Spider-Man: Far From Home
I had a feeling the makers of Spider-Man: Far From Home weren’t making life easy for themselves when they picked Mysterio as – yes – the villain the piece, and the finished movie bears that out. Because Quentin Beck’s nature as an illusionist/ master manipulator, rather than an antagonist prone to getting into extended punch-ups with our hero, means there’s added onus on dexterous, surprising and slippery plotting, and screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers only partially succeed in that regard. Which doesn’t mean Far From Home fails to deliver a number of standout sequences and twists, but as a whole, it just isn’t as well sustained as its Spider-predecessor.
McKenna and Sommers – who have been on something of a big-screen roll over the last three years, with The Lego Batman Movie, Homecoming, Welcome to the Jungle and Ant-Man and the Wasp – only add to their hurdles by setting the movie around a school summer trip to Europe. Rather than an avalanche of bawdy incident – although, Peter Parker does get snapped with his trousers down – in the context of a superhero movie, this leads to a stop-start structure that has difficulty gaining momentum.
Peter, previously eager to be an Avenger and do anything and everything superheroic, is now dragging his heels about the same, mooning over MJ (so this is equivalent, sort-of-not, to Spider-Man 2’s Spider-Man No More!). It works in context – because the teen stuff in these movies is so well honed – but it’s also a touch awkward, the kid formerly leaping at the chance not to be thought of as a teen now only wanting to be one.
These early scenes are full of strong material, nevertheless. Much as Homecoming amusingly recapped (Spidey’s involvement in) Civil War, Far From Home addresses everything – well, most of the things – you considered might arise as a consequence of Endgame’s five-year lag for returning snapees, with all manner of amusing (Flash ratted for trying to buy drink on an airplane) and disturbed consequences (Mr Harrington’s wife pretended she’d been snapped so as to leave him).
But you feel yourself waiting for the plot proper to kick in – there’s a teaser scene introducing Jake Gyllenhaal’s Quentin Beck/ Mysterio, and it’s just off enough to make you unsure about him, even if you don’t know his history. If you do know his history, you’re left wondering how much the (as it turns out, fake-out) multiverse device may be retconning his character (but let’s face it, everyone who did presumed it would only be up to a point). As it turns out, every initial assumption is correct: that Beck is who he usually is, and his Elementals are just fancy holograms.
The problem with all of this is that you can feel yourself waiting for a reveal or twist for a good hour of the running time – not that the proceedings aren’t mostly amiable, enjoyable and diverting, because they are, but there’s no real internal tension, and if anything’s going to ultimately adversely affect Far From Home’s box office, it’s this.
Peter doesn’t even get to be especially proactive or intuitive with regard to Beck’s machinations; he has to have a whacking great illusion shown to him as exactly that before he cottons on. And then we’re treated to what I have to assume is self-aware piece of exposition from Beck congratulating his team. Why? Because it goes on for so long. But it isn’t especially witty, so I don’t know how much that’s actually the case. Plus, it seems the set mould for Peter’s villains’ motivation is to be dictated by Stark’s mistreatment/legacy – “He renamed my life’s work BARF” – which is as poor a crutch as a pervasive OsCorp.
These events give the movie the pulse it desperately needs, though, putting Peter on track to sort things out rather than backing out, and emphasising that, rather than just being a trickster, Quentin is a sociopath willing to kill with impunity. There’s still the essential problem that Gyllenhaal just doesn’t make a very interesting villain. Sure, he can fake amenability with Peter, and he can adopt a slightly camp theatricality as his natural self, but he’s unable to find anything to dig in to (perhaps we should just be grateful he didn’t play the part in the style of Okja). I think, despite how well, at times, his trickery works, Beck might be the most vanilla of all Spidey foes across the various movie iterations (well, perhaps not Dan DeHaan’s Green Goblin).
Indeed, I’d reached the conclusion it was only the double guessing of whether he really was a genuine hero from Earth-833 that sustained Beck at all… until the point where director Jon Watts goes full-on hyper-surreal and Peter’s experiential world crashes down around him. Prior to this, there are a couple of rather glib allusions to fake news explaining why Beck’s trickery lands so successfully, since people will believe anything right now (and pointedly, MJ is a conspiracy theorist, but in the dismissible movie sense, rather than relating to any actual conspiracies). Except that one’s left thinking “Why shouldn’t they?”, given the preconception-challenging nature of the MCU?
