Spider-Man: Far From Home

Spider-Man: Far From Home ★★★

“People see things when they're under stress. That does not mean that this is the start to some other big world-ending—”

From the outset, Far From Home is about how exhausting it must be to be a character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where everything is a global threat. There have been articles written about this blockbuster drift, where the stakes of superhero blockbusters have grown absurd.

These days, even the threatened destruction of New York at the climax of Spider-Man II seems like an intimate set of stakes in this world of universal (and multiversal) collapse. So much of Far From Home is about what it’s like to be trapped within that cycle, and there’s a recurring emphasis on performance and spectacle.

Notably, in that opening scene, both Mysterio and Nick Fury are essentially actors playing their parts. Quentin Beck is revealed to be a fraud much later in the movie, while even Fury himself is revealed to be a Skrull in the postcredits scene.

“If the aliens come back, what are you gonna do?“
“Does anyone have any neighborhood questions?”

Spider-Man is a character singularly who is ill-suited to these sorts of epic stakes. 

That’s been part of the problem facing every live action adaptation of the character since Spider-Man II. After all, even The Amazing Spider-Man has Peter trying save New York from attempts to turn everyone in the city into a monstrous lizard creature. Even grappling with a plane in Homecoming pushes the character past the boundaries of what an ordinary Spider-Man story should be.

Then again, shooting in Atlanta perhaps explains why these movies have pushed away from that sort of traditional Spider-Man template. The Tom Holland movies feature sequences of swinging between skyscrapers, but they are far less frequent than they were in earlier films. More than that, there’s an ineffable spirit of New York City that is hard to convincingly recreate outside it. None of the Watts trilogy even try that hard. The result is a set of movies that feel strangely disconnected from Spider-Man as a concept.

Far From Home is at its best when it’s a movie that’s actively about that tension - about how weird it is to put Spider-Man in an MCU-level spectacle when he just wants to be a teenager dealing with classic soap opera stuff.

“Did I tell you how my wife pretended to Blip out? Turns out, she ran off with a guy in her hiking group. We had a fake funeral for her.”

Far From Home is the point at which it becomes clear how profoundly the faux profundity of Endgame screws the movies following it.

The flippant way that Far From Home deals with the consequences of the thing that Endgame half-heartedly positioned as a profound event kinda works in the context of this movie, which is goofing on the absurdity of this sort of superhero storytelling. But the thing about shared universe is that you kinda have to commit to these sort of details.

Is “the Blip” something that’s supposed to be like an in-universe Holocaust or 9/11, like Endgame suggests? If so, then the films following need to be consistent with that. To be fair this sort of tonal flexibility might be possible if the Marvel Cinematic Universe had a particular broad palette and was able to do movies that felt wildly different from one another, but when everything feels so similar this sort of inconsistency stands out and builds to critical mass over the stories that follow.

“I used to know everything. Then I come back five years later, and now I know nothing. No intel, no team. And a high school kid is dodging my calls.”

There’s a solid argument to be made that, owing to their prominent Marvel Cinematic Universe guest stars, Watts’ trilogy is a Marvel Team-Up trilogy rather than a proper Spider-Man trilogy. Truth be told, that’s probably a way of looking at these films that serves them better.

There’s something very pointed and deliberate in how the Watts trilogy leans into the founding fathers of the MCU: Tony Stark, the first MCU hero; Happy Hogan, played by the godfather of the MCU; Nick Fury, the star of the first postcredits sequence and the embodiment of the shared universe. It’s notable that Nick Fury serves as the headline guest star in Far From Home.

In Iron Man, Fury heralded Tony Stark into a much larger universe. In Far From Home, he’s dragging Peter into it, kicking and screaming, whether he wants to or not.

“They were born in stable orbits within black holes. Creatures formed from the primary elements: Air, water, fire, earth.”

There’s something delightfully subversive in Far From Home and its handling of Quentin Beck as a rogue producer making his own superhero movie. Crucially, Beck is a hack and a fraud, but he’s also one who is writing a pitch perfect superhero blockbuster that could just as easily be an Endgame sequel.

The Elementals are framed as similar to the Infinity Stones. Their origin story even mirrors that offered for the Infinity Stones in Guardians of the Galaxy. Similarly, Beck’s absurd multiverse nonsense becomes the basis for the next phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in shows like Loki and movies like No Way Home.

It’s telling that Beck’s completely nonsensical mythology is something that everybody just goes along with, because that’s the logic that these sorts of movies just follow now. It’s not even particularly deep or thoughtful, but it provides requisite spectacle. It understands the fundamentally broken logic by which this fictional universe operates.

“Brad Davis. Is he a target?”
“Is Brad a target? Yeah. He's a target. He's a target.”
“Copy that. Target is Brad Davis. Initiating strike.”

I really dislike the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s militarisation of Spider-Man, what with Peter’s “instant kill” mode and giving him a fleet of killer drones.

It would be fine if either Homecoming or Far From Home understood that Tony Stark giving this stuff to a teenager was something that made Tony a terrible person. However, the films are too caught up in the hero worship of the power fantasy, so it becomes a glib joke. The movie opens with a cheesy montage set to I Will Always Love You, and the climax finds Peter and Happy wondering what Tony would do.

