Tuesday, July 9, 2019

"Spider-Man: Far From Home" is a Triumph, a Must See!

Spider-Man: Far From Home arrived in theaters last week facing impossible expectations. In story continuity, it directly follows Avengers: Endgame, released just a few months ago to record-breaking box office success. In terms of Spider-Man stories, it follows the visually and narratively dazzling Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which is still possibly the most ambitious Spider story to ever hit the screen. And in terms of its own internal story continuity, it follows the thoroughly enjoyable Spider-Man: Homecoming, an admirably human film that followed up the big, world-spanning action of Captain America: Civil War by scaling down the action and taking a more personal focus on protagonist Peter Parker, aka the teenage hero Spider-Man. Marvel Entertainment has had a long series of triumphs lately, both in its main, Disney-produced Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, and in the affiliated Spider-Man movies produced by Sony Pictures under a separate license. That sets the bar for Spider-Man: Far From Home almost embarrassingly high.

But the film clears that bar seemingly without effort. It’s an out-and-out triumph, an adrenaline blast of pure action and emotion that lives up to its predecessors and ably forwards the MCU story in memorable and even touching ways.

Far From Home — which Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has confirmed is the final film of the MCU’s “Phase Three,” an arc that started with Civil War in 2016 — takes up the story where Endgame left off, both addressing some of its story concerns and processing some of its big emotions. Tony Stark’s death is being felt worldwide, as spontaneous memorials spring up in the form of everything from stylized murals and urban shrines to cheesy YouTube “in memoriam” videos like the one that opens the film. Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has been particularly hard-hit by his mentor’s death and by the feeling that he’s expected not only to carry on without him, but to live up to his legacy and even to replace him in some way. Though the film doesn’t heavily underline the point, he’s clearly processing a fair bit of trauma over what he went through in the Avengers movies. He’s ready to take a break from superhero life and be a teenager again for a little while.

But he’s walking back into a world that’s been radically changed by Thanos’ universe-dividing snap back in Avengers: Infinity War. Endgame restored the people Thanos snapped out of existence, but the world had to adapt to their abrupt reappearance after five years. Far From Home deals with the ramifications only in the briefest and most comedic way, but it’s clearly a backdrop for the world Peter reenters where some of the people in his high school have aged five years, while others are exactly as they were before “The Blip,” as the gap is now called. Fortunately for Peter, apparently, all of his nearest and dearest — including his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), his best bud Ned (Jacob Batalon), and his crush MJ (Zendaya) — were blipped away and are effectively unchanged since Homecoming. He has the chance to pick up where he left off, especially when his science class heads out on a European field trip where he hopes he’ll be able to spend personal time with MJ.

Unfortunately for his plans, there’s a new hero in the world: Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), an interdimensional traveler whose alternate Earth was destroyed by mysterious raging elementals. Those creatures are now showing up on Peter’s Earth, and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) wants him to help Quentin — immediately dubbed Mysterio by Peter’s classmates — fight them before they destroy everything. Much like in Homecoming, where Peter was torn between some approximation of a normal life and his perceived great responsibilities as a hero, in Far From Home, he keeps just wanting Quentin to handle the problem so he can get a little downtime with MJ. But that proves impractical for any number of reasons, including the fact that the elementals and his class trip keep clashing for increasingly hilarious reasons.

Anyone familiar with Spider-Man’s character gallery will have some idea of where this all goes, but they’ll have a harder time anticipating the sheer verve of the playful, thrilling way it plays out. Writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers (who previously teamed on Community, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Ant-Man and the Wasp, and The Lego Batman Movie) draw directly on some ideas they brought out in Homecoming, particularly that Tony Stark, while a hero to the world, is still a flat-out villain in other people’s eyes. They draw cleverly on past MCU movies to build up their backstory in ways designed to have MCU fans roaring with recognition and open delight.

As with Ant-Man & the Wasp, they’re just flippant enough about their character motivations to prevent audiences from taking them too seriously. Like most MCU movies, Far From Home veers between snappy comic banter & big action pieces. But here, the comic timing seems particularly sharp, with Peter’s open frustration, occasional haplessness, and charming naïveté all turned up for laughs. Gyllenhaal, similarly, delivers a sharp and knowing performance, half modest soulfulness, half something else entirely. He seems like another strongly talented actor slumming it as a square-jawed, nearly expressionless generic hero, until the film calls on him for more, at which point his versatility suddenly comes sharply into play.

But Far From Home’s action beats are stunning, too. Another dynamic, not expressly spelled-out but still evident in every battle, is that Spider-Man’s abilities to swing from webs and hit pretty hard aren’t much use against monsters made of water or fire. He has to get creative to fight them, and the creativity of the fights becomes one of the film’s most impressive assets. In particular, Mysterio’s specific power set enables some sequences that actually manage to rival Into the Spider-Verse for dizzying effect and visual creativity. MCU movies generally move fast and challenge viewers to keep up, but director Jon Watts (who also helmed Homecoming) trusts the audience to process an ever-changing world going by at lightning speed and take in what’s important in a constantly changing landscape. The same plot elements that let him play with space and pace also let him draw on Spider-Man’s history in these films, turning the film into a running reward system for sharp-eyed fans picking up Easter egg references.

But even for audiences who aren’t coming from that kind of expert-level MCU perspective, Far From Home is a surprisingly effective and emotional film. Peter’s longing for MJ, for a normal life, and for one shot at a peaceful vacation runs throughout the film, enabling a lot of banter and a lot of emotional push-and-pull. But his grief at losing his flawed father figure and his fear that he might not be up to the challenge of filling Tony Stark’s robo-boots, gives the movie its true emotional spine. It’s like a gigantic group therapy session for MCU fans, asking them to process the loss of a favorite superhero after a decade of watching him gleefully swarm his way through a winning series of movies. Peter’s loss is more personal and more deeply felt, but he’s still an audience avatar, and the inevitable moment where he steps up feels like a solemn promise that the MCU isn’t dependent on any one talent.

There’s a terrific small moment in Far From Home where Tony’s assistant Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) watches silently as Peter steps up to one of Tony’s old fabricators & starts dialing through holographic suit elements, ginning himself up a new outfit. Happy doesn’t say anything about it, he just smiles a small wistful smile, clearly recognizing the behavior. It’s nothing more than a momentary quirk of the lips amid a much bigger & more thrilling crisis. But it’s Far From Home in a nutshell: an acknowledgement of small emotions amid big moments, a reminder of the ever-building continuity that’s made these stories so memorable and so satisfying for fans, and a moment taken for grief between action beats. It’s a beautiful little pause in a beautifully big film. But moments like these are what make Far From Home feel so heartfelt and relevant. It’s a breathless and admirably well-assembled movie that proves the Marvel formula still isn’t tired, but it’s also a capper on more than a decade of building powerful feelings around powerful heroes.