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Non-Review Review: Spider-Man – Far From Home

Spider-Man: Far From Home cannot help but exist in the shadow of Avengers: Endgame.

Indeed, one of the problems marketing Far From Home was the manner in which the entire emotional premise of the film served as a spoiler for Endgame, which meant that the film had to wait quite late in the game to release its second trailer. This sets up an interesting tension with Far From Home, which finds itself in the the seemingly contradictory position of being both the last movie in the current “phase” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and also a film actually being produced by a company other than Marvel Studios.

Masking his feelings.

This weird push-and-pull runs through Far From Home, which seems caught between existing as a coda and epilogue to Endgame and working as a Spider-Man movie in its own right. To a certain extent, this was always going to be a tension within Far From Home, even before Endgame set its sights on becoming the biggest movie of all time. Endgame was always going to exert a gravity on Far From Home, given its plot mechanics and its character decisions. Writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, along with director Jon Watts, were always going to be reacting to narrative and character choices that they never made.

As such, the most interesting thing that Far From Home can do is to literalise that tension.

Night Monkey Moves.

Far From Home deals with the fallout from Endgame in a number of ways. The most refreshing is its willingness to acknowledge the silly comic-book-ness of the central conceit of Endgame. Avengers: Infinity War ended with Thanos wiping out half of the universe with a click of his fingers, the movie playing that absurd high concept as grand tragedy. Of course, the concept was not developed enough to actually withstand the dramatic weight that Infinity War and Endgame placed upon it, and certainly not within the jokey playful tone of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Far From Home very cannily and very slyly reframes “the snap” as “the blip.” The film accepts the prima facie absurdity and goofiness of an evil purple alien wiping out half of the universe with a click of his fingers and a billionaire genius playboy philanthropist restoring half the universe five years later with another finger click. The actual emotional, social, legal and ethical ramifications of such a plot would be staggering. Endgame largely avoided these in favour of stoic characters standing in deep reflection and wallowing in cheap angst. Far From Home adopts a much cheekier approach. It has fun with the idea.

Far From Home understands that “the snap” as presented in Infinity War and Endgame is a ridiculous plot contrivance and not anything that movies like this are capable of handling with skill or gravitas. This gives Far From Home a lot of leeway. In Infinity War, it seemed a fairly massive contrivance that “the snap” would leave all of the founding team members alive. In Endgame, it seemed ridiculous that a world that had lost half of its inhabitants would be functional at all, let alone interested in taking selfies with the Hulk.

So Far From Home wallows in the glorious ridiculousness of that concept, treating it as a punchline. There are some sly references to how “the blip” affected rental agreements and jokes about how it made divorce easier. There are bitter gripes about how those taken by “the blip” had to repeat the entire school year. There are a few questions about whether those who were “blipped” should now be allowed to drink. Nothing that hints at the actual existential terror of the event, but that’s fine. Infinity War and Endgame weren’t interested in that existential terror either, even if they treated it with po-faced seriousness.

A smashing time.

This makes it easier to go along with the various concessions that Far From Home requires. Treating “the blip” as the contrivance that it was allows the audience to excuse the plot contrivance that most of the primary cast got “blipped”, including adults like Aunt May. Similarly, treating “the blip” as a sort of minor inconvenience of living in a superhero universe rather than a serious threat to human existence allows for the internal logic of the plot; why would parents who only just got their children back allow their kids to go an an extended school trip to Europe? Who cares? It’ll be fun.

Significant stretches of Far From Home are given over to gentle parodies of Infinity War and Endgame and other superhero excesses. Early in Far From Home, Peter Parker is introduced to the mysterious Quentin Beck. “He’s from Earth, just not this one,” Fury suggests. “There’s a multiverse?” Peter gasps, referencing the sort of broad comic book gimmick that powered Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Beck immediately follows with an elaborate holographic presentation about the existential threat posed by the ancient power of “the Elementals”, which recalls Strange and Wong’s lecture about the stones in Infinity War.

