Spider-Man: Far From Home

Spider-Man: Far From Home ★★★★

Was I a bit too harsh on Spider-Man: Homecoming? I had reservations about its muddled themes, and how tightly it was tied into Marvel Studios' ongoing narrative, but coming after Endgame the latter, at least, is resolved. Far from Home ends with a doozy of a mid-credits cliffhanger - I won't spoil it! - but it's a cliffhanger that's rooted in the New York-based cast and their relationships, rather than the future of the Avengers. Without the burden of setting up anything more than another Jon Watts-directed Spider-Man movie, the strengths of his take on Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's world can shine through.

Despite its unprecedented level of advance planning, the story of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is as rich in what-ifs as any other movie series. Most fascinating to me is: what if they'd had the rights to Spider-Man from the beginning, or even just three or four years earlier than they did? Arguably the whole franchise would have been less adventurous: why bother working on offbeat third-stringers like the Guardians of the Galaxy when you have a proven money-maker like Spider-Man? But the Spider-Man films themselves would also have suffered. Spider-Man might be an internationally recognised icon in our universe, but in the Marvel Cinematic Universe he's the underdog of the Avengers, a skinny kid from Queens fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with billionaires, kings and gods.

What this means is that Watts's movies are a place for the MCU to indulge in self-critique. Like Homecoming's Vulture, Far from Home's villain is driven by grievances against Tony Stark. Also like Vulture, his grievances are actually reasonable and aren't countered by the film - it's just his methods of redress that make him a villain. (Again, this would never happen if Sony had struck that deal in 2013; that would mean attacking the central pillar of the whole Avengers series, rather than a character on his way out) We also see other reverberations of the larger saga play themselves out at ground level, most amusingly when it's revealed that the time-travel adventure of Endgame has left half of Peter's classmates five years older than their former peers.

The Spider-Man movies aren't the only place where Marvel Studios can address these little kinks in the grand tapestry. The "One-Shot" series of short films had the same function, as did the TV series Agents of SHIELD and Daredevil. Watts's films, with their school setting and rich bench of mostly comic supporting players, would work well as a TV series, but his title character's A-list drawing power means that can't happen. Far from Home finds a winningly mischievous way of addressing this, throwing Peter into the middle of a CGI-heavy war between extradimensional elementals and sorcerers. The generic, abstract quality of the battles becomes part of the movie's point, while the nagging sense that Peter doesn't belong in this story turns out to be the key to his character arc. He doesn't have to be the guy who saves the world from city-trashing monsters; he's already the guy who outsmarts the very human, petty villain, saves the day and...

...well, getting the girl is something he's working on. A glass must be raised here to Zendaya as MJ, whose character is promoted from occasional support to co-lead here, and who is wonderful. Now Marvel Studios have sorted their villain problem it's about time they worked on their love interests, and MJ is a fine template to work from. Her initials, which seemed like a mere gag in Homecoming, are now a clue as to how to read the character. She is not Mary Jane Watson, but she's who Mary Jane Watson might be if Spider-Man had been created in the 2010s rather than the 1960s. She gets the movie's tensest moment - the mace! - and a lion's share of the best lines in Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers's screwball-via-weird-Twitter script. Zendaya knows how to make MJ's bluntness funny, while also making it clear that it's a defence mechanism. The brief moments when she exposes some softer feeling make it very clear why Peter's so hung up on her.

Watts knows that the basics of Spider-Man comics are now familiar to audiences to support this kind of reinvention and reinterpretation, and he has an unerring instinct for making the right changes. As in Homecoming, there are nods to the character's screen history, in this case the magnificent in-joke of casting Jake Gyllenhaal, who so nearly replaced Tobey Maguire after the latter injured his back making Spider-Man 2, as a rival superhero. The whole cast is wonderful, including expanded roles for Martin Starr and Angourie Rice, but it's Tom Holland who carries it. Four films and one universe-spanning war later and he's still as charming, earnest and energetic as he was in Civil War: a never-ending breath of fresh air.

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