I’d also been slightly underwhelmed by the “all done with mirrors”, Now You See Me sleight of hand operated by Beck and his crew (when you start to analyse the details of the Elementals fantasy, how long would the deceit actually have held up?)
But the bravura Peter sequence actually manages to conjure something of an all-consuming assault on the senses, whereby having one’s reality entirely overwhelmed and controlled suddenly becomes horribly, paralysingly feasible. The way in which Peter plunges from illusion to illusion without pause to gather breath kind of makes me wish Watts was making the Doctor Strange movies (I find it odd hearing some diminish his abilities; he isn’t a stylist, in the sense of one who draws attention to their manipulation of the frame and placement of the camera, but he might be the best the MCU currently has at getting the most from the material).
Part of the pre-release conversation regarding the illusionary element concerned whether Nick Fury might or might not be Nick Fury, and it seemed inevitable that, at some point, Quentin would assume his identity; I entirely didn’t expect the reveal that he was a Skrull (Ben Mendelsohn’s Talos) for the entire movie, while actual Nick takes some R’n’R. Funny as that is, it’s also slightly irritating, since it implies Beck didn’t have to aim very high to pull the wool over various eyes (ie he really is a c-list villain, despite the magnificent goldfish bowl – oh, what we missed not having Bruce Campbell play him).
Far From Home plays a lot with the subject of Peter’s secret identity, from the blasé way Nick (Skrull Nick) makes it clear everyone in SHIELD knows who Spider-Man really is, to MJ being suspicious (Zendaya has good chemistry with Holland, and the decision to have MJ find out yields dividends, both in the jostling for supreme confidante with Ned and her complete aversion to flying through the air with Spider-Man). Even Brad is noting how weirdly he acts.
So I don’t know where they’re intending to go after JJ Jonah Jameson reveals his identity to the world during the end credits. How do you backtrack on that? If you can’t, in a way, it’s a shame this element has been discarded, as much of the comedy value inherent in hiding his alter ego goes with it. On the other hand… all I could think was how fantastic it was to have JK Simmons back, twelve years on, as J Jonah. It’s rightly admitting no one could better his version, and he’s duly as superb as ever, if minus a little hair (that Beck survived was no surprise, since it’s in his nature). JB Smoove had been rumoured as the new Jameson, but he’s relegated to a teacher role that, by the picture’s PG-13 nature, doesn’t really make the best use of him.
Mention of JJ brings to mind another area that has hitherto been starkly lacking in both the Webb version and the MCU: Peter’s spider-sense, or “Peter Tingle”. It’s referenced so frequently here, I can only assume the makers of Homecoming were duly chastened for failing to feature it. And it’s well used, in a Force kind of way, with Peter having to pick his way through illusions using his senses alone.
Other areas work breezily, in the manner of writers in their element – the Happy/May and Ned/Betty Brant subplots are note-perfect (“Night Monkey, save us!“), and it has to be said that Favreau is tops throughout this movie; I’d much rather see this from him creatively than his personality-free Disney live-action remakes.
The spectre of Tony is large, of course, and generally well-used to reflective effect. Indeed, while I’ll vouch for Tom Holland as a fun-loving incarnation of Peter/Spidey, his plumbing the depths here is instantly affecting. Naturally, Nick/Talos needs to guilt-trip him in Tony’s place – about not being fit to take his mentor’s baton – but the character has that self-inflicted pressure anyway; it simply isn’t laid on with a trowel per earlier versions. I do think they need to start dispensing with the “Peter always screws up but then puts it right”, though, or he’ll just end up looking like Condorman. The whole deal with the EDITH glasses (“Even Dead I’m The Hero”) is very funny, especially the drone hit on Brad, but a hero has to come into his own at some point.
But the most salient area where the theme of Spider-Man replacing Iron Man takes shape has nothing do with the MCU’s internal hierarchy; it’s simply that Holland is the closest the series has come to a naturally engaging, charismatic lead since Robert Downey Jr. You can make Thor and Cap funny, but it mostly has to be manufactured around them; Holland is gifted a character he can channel his energies into, even when the overall results are patchy (but not Iron Man II patchy, fortunately).
It will be interesting to see where Spidey is taken following Spider-Man: Far From Home, but there’s the sense that, with one more Sony film in their agreement, and the post-credits scenes here, Kevin Feige is striving for maximum eventfulness for the character under the assumption of losing him. Which would be a shame, as Holland isn’t even the age Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield were when they took on the role.