“What? They told me that Chris Evans could pull off a beard.”

(In fact, this also doubles as something of a mythology joke – as much as the “ASM” license plate on Nick Fury’s car. The comic book character Mysterio was notably one of the few Spider-Man antagonists to travel from one dimension in the multiverse to another, transitioning from the mainstream Marvel universe into the “ultimate” universe to provide the basis for the crossover Spider-Men. As such, the back story that Quentin Beck provides in Far From Home – that he is a refugee from another world – serves as an example of the sort of continuity references expected in blockbusters like this.)

Again, the logic of Quentin Beck and “the Elementals” is framed as the standard logic of large-scale superhero blockbusters. It’s weird and unnecessarily convoluted. These strange creatures can cause untold destruction. They can even combine their strength in much the same way that Thanos could unite the stones on the gauntlet. “Like Power Rangers!” one observer gasps, explaining the intrinsic internal logic. “You mean Voltron!” another panicked bystander takes the time to correct him.

Its a Mysterio to me.
The game commences…

Far From Home effectively finds Peter Parker coopted into a larger epic superhero narrative. He winds up bouncing around Europe to face these threats, very similar to the sort of “macguffin chase” that drove so much of Infinity War as Thanos tried to gather the stones to further his evil plans. It’s all very vaguely drawn, but the audience understands enough of how these sorts of plots work in order to go along with it. However, the smartest thing about Far From Home is how it is less interested in the particulars of that plot and more interested in how it acts on Peter.

A central tension of Far From Home involves Peter being roped into a plot that he really has no interest in. Quentin Beck is repeatedly framed in terms of the Avengers. He is helping Nick Fury deal with “an Avengers-level threat.” He is described as “Thor and Iron Man rolled into one.” However, it is Beck’s relationship to the larger film that is most interesting. It’s telling that Quentin Beck introduces himself in the film’s teaser by throwing himself into battle and theatrically declaring, “You want no part of this.” It certainly sets a tone.

“I think Nick Fury just hijacked our summer vacation,” Peter warns Ned at one point, as the school trip finds itself diverted towards the next city under threat. There are repeated suggestions that the entirety of the plot has been orchestrated for Peter’s benefit as much as for anybody else’s. Nick Fury was introduced as as an ambassador of the “much larger [cinematic] universe” in the post-credits scene of Iron Man, welcomed and embraced. In contrast, Fury has to force himself into the plot of Far From Home. Peter laments, “I don’t want to talk to Nick Fury.”

Fury is effectively sojourning Peter into the larger cinematic universe. During one briefing, Fury finds Peter staring into middle distance and reprimands him. Beck calls Fury out. “He’s not distracted. He’s just thinking about how you kidnapped him.” There is something interesting in the hostility with which Far From Home frames Peter Parker’s relationship with the demands of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. More than any other superhero film in recent memory, Far From Home is a superhero film about making a superhero film.

Green screen effects.

It feels appropriate that Infinity War and Endgame have brought us to a point where the primary metaphor of a major superhero film is the art of constructing a superhero film. After all, Thanos could be read as a metaphor for climate change or even death, but he also at times felt like a metaphor for the logistical demands of a shared cinematic universe. “I am inevitable,” Thanos boasted, an anthropomorphic personification of time and contractual fulfillment. To a certain extent, Far From Home pitches its villain as an extension of that concept.

If Thanos was the physical expression of outside forces playing on a superhero narrative, shaping and warping a story towards its inescapable destination, then Mysterio is presented as the more mundane production mechanics given physical form. Well, as physical as the production of a modern spectacle-driven blockbuster allows. It often seems fair to ask whether Beck is ever really present. The character spends so much time flying around in a superhero costume that it’s worth wondering if he is even physically present during any of these spectacle-driven action sequences.

Wall-to-wall action.

