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In the past year or so, Spider-Man has already appeared in three major films and one enormously popular video game. That game set PlayStation records (it sold 3.3 million units in three days), and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse won an Oscar. This superhero is everyone’s favorite underdog, but now that he has been rebooted and resurrected so many times, he runs the risk of overstaying his welcome. Spider-Man: Far From Home is the newest chapter for New York’s favorite webslinger, and it leaps into theaters without much emotion or imagination. After the dizzying heights of Spider-Verse, a perfectly average chapter for this character is a letdown.
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The aftermath of Avengers: Endgame, with half the universe returning to existence after a five year absence, weighs on the opening section. To the credit of screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, they find the comic potential of such an outrageous twist. It is a gentle sort of irreverence, so Peter Parker (Tom Holland) aka Spider-Man also has time to mourn the loss of his mentor Tony Stark. Parker also questions his purpose now that he is no longer Stark’s sidekick, to the point where he would rather take a break from heroics altogether. He is more interested in a class trip to Europe, and his plan to tell MJ (Zendaya) he “like likes” her on top of the Eiffel Tower.
The burden of being a superhero means few vacations, so of course Spider-Man must spring to action while he visits Venice, Prague, and other destinations. There is a new superhero named Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), who can fly and shoot green lasers from his hands, and he needs Spider-Man to help him defeat giant monsters he calls elementals. These monsters are unimaginative CGI blobs, and while the script is self-aware about these threats, it does not change the fact that the big action scenes are a frenzied mess of color and explosions. The greatest trick the Marvel Cinematic Universe ever pulled was getting its audience to be patient with unimaginative action. At least there are some hallucinatory nightmare sequences that actually capture the wacky, borderline psychedelic imagery we sometimes see in comic books.
The more personal story of Parker dealing with big questions and romance is much more successful. Part of that is because Holland is such a compelling actor, mixing vulnerability with awkward charm. The film also has strong supporting characters, like an MJ whose sullen attitude hides a romantic streak, and Ned (Jacob Batalon), Parker’s excitable best friend. They create a plausible high school clique that will be recognizable to younger audiences, and evoke pangs of nostalgia in older ones.
Villains in Spider-Man films usually have some recognizably decent qualities in them. Like the classic mad scientist, they feel scorned by a society that rejects them. Far From Home continues in that tradition, with twists and reversals that tie into Parker’s lingering doubt and self-loathing. The trouble is that after so many Spider-Man films, each new entry cannot exist on its own terms, and serves as a commentary on itself. Maybe a break would do the character some good, but Far From Home does itself no favors by inviting comparisons to richer, more complex entertainment.
One surprising thing about Far From Home is how it draws inspiration from the recent PS4 game. The climactic battle has Spider-Man fighting countless drones, a type of enemy that’s ubiquitous in gaming, and there is a sequence where Parker customizes the properties of his suit, another popular gameplay mechanic. It is a shrewd way for director Jon Watts and his screenwriters to turn Spider-Man into an avatar for the audience. This technique makes it easier for us to identify with him, but lowered stakes are an unintended consequence. “Game over” really means another chance to retry.
Spider-Man: Far From Home is a coda for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If Endgame was meant to be a main course, then this one is closer to a digestif or a small bowl of sorbet. Its light tone and self-awareness suggest the franchise will shake its dour streak, and maybe we should lighten our expectations accordingly. This is another clever trick: The Marvel Cinematic Universe poses like an underdog, when it’s become a dominant force in our culture. In those terms, Far From Home is a mediocre Spider-Man film. Now that we have internalized the character’s durability, genuine storytelling risks are the only way for the character to go forward.
Spider-Man: Far From Home is now playing in theaters everywhere.