It’s also a problem that Far From Home is a return to the familiar Civil War theme that, “You have power. Bad people will try to take your power. The worst thing you can do is give up the power to shape entire nations on a whim.” Early in Far From Home, Peter is given the power to call in drone strikes with no oversight. Peter, rightly, has a think on this and decides maybe he shouldn’t have that power. The film treats that introspection as a weakness. Peter shouldn’t doubt his right to use such power.

This is a familiar MCU trope, where the worst thing a hero can actually do is stop and think. It’s similar to Homecoming. After the ferry disaster, Tony tells Peter to stop and think. Peter responds by just doing the same thing again, this time on an aeroplane. In a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, it often feels like the characters just need to learn to stop asking themselves if they have the right to do whatever they want, and just do whatever they want. A teenager with an army of drones and a suit with an “instant kill” mode? That’s just hella cool.

This is one of the two big problems with Far From Home, which is otherwise delightful. We’ll get to the second later on, maybe. But yeah, Spider-Man (of all characters) probably shouldn’t be a mascot for the military-industrial complex. Incidentally, Hawkeye is a prime example of this “don’t think about it, just enjoy it!” theme within the franchise, where a large part of Clint’s arc in the show is how he should learn to enjoy the celebrity of being a superhero, and stop feeling guilty about being a mass murderer. Hawkeye never once seriously suggests that maybe Clint should feel bad about what he’s done. Tellingly, even his family repeatedly assured him that it’s perfectly fine if he misses the Christmas that he promised to spend with them, because he’s awesome.

“We need to stay vigilant. There's a void in this world for someone like you.”

It’s a shame that Far From Home bungles the whole “giving a teenager a weapon of mass destruction” plot, because there’s something quite clever in how effectively Beck bamboozles Fury and Hill. (That said, Far From Home does hedge its bets with the revelation that Nick Fury isn’t really Nick Fury, but let’s ignore that for a moment.)

There’s been a lot written about the overlap between the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the American military, and a lot of it is deserved. Captain Marvel is essentially a military recruitment film. Even Black Panther features a heroic CIA operative. Even in The Winter Soldier, the surveillance state is only a bad thing when controlled by literal (but we can’t use the word because we want to sell toys in Europe) Nazis. Hell, The Avengers is probably the least militaristic Marvel Studios film, which is saying something.

So there’s something really clever in the concept of Far From Home being built around Quentin Beck pulling an Iron Man 3 on Nick Fury, creating a problem so he can package and sell a solution. Fury is incredibly eager to buy into it, despite it being self-evidently nonsense. There’s an interesting implication that Fury is desperate to believe in Beck because he sees it as his ticket back to relevance. After the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D., after his five year absence, and with even Peter ignoring him, Beck is potentially Fury’s proof of his worth. Beck is a way for Fury to open doors at EUROPOL, and to re-establish himself as an authority. So it’s easy to understand how Fury was easily suckered into it.

It’s a none-too-subtle metaphor for the way in which many of the parties that would profit from increased militarisation were those stoking the fears and the mythology of the War on Terror. 

“More casualties, more coverage. I gotta cut through the static. London is a beautiful city, and it will suffer, but they can rebuild. If I'm the next Iron Man, I need to save the world from an Avengers-level threat.”

Mysterio’s evil scheme in Far From Home is essentially to create the third act of a Marvel Studios film, watching millions of people suffer so he can create a big empty spectacle. He wants to feel empowered, and to be worshipped for creating that empty spectacle.

Mysterio is essentially Kevin Feige trying to organise what Betty describes as “a new phase” for the shared universe, and who wraps up the power fantasy in the aspiration “to give the world someone to believe in.”It’s great how playful Far From Home is about that. There’s a little bit of introspection and self-criticism here that - for all their glib irony and self-awareness - is often missing from Marvel Studios films. The only two comparable films in the MCU are Iron Man 3 and arguably Eternals.

“Happy, is that you?”
“Yeah, of course it's me.”

Then we hit the second big problem with Far From Home.

This is a movie where Peter calls a billionaire’s man servant to fly him in a private jet from the Netherlands to London. I have no beef with the Watts/Holland Spider-Man trilogy. They’re solidly in the middle of my rankings of the Sony Spider-Man movies. I find it odd that so many people latch on to them as the ideal for the character, when he makes his uniform in a billionaire’s private jet. I guess maybe I just want something different from the character than these people, and that’s fine.

Still, Spider-Man’s working class background is an essential and important part of the character’s identity, and erasing it is a big deal to me. And it really bothers me that this happened in the wake of the most devastating recession in history. If ever there was a time when that sort of working class character was needed on screen, it’s now. Hell, almost two decades removed from its original context, Raimi’s Spider-Man feels more timely in its class commentary than Homecoming or Far From Home.

“Come on, Peter-tingle.”

I know Watts gets a lot of flack for his directorial choices on here, but I generally think that Watts does a really good job when playing within his comfort zone: indie and handheld coming of age adventures, like Cop Car.

The best sequences in No Way Home are the early sequences where Peter’s life is pure chaos, and Watts is shooting the scenes in long single takes with a handheld camera. It’s a nice unity of form and function, which hints at much more interesting versions of these movies.

That said, like a lot of directors, Watts kinda gets lost in the machinery during the obligatory big action showcases that are generated mostly within computers. But there’s still a little more of him here than a lot of other directors working on the larger franchise.