In this sense, Far From Home feels of a piece with a larger trend in contemporary pop culture, an anxiety about the ubiquity of these sorts of tentpoles. Dumbo kicked off the miniature trend early in the summer, casting Michael Keaton as an ersatz version of Walt Disney, a man devoted to collecting wonder and awe so that he might control it and profit from it. More recently, the reshot ending of X-Men: Dark Phoenix seemed a little on-point, featuring the merry mutants taken into the custody of the MCU (that’s, um, “mutant control unit”) in chains.

There is a sense in which this sort of spectacle seems all-consuming, devouring everything in its wake. After all, following the merger with Fox, Disney will control a full forty percent of the theatrical box office. At a time when most other blockbusters seem to be floundering, it is Disney that has managed to keep its head above the rising tide and avoid sinking with the detritus. Allowing for the success of non-Disney films like Detective Pikachu or John Wick: Chapter III – Parabellum or even Us, most of this summer has been charting one Disney blockbuster to another; Captain Marvel, Aladdin, Toy Story 4, The Lion King.

A monumental accomplishment.

Tt feels like some of the blockbusters this year are literalising this fear. In keeping with this metacommentary of making superhero films about making superhero films, Far From Home reworks Peter’s central (and iconic) secret identity dynamic as a metaphor for a superhero property caught between two franchise styles. Spider-Man movies have traditionally used Peter’s relationship with Spider-Man as a metaphor for the demands placed on a young individual between their own desires and their larger obligations. Far From Home frames it in terms of intellectual property.

Peter Parker longs to enjoy the low-stakes teen hijinks of Spider-Man: Homecoming, but Fury keeps trying to steal him away and force him into a plot more familiarly structured as an epic existential crisis akin to Infinity War or Endgame. It’s a great hook, when Far From Home leans into it. This is most obvious with how the film positions Quentin Beck, as a slightly “off” version of Tony Stark. (Watts even gels back his star’s hair and places him in familiar sunglasses to underscore the comparison.)

However, this is as much a weakness as a strength for Far From Home. The film struggles in trying to reach any tangible conclusion related to this sharp juxtaposition, awkwardly unsure of how best to resolve this dangling thematic thread. Far From Home finds Peter caught between trying to find his own way as a “Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man” and trying to meet the expectations of being “the Next Iron Man.” The answer to this dilemma should be obvious, given the name of the character and the title of the film. However, Far From Home consciously fudges it.

There’s a palpable insecurity about Far From Home, one that feels strange given the ubiquity of the title character in popular culture. Spider-Man is one of the most iconic characters in the larger comic book canon, instantly recognisable around the world. He has a very strong brand and identity. After all, nobody can hum a theme for “Captain America” or “Thor” that is anywhere near as iconic as the classic Spider-Man riff that composer Michael Giacchino weaves into the film’s score. Peter Parker doesn’t need to be “the next Iron Man.” It is enough to be Spider-Man, no matter how far from home he might find himself.

Along came a spider…

Still, Far From Home repeatedly weights the film towards Iron Man. It isn’t just the memory of Tony Stark that informs Peter’s character in Far From Home, or the gift bequeathed to him by his mentor, or Nick Fury heaping expectations upon him. The film itself plays into this, even featuring a scene in which Peter uses holographic technology to design his new costume to the sound of Back in Black by AC/DC, an iconic needle drop from the original Iron Man. As with the suit from Homecoming, it feels like an awkward attempt to buoy Peter by tethering him to another franchise property.

This issue is compounded by the characterisation of the movie’s villain. To be fair, Homecoming and Far From Home feature two of the best villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, characters that are both well-developed and beautifully played. They feel much more developed than the standard antagonists in these films, and have served both movies well. The issue with both Homecoming and Far From Home is that they work absurdly hard to reinvent iconic Spider-Man antagonists as Iron Man villains; men in fancy tech suits who hold serious (and earned) grudges against Tony Stark.

