Bernard Ozarowski’s review published on Letterboxd:
[This review has light spoilers for Far From Home and total spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame. A good litmus test for if you might feel spoiled is if you’ve heard of the character Mysterio before this movie.]
Spider-Man’s secret strength as a character is his villains. With love to Loki, Thanos and Magneto, only Batman’s gallery of rogues can compete with Spider-Man’s in breadth and quality. Yet while The Dark Knight’s all generally serve to shine a light on various elements of Bruce Wayne’s damaged psyche, Peter Parker’s greatest foes derive their interest from their personal entanglements with our hero. While, of course, it’s a comic book convolution for nearly every person in our hero’s life to end up some sort of sidekick or villain, it also adds personal stakes.
When you think of the (many) Spider-Man movies, it’s remarkable that over 8 movies we’ve yet to repeat a primary villain. The most effective of these villains all arise from a personal relationship with Peter Parker. Part of the brilliance of the MCU, Spider-Man movies is how they’ve lightly retconned the villains to tie more directly to Parker. Vulture is recast as the dad of a girl Peter likes and a man nearly bankrupted by Stark. Mysterio serves as a post-Stark (apparent) mentor figure for a Peter Parker still struggling with the loss of his hero. Like Doc Ock (science mentor) and Green Goblin (best friend’s dad), the personal relationships strengthen the conflict. The weakest cinematic Spider villains - like Jamie Foxx’s Elektro - suffer from an absence of stakes particular to Parker. Jake Gyllenhaal, like Michael Keaton in Homecoming, provides a top tier Marvel villain. There’s a just slightly too earnest quality to his early work that makes the film’s twist obvious, yet earned. His “unleashed” work allows Gyllenhaal to go full Gyllenhaal but here (unlike, say, in Velvet Buzzsaw) just enough conflict remains in the character to ground his performance. The embers of guilt over his ill intentions towards Parker effectively modulates his performance into one of the MCU’s strongest villain turns.
The villains, of course, would not matter if we didn’t have a hero worth caring about. Past Spider-Men have had virtues: despite being creepily too old to play a high schooler, Tobey Maguire made for a solid Peter Parker (and a dour, joyless Spider-Man). Andrew Garfield, saddled with a weird emo skater take on Peter Parker, was an atrocious secret identity, but a wonderful superhero, the quippy joy of putting on the costume restored from Maguire’s more tortured take on the character. (Garfield’s greatest strength was in the love story with Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy, unsurprising considering the Amazing series’ director Marc Webb made his name with the excellent romcom (500) Days of Summer.) Tom Holland is the best of both worlds. His Spider-Man is downright joyous. Even when his great powers feel like an onerous responsibility, the character maintains a sense of wonderment and glee. Holland is, perhaps, an even better Peter Parker. He’s nerdy and dorky. It’s easy to see how popularity would have eluded him. His heroism is simple, pure and fearless - unlike Captain America’s dogged Boy Scout or Iron Man’s tortured guilt, this Spider-Man’s burden is simpler. Infinity War sums of the character’s thesis perfectly. When confronted by Stark about why he’s ventured into space to fight an invading force, Parker sheepishly responds “You can’t be friendly neighborhood Spider-Man if there’s no neighborhood.” Unlike all the other takes on the character, he’s unmistakably a kid. His panic at The Snap’s effective is probably the single most chilling moment in the MCU, and one of the most human. I have no doubt a weeping Peter Parker disappearing in Stark’s arms traumatized more than a small number of children. It’s not the sort of role that can ever win an award, but it is the sort that can become iconic.
The supporting cast remains hilarious and excellent. Zendaya has an easy chemistry with Holland. She manages to convey an enormous amount through mere looks and gestures, a rarity in the genre. And her take on the character, a radical departure from the classic supermodel MJ, still manages to fit perfectly into our hero’s universe. Others, especially Jacob Batalon and Angourie Rice, do memorably funny work. Once again after this year’s Captain Marvel, Samuel L. Jackson seems surprisingly alive and motivated. Marisa Tomei, who evidently doesn’t age, brings a bit of impish humor to her Aunt May here. It’s an effective, and unique, take on the character that, just like MJ, shifts the details but nails the essence of the character. And Jon Favreau is given the chance to add layers to his lovely scene during the denouement of Endgame.
The action scenes here are fantastically staged, especially in the film’s back half. Spider-Man’s unique balletic quality is effectively conveyed through his aerial movements better here than ever before. Mysterio’s role as the villain also opens the film up to the sort of trippy Steve Ditko-inspired visual dreamscapes that only Dr. Strange has attempted to inject into the MCU.
A few stray observations before we wrap this up. The aging explanation for Endgame’s five year gap (the newly termed “Blip”) is humorously presented but not all that sensical. The film’s first act is definitely weaker than the second and third. I’m pretty sure this movie won’t make any sense at all if you’ve not seen Homecoming, Infinity War, and Endgame. The weight of Stark’s death is effectively conveyed across various characters throughout the film. The ties to the rest of the MCU have become delightfully effortless - it makes SENSE that the characters would reference Thor or Captain America constantly. The stingers here, especially the mid-credits one, are tremendous and manage to effectively set-up both Spider-Man’s future and hint at the next step for the broader MCU.
I’m clearly biased here. My 15 month old son squeals with joy upon seeing the red and blue of Spider-Man. One of his theatrical experiences was Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (at an Alamo for All screening). He cuddles a Spider-Man plush at bedtime every night. Clearly this is a character that means something to me. And yet I think there’s something compelling about the basic design that clicks even for a small child. I’m very happy that my son will have Tom Holland’s take on the character to enjoy as he grows up.
Ranking: The Marvel Cinematic Universe