The inspired, rambunctious Spider-Man: Far from Home marks Tom Holland’s fifth film as everyone’s favorite put-upon wall-crawler, meaning he’s now done as many Spider-films as Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield combined. While every Spidey has had his high points in my estimation, Far from Home may be the best translation to date of the Spidey-era from my own childhood, roughly 1978-1989 plus Marvel Tales reprints of the first sixty issues of Amazing Spider-Man (the entire Steve Ditko oeuvre plus John Romita’s first two years). It’s a winning coda to the emotional pinnacles and pitfalls of Avengers: Endgame, an encouraging sign of heroism to come and a herald of hopefulness for the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Fair warning: this entire film follows the events of Endgame and reverberates from its ramifications. If you’re waiting for Endgame to hit DVD and living in the off-grid wilderness has sheltered you from learning of its major MCU-changing moments, you may want to flee now if you want to maintain your cone of silence. (True story: I know at least one person in this very situation. It is possible. I realize it’s hard to imagine, but not everyone in America is as entrenched in online living as you and I may be.)
On another level, anyone with zero foreknowledge of the antagonist Mysterio and his motifs from old Spidey-comics will want to skip the regular “Meaning or EXPLOSIONS?” section because, frankly, it was kind of boring to ruminate on that aspect spoiler-free. I’m not revealing all his secrets or recapping his scenes shot-for-shot, but…well, there’s stuff that spoke to me.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Previously on the Marvel Cinematic Universe: 3.5 billion humans who’d been missing for five years all simultaneously reappeared worldwide. Some, like Peter Parker, experienced the extreme coincidence of having all their friends disappear as well, meaning they all returned equally disadvantaged yet equally un-aged. We have no idea how all of Earth’s economies dealt with losing half their taxpayers and workforces, how supply and demand were affected in every form of business imaginable, how or if ongoing conflicts between nations and factions were affected, and so on. Not all possible side effects are examined because this film is not the story of 3.5 billion people. All we need to know for now is confirmed in the first several scenes: readjustment has been complicated over the past eight months since the defeat of Thanos and the final fate of Tony Stark.
Peter remains firmly employed by Stark’s company and humbled to live in the monolithic shadow his benefactor left behind. He still reports to Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau in way more screen time than usual) and still has access to Stark-tech, including Spidey-suits that are more like flexible future-armor than the snazzy hand-sewn togs of his comics life. He’s also still subject to the occasional assignment from Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Samuel L. Jackson, likewise enjoying his longest MCU minutes in years), who’s unsettled about having been out of the game for so long. Peter tries to keep everyone happy, including dear middle-aged Aunt May (Marisa Tomei, a bit sidelined), but after his mind-blowing cosmic space trip followed by his death and resurrection, he could use a break from superhuman affairs.
Good news for him: his very wealthy or well-connected charter school is sending his class (not their entire grade, just the one class, unless theirs is an artisanal one-room STEM-shack) on a summer field trip to Europe across multiple countries because educational reasons. Peter is excited about the opportunity to leave the country for his first time without also leaving the entire planet, to see new sights, to visit famous landmarks, and, time permitting, to plan the perfect moment to tell his acerbic pal MJ (Zendaya) that he thinks she’s super-keen and wants to go steady an’ hope she’ll let him be her man and hold hands and whatnot. The ensuing hilarity makes Far from Home one of the funniest, sweetest teen romance comedies I’ve seen in years.
Then that grouchy Nick Fury interrupts and says this ain’t gonna be no teen romance comedy on his watch. Giant elemental creatures have been staging attacks on random cities around the globe, which they’re trying to track with the assistance of a new costumed adventurer named Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal). Later nicknamed Mysterio, he makes a considerable first impression with a vague power set that includes flight, hand lasers, a one-way-mirror fishbowl on his head, and grim insight just convincing enough that Fury agrees to join forces and follow his lead. And Peter’s European vacation just so happens to bring him into the vicinities of the next battlegrounds, making him Fury’s ideal choice for a man-on-location. Thus does Spider-Man, Junior Lackey of S.H.I.E.L.D., find himself trying to work with a new colleague, prevent supernormal disasters, and enjoy his working vacation without giving away his secret identity or ruining his wooing plans.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Other returning players from Spider-Man: Homecoming include best pal Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon, who also recently appeared alongside Holland in an episode of Chopped Junior), Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori, now a failing YouTuber with parental issues), a Betty Brant younger than she was in the comics (Angourie Rice, recently in Black Mirror), their teacher Mr. Harrington (Martin Starr), and Betty’s co-host on their school’s accurately amateurish news channel (Bumblebee‘s Jorge Lendeborg Jr.).