“When you asked if I wanted to swing, this is not what I imagined.”

To be fair, there has always been a sense of overlap between some of the iconic Spider-Man villains and those of Tony Stark. There is a reason, for example, that writer Matt Fraction used Norman Osborn and Otto Octavius as villains during his Invincible Iron Man run; Osborn and Octavius perfectly embody the two archetypes of Iron Man villains, rogue industrialists and mad scientists. However, Homecoming and Far From Home consciously and awkwardly rework two more unique and distinct Spider-Man antagonists to contextualise them as foes of Tony Stark. It is very distracting. It also shifts the emotional centre of the film.

This gets at another issue within the film, one that might inadvertently have resulted from this shift. Far From Home feels curiously displaced in time. It is tempting to suggest that the film itself was “blipped”, that it missed five years, but the distance is greater than that; Far From Home is a blockbuster much closer thematically to 2008 than to 2019. At the heart of Far From Home is a character with the capacity to manipulate images and reality. “Mysterio is truth,” Beck asserts boldly at one point. “These days, people will believe anything.”

Keep it handy.

This should be very relevant to 2019, the post-truth era where nobody can believe their own eyes. The central premise of Far From Home feels perfectly attuned to the era of “fake news”, of the manner in which narratives can be weaponised to manipulate the public with disastrous results. The parallels suggest themselves, in much the same way that Adrian Toomes felt like the perfect supervillain stand-in for the start of the Trump era, a successful-yet-resentful business man envious of those he deems to have not earned their success.

However, Far From Home seems much less engaged with the particular challenges of this cultural moment. Indeed, it seems openly contemptuous of the idea of expertise or qualification. The villain of Far From Home establishes himself by making a bold and provocative argument that too much power has been invested in people who use it for their own gratification, at the expense of the people who actually do the hard work and who actually know what they are doing. (This is not an unfair criticism of the central thematic point of Endgame.) However, this appeal to expertise is what establishes the character in question as a villain.

Far From Home repeatedly mocks the idea of an objective consensus reality. When the kids witness a monstrous attack in Venice, they scramble to news sites for answers. “Do you believe everything you read in the news?” Mary Jane mockingly asks, her fascination with conspiracy theories and wild speculation presented as an endearing character quirk. The manipulation of reality in Far From Home is important only in so far as it affects Peter, rather than what it means on a larger scale. At the end, Peter does not consult science or rationality to determine what is real. Instead he trusts his “Peter Tingle” to just know.

To be clear, none of this reads as an intentional embrace of conspiratorial rhetoric or a paranoid rejection of the idea of truth. It just seems like Far From Home was written about a different era. It does not reflect the present world so much as it echoes the fears of a decade ago. Very strangely, but perhaps acknowledging its tether to Iron Man, there is a sense in which Far From Home plays like a War on Terror blockbuster. After all, one of the film’s key comedic set pieces hinges on an accidentally-ordered drone strike.

London Bridge is falling down…

There is nothing inherently wrong with this. Indeed, Far From Home has some interesting points to make in the context of the War on Terror, particularly concerning Nick Fury. One of the most interesting aspects of Far From Home is its portrayal of Nick Fury as a man out of time, perhaps even as an embodiment of a bygone age. Fury was one of the most important characters in the original iteration of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. His presence helped to contextualise those early films as movies engaged with War on Terror. Nick Fury was a suave super-spy who pulled the strings behind the scenes.

In Far From Home, there is something vaguely pathetic about Nick Fury as a man who has fallen so low that even Spider-Man doesn’t want anything to do with him. “There was a time I knew everything,” he laments. “Then the blip happened, and now Spider-Man is ghosting me.” Indeed, Far From Home presents Fury as so desperate to reassert control of the situation that he is easily mislead by a smooth-talking trickster. “I had my doubts from the beginning,” Fury asserts when the truth comes to light. “He believed everything,” Maria Hill corrects.

At his Beck and ‘Haal.

