SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME Saves The MCU

This review contains full spoilers for Spider-Man: Far From Home as well as Avengers Endgame.

We have to get a couple of things out of the way here. First: Tom Holland is the definitive Peter Parker; if the character gets retired from the movies in favor of Miles Morales after this particular run, that will be a good thing, as the idea of someone trying to compete with what Holland has accomplished in his five (!) outings at Peter is impossible to imagine. Second: Spider-Man: Far From Home is a miracle beginning to end, tasked with being the epilogue to Avengers: Endgame as well as a satisfying Spidey movie, and it pulls both off with absolute finesse.

I’ll be honest with you: Captain Marvel and Endgame had me kind of bummed about the MCU. CM was just not that good (is it okay to say that now?), and it became the first Marvel movie I didn’t see twice in theaters (yes, I saw Thor: The Dark World twice in theaters, like a crazy person). But it wasn’t the last! I still haven’t seen Endgame a second time, despite the rerelease. It’s not that Endgame is bad, it’s just that it’s not really a movie; maybe when I can watch Infinity War and Endgame back to back I’ll feel like I’m getting a full experience, but Endgame is mostly a series of callbacks in search of a narrative, and it’s full of Marvel superheroes behaving in ways I fundamentally dislike.

It seemed that perhaps, at 45, I had finally aged out of these spandex punch-ups. Maybe I had finally ascended to real adulthood, where my three jobs and my bills were more important than the minutiae of decades worth of comic book lore. Had I become a real adult?

The good news is that, no, I have not, and Far From Home has proven to me that my inner child, battered and bruised, is in fact still alive. And my love for the MCU has been reignited. FFH is just the panacea I needed after Endgame

The movie begins with the biggest bit of lifting it must do – addressing the fact that half the people on Earth were dead for five years. This little bit of storytelling was such a bad choice for Endgame – why did it need to be five years, and why couldn’t the whole thing have been erased? – and poor FFH was tasked with following up on it. Director Jon Watts and writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers do what must be done: handwave it away. The turn the whole thing into a joke, having a high school marching band blip back into the gym right in the middle of a fierce basketball game, having Aunt May leading a fundraiser for people displaced during the Blip (as they call it, a diminutive name worthy of the bad concept), and one of Peter’s new classmates ends up being a kid who was five grades behind our leads, who thankfully all blipped out and thus didn’t age out of this franchise. 

There’s a moment at the beginning of the film where the Midtown Science High AV Club’s news broadcast has a kid saying, into the camera, something along the lines of “And now it’s time for us to all move on,” a tacit acknowledgment that the Blip is no longer going to be mentioned in the MCU, that it’ll be retconned through the use of forgetting. It’s like that Simpsons episode where we learn Principal Skinner is actually Armin Tamzarian and at the end Judge Snyder declares no one shall ever again mention this incident under penalty of torture. Look, if the MCU is never going to really going into the effects of half of all life ending for five years (and it never really will follow that path anywhere interesting), this is the best solution. 

With that out of the way the movie is free to just go and do its business – taking Peter Parker and his friends on a class trip to Europe. At first it seems like taking Spider-Man out of New York City is a bad idea, but let’s be honest – we’ve had six NYC-centric Spidey films. More than that, taking Peter away from home allows him to have the space needed to begin taking his first real steps into adulthood.

That’