Returning as S.H.I.E.L.D. mainstay Maria Hill, Cobie Smulders nabs her most prominent MCU credit to date, albeit still as Fury’s Number One. As the other teacher chaperoning the trip, comedian JB Smoove reprises his role from the 2017 Audi commercial “Peter Parker Takes His Driving Test“. Eagle-eyed trivia fans should note a small role for former child actor Peter Billingsley (Ralphie from A Christmas Story!), who was one of the executive producers of the original Iron Man.
Pause here to mourn a world all the poorer without Stan Lee cameos.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Morals of the story include but aren’t limited to:
- Living up to a legacy is hard, whether it’s a murdered uncle or a superhero’s valiant sacrifice
- One man in a prominent position can mean radically different things to different people
- Ladies aren’t stupid and will pay closest attention when you think you’re getting away with something but you’re really not
- Even in an era with state-of-the-art surveillance and recording technology, people will still swallow the biggest, most over-the-top lies if you push harder and more loudly than any rational opposition, evidence or not
- High school relationships can be fun and could happen where you least expect them
- Teachers are human like the rest of us and subject to deep flaws, logical lapses, and moments of severe unhelpfulness
…and then there’s the most fascinating part of all, the unknown presence that is Mysterio. In the comics Mysterio is a renowned master of illusions who often uses a combination of holograms and hallucinogenics, whose elaborate setups as illustrated by Steve Ditko were pure sci-fi light-years ahead of their time. Real-world 21st-technology has finally caught up to Mysterio’s level and given him a whole new range of capabilities, whether using today’s military hardware or devices you can order online from Amazon if you’re sufficiently funded.
With Mysterio, sooner or later there’s always a con. Comics fans will hold their breath waiting for the big reveal. Gyllenhaal and the returning Homecoming team — director Jon Watts as well as screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers (Community veterans who also brought us Ant-Man and the Wasp) — sustain Mysterio’s anti-Elemental crusade for as long as possible until slowly, eventually, subtly, Far from Home pivots and evokes memories of David Mamet’s greatest hits. Even Spider-superfans who’ve read every Mysterio comic are treated to a new take on his motivations, which tag him as a distant spiritual cousin to Gyllenhaal’s arguably darker, media-manipulating creep from Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler.
Quite a bit of Everything You Know Is Wrong ensues, with implications reaching into the MCU beyond the Spider-films. Some of the results are the most psychedelic, Ditko-esque fantasy sequences we’ve seen since Doctor Strange. The film’s most subversive element celebrates Mysterio’s 55-year-old legacy as an OG Spider-villain whose modus operandi was, in essence, expensive special-effects filmmaking that lured in the human imagination and trapped it in explosive spectacles for moneymaking purposes, not unlike every single MCU movie ever. Mysterio’s irreducible complexity reveals at the core he’s literally a guy in a MOCAP suit. So we’re basically seeing Spidey versus a big-budget movie machine. Peter might as well be punching Mickey Mouse in the face.
Nitpicking? Mysterio’s realigned MCU backstory, while immensely clever, has echoes of the Vulture’s tale from Homecoming once the big picture is in sight. While it’s not tiring yet, they’d do well to change gears with whichever villain pops up in the next Spider-film. (Spider-Man: Home for Christmas? Spider-Man: Home Improvement?)
Tired reprise of a previous diatribe: Far from Home is part 23 of a 23-part maxiseries. Every so often my wife and I field questions from friends and family wondering, twelve years into this saga, what the fuss is all about and how hard would it be to hop aboard the bandwagon. And I, staid curmudgeon who thinks any movie or comic ought to be accessible to newcomers, hate being the one telling them they have to go complete 48 hours of viewing homework before they can truly enjoy the spectacle at hand, the years of meticulous planning, and the apotheosis of so much cumulative storytelling and intricate world-building. Major super-hero crossover events used to be fun for me as a comics fan, but they’ve also long been a source of alienation to wannabe newcomers. It’s fun for me to be on the inside, but I feel bad for them.