However, even allowing for the fun that Far From Home has at Nick Fury’s expense, there is a sense in which the film’s meditations on truth and manipulation are meant to be contextualised in terms like propaganda for the War on Terror rather than anything to do with the Trump Administration. The film leans rather heavily on the idea of weaponised drones and security clearances, on urban devastation and civilian casualties as justification for personal power gains. (Indeed, the film’s skepticism of new media seems to work better in that context than in the present moment.)

It feels very strange to construct a Spider-Man movie about the War on Terror in the context of July 2019. Even allowing for the fun that the film has at the expense of Nick Fury, it seems like a strange angle for a Spider-Man film. After all, one of the defining attributes of Peter Parker has always been his status as a working class hero under tremendous economic strain. In the present climate, it seems like it should be possible to construct a contemporary narrative more specifically tailored to Peter Parker’s strengths as a character rather than feeling so consciously styled after the Iron Man template.

Happy to see you.

One of the big issues with getting this thematic balance right within Far From Home is how much it owes to the structure of modern Marvel Cinematic Universe films. Like Homecoming, it is a story that seems reluctant to allow its central character to actually grow or change, or to indulge in the sort of introspection or self-doubt that is necessary for the character to function. Endgame argued that the central moral thesis of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was the accumulation of power without responsibility; that characters should never doubt themselves or their moral authority. Far From Home carries this over.

Early in Far From Home, Peter is gifted tremendous power by Tony Stark. Peter is understandably anxious about being gifted with that sort of power, particularly as a teenager. Peter understandably begins to question if he has the right to hold and use such power. All of this is interesting, getting at some fundamental and reasonable anxieties at the heart of the contemporary superhero genre, particularly at a time when authoritarianism is resurgent. However, all of this proves to be a faint. Inevitably, Far From Home falls back on the moral lesson that Peter was wrong to ever doubt himself, that his lack of moral certainty was a weakness.

This is the central thesis of Endgame, with Bruce Banner transforming himself into the Hulk because he can, Steve Rogers abandoning the present to live in the past, and Thor running off to have space adventures because he wants to be. This also shifts the balance in Peter’s choice away from “Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man” and towards “the Next Iron Man”, if only because “the Next Iron Man” has much more power and so must logically be the best choice that Peter can make. It feels faintly ill-judged, suggesting that the tug of war over Peter Parker must inevitably find him in the arms of large-scale superhero spectacle.

Still, there is a lot to like in Far From Home despite this somewhat muddled execution. Gyllenhaal has great fun as Quentin Beck, a role that leans heavily into Gyllenhaal’s very mannered and very distinctive performance choices. It’s a roles that affords the actor a lot of room in which to work, and which allows him to keep escalating. It an enjoyably performance, seemingly like Gyllenhaal is having a lot of fun with Far From Home and like Far From Home is having a lot of fun with Gyllenhaal. It seems like the actor is pitching his performance as a softer, family-friendly take on his work in Nightcrawler or Velvet Buzzsaw.

Lets see how it shakes out…

As with Homecoming, Far From Home works best as a teen flick rather than a superhero blockbuster; the awkwardness, the misunderstandings, the insecurities. Director Jon Watts draws heavily from the sorts of coming-of-age comedies directed by John Hughes, which helps to distinguish the film’s flavour from the more conventional and formulaic blockbuster template. As with Homecoming, Watts is working with an immensely likable young cast, and it is fun to watch them bounce off one another. Tom Holland and Zendaya are surprisingly charmy as somewhat nerdier iterations of Peter and Mary Jane than their earlier counterparts.

Far From Home is fun. It is a little too unfocused in places, and gets a little too swallowed by Endgame to really be its best self, but it is engaging and playful in a way that more superhero films should be. It raises some interesting ideas, even if it never sticks the landing. While Spider-Man himself still feels a little too lost in the carnage, Far From Home retains some hope that he might be able to find his way back to himself.

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