Spider-Man: Far from Home is a minor but delightful entry in the MC canon. It impresses because it doesn’t try to be more or weightier than it needs to be, and it slyly and subtly addresses a number of larger issues while being faithful to its teen superhero roots.
Unlike previous Spider-Men Tobey Maguire (27 when his first Spider-Man was released) and Andrew Garfield (28 when his first hit the screen), who are actors I respect, Tom Holland looks and sounds right as a high schooler. Holland was in his late teens in his first Spider-Man film, but looks and can act years younger. You believe he’s a high-schooler, with every insecurity, umm, ahh, and undeveloped voice. He’s also been a dancer for most of his life, and is the smoothest, lightest, most gymnastic of the three Spider-Men, which adds a quiet elegance to his action sequences.
This film decides to take Peter (Holland) out of the country on an international school field trip (that keeps experiencing one humorously unbelievable change after another). I was afraid that this was going to be a Mission: Impossible version of the Spider-Man story, with exotic locations that overwhelmed the action. But the film stays rooted in the high school experience and the high schoolers themselves, with the requisite personal dynamics played well and credibly. Especially enjoyable is the ongoing friendship with best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), who is our stand-in just enough to help us stay connected while staying in his own character.
The love angle is provided with the mutual attraction of Peter and MJ (Zendaya), who is given more space in the film, but takes up little of it with her quietly snarky and self-protective attitude. Peter’s reluctance to share his feelings actually gets a little old and frustrating for the viewer, who is tempted to reach up to the screen, slap his face, and tell him to get on with it. (Spoiler alerts from here on in.) But the film finally takes us places after dancing around this issue and others—several places, in fact—in ways that are narratively and emotionally satisfying.
I usually read a little too much about films before seeing them, and I’m glad that wasn’t the case here. I knew that the Mysterio character was played by Jake Gyllenhaal, another actor I respect. But I found myself judging his performance in the early part of the film, feeling as if he never really found his character. Just as I concluded that he really missed it here, the big reveal comes, all makes sense, and he nails his character the rest of the time. It’s nice to be caught off guard every once in a while.
The film could have gone deep and dark with super-villain antics, but the film finds a way to layer humor in between scenes, and even between shots within a scene. It doesn’t jerk the viewer back and forth as much as it creates a lighter mood and prevents the film from ever becoming too heavy. Much of its humor is sly and even indirect. The opening of the film, for instance, is so heart-on-the-sleeve high school, with Whitney Houston’s classic “I Will Always Love You” paired with awkward high schoolers in a second-rate video, complete with copyright marks on their images. Then the (more spoilers here) requisite Marvel action/destruction sequences are revealed to be what they in actuality are—imaginary images that only look like the real thing. Anyone wanting to go deep into the subjects of illusion, within films or even just within the Marvel Universe, could have jolly ol’ time with this aspect of the film. It could also be read (and by that I mean, I want to read it as this…) that Marvel is spoofing its own tendency to fill the last third of their films with noise and annihilation, going meta at last, even if quietly and subtly.
If you’re missing Tony Stark, this is also your movie. In many ways, it’s the latest (last?) Iron Man movie. His presence and legacy is all over this film, pulling on and putting upon Peter Parker from many angles, and helping situate Peter vis-à-vis Tony Stark in Peter’s life and in the MC Universe. Again, for those interested in the intersection of Stark and Parker and their respective superhero incarnations, this is a rather rich vein to explore.
The film is another opportunity to see Marisa Tomei, who is given a larger role as Aunt May, albeit a very different Aunt May than in the first two Spider-Man series. Tomei elevates every film she is in, and is finally allowed to be more of a character and something of a girlfriend to a major character here. Someday there will be reams of papers dedicated to this actress’s talent and the near-magic of her presence on screen. For now, we can just enjoy her warmth and cinematic charisma, which helps ground this film in reality—not a harsh one, but an affectionate and nurturing one.
There are other small delights in the film as well. Ned and Betty (Angourie Rice) go from “I don’t like you” to “I do like you” to “I love you—we’re soulmates” (and “let’s call each other ‘Babe’ on day two of our relationship”) to breaking up a few days later, “maturely” understanding the short-term high school infatuation as part of each person’s personal journey. It’s a minefield of clichés that are done believably and with affection rather than snark, and with only a small hint of satire. The two chaperones/teachers are a little over the top at times in their characterizations, but they contribute consistently to the layered humor.
The interactions of Peter and MJ, from their first “too cool to be real with you” conversations to their declarations of “like” to their first kisses, are right on the nose. They are filled with the awkward pauses, nervousness, and tentativeness of real teens, not Hollywood characters that go into a smooth and mature movie kiss as their first. Lastly, the way the film tosses off the missing years and devastation of Thanos by calling the Decimation “the blip” is both funny in its reductionism and a tipoff to the viewer that the film we’re just beginning to view is going to be lighter, funnier, and irreverent.
(BTW, stay through the end credits for two—count ‘em, two—sequences that have provoked screams and will be talked about until Marvel explains all.)