So what’s to like? Far from Home contains super-sized superhero fights as usual. The opening gambit in Venice takes advantage of the historic scenery, while the London finale is of course the largest. But compared to Endgame‘s gargantuan scope, it’s wisely scaled down and comparatively street-level. Peter and his pals reminded me of those times the Brady Bunch went on vacation to Kings Island or Hawaii: the setting is exotic, but the comedy and the heart remain intact as the characters keep bouncing off each other, with and without the new stimuli affecting their performances where appropriate.
Holland wins any and every possible emotional beat asked of him (when he’s in pain or turmoil, the audience feels every bit of it), but with the proceedings pared down to manageable size, the rest of the ensemble capitalizes on their chances to breathe and grow. Ned is a total treat as he explores a new focus apart from being Spidey’s guy-in-the-chair. MJ shows her snarky Twitter-rebel veneer has a vulnerable side. Blink and you’ll miss Flash Thompson’s subtle hints of sadness in between his slapstick-victim yuks. Away from the Avengers, Watts provides much more time and space for Favreau, Jackson, and Smulders to showcase the talents that built their pre-Marvel resumes.
For ye olde Spidey fans, it’s a throughly magical recapturing of the daye of Spider-yore. It was less about nostalgia and more about upstanding salutes as the screenplay incorporated classic Spidey bits all around — the versatility of his Spider-webbing; the complications of his secret identity; that time he vacationed in France, fought the Cyclone, and didn’t speak a word of French; and, most lovingly of all, his once vaunted, trademark Spider-sense. That key Spider-power has been sidelined for years because writers didn’t want to deal with it. Here his Spider-sense isn’t just remembered; it’s a major plot point integral to surviving and saving the day from Epic Blockbuster Guy. Its gradual return is the surest possible sign that, symbolically and in-story, Spidey got his groove back.
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is usually happy to verify: yes, there are indeed scenes during and after the Spider-Man: Far from Home end credits, each of which bring back certain old friends we’ve seen before. For those who fled the theater prematurely and who really want to know without seeing it a second time…
[insert space for courtesy spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship]
…during the end credits: after taking MJ on her first web-swinging tour of Manhattan, he eventually alights and lets her go. She stops screaming, reviews their first date as the worst carnival ride of her entire life, and vows never to do that again. Then Our Hero’s attention turns to surrounding screens, where the news has reported of Mysterio’s death. The media has received an exclusive video released upon Beck’s passing, in which drone footage has been selectively edited into a short film that pins the blame for his death on Spidey himself.
Presenting this very special Facebook Video deepfake with no small amount of vindictive zeal is none other than J. Jonah Jameson himself, the great and powerful J.K. Simmons returning from Sam Raimi’s Spider-trilogy. The years have been unkind to Jameson, who’s now balding and presiding over DailyBugle.net, revamped into the InfoWars knockoff it was always meant to be. Just as hologram technology has caught up to Mysterio’s 1960s level, so has yellow journalism found kinship in the Daily Bugle‘s original slanted, frequently fact-free coverage.
Also, P.S.: in his final words, Mysterio reveals to the world that Peter Parker is Spider-Man. DUN-DUN-DUUUUUNNN!
(This isn’t the first time in history that a Spider-cliffhanger has purportedly blown Peter’s cover. Whether he wriggles out of it as he has in past tales, or the MCY’s architects run with it a la Tony Stark, remains to be seen. Hopefully it’s not simply waved away with a hackneyed “Fake news!” joke.)
After the end credits: Nick Fury and Maria Hill drive away from the film, only to reveal Everything You Know Is Wrong. Their facades shimmer and shift as we learn they were never really in this movie at all. Because Fury and Hill are really busy people with lots of parts of the world to save, for the Mysterio affair their parts were actually played by Talos and Soren, a.k.a. Ben Mendelsohn and Sharon Blynn reprising their saintly, shape-changing Skrull couple from Marvel’s Captain Marvel.
They phone in their results to the real Nick Fury, who’s taking a bit of a breather before getting back to business in his new workplace, either a spaceship or an orbital space station staffed entirely by Skrulls on the side of good.
S.H.I.E.L.D. has expanded the breadth of their operations beyond our atmosphere, or possibly Fury has established a rarely acknowledged concept from the comics universe called S.W.O.R.D. Either way it’s a sure bet the MCU isn’t done with space exploration, and a hopeful sign that Jackson isn’t done with the MCU, either.