkers with the main theme all throughout the film. Even so, it still sounds like a generic superhero theme without much of anything to evoke the particular image of Spider-Man. It’s not bad, but I know he can do better.

Elsewhere, Marisa Tomei is always a joy in the role of Aunt May, and she’s got a sweet little romance arc with Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, of course) to serve as yet another comic foil against Peter’s own romance troubles. Alas, Tomei is barely in the flick and she makes no appreciable impact at all. She’s functionally nothing more than Peter’s lifeline back to New York, which serves basically zero purpose here.

This brings me to the huge overarching problem of the entire movie: Much like Peter Parker himself, the movie is waging a constant war between what it wants to do and what it has to do. Reading back over this review, I’m sure you can spot so many amazing ideas and angles for the filmmakers to explore, and the filmmakers try to tackle ALL of it, while also making room for the MCU world-building, WHILE ALSO giving us long and breathtaking action sequences, all in the space of a two-hour movie.

This film has a significant problem with pacing because the filmmakers are in a constant rush to hurry us from one scene to the next. Even if the segues don’t make sense, the writers just hand-wave it away by saying “Because Nick Fury,” or “Mysterio did it.” Hell, just look at all the scenes and jokes that were so prominent in the trailers, yet noticeably absent in the finished movie — there’s proof enough that this film was hacked to pieces in the editing room.

Oh, and we don’t see anything more of Donald Glover, Miles Morales, or any of the villains from Homecoming. The movie was already so overstuffed, I didn’t even miss them.

While Spider-Man: Far From Home is a lot of fun, there’s no denying it’s got some flaws. There are so many great ideas in here with regards to deeper themes, character arcs, and the aftermath of the Blip, and pretty much all of them are only given surface-level treatment without much of any chance to really breathe. Yes, the actors involved are all a joy to watch, and the action scenes (most especially those in which Mysterio really cuts loose with no holds barred) are fantastic, but the film is sadly crushed under the weight of the MCU.

I’m still happy to give the film a recommendation, but with adjusted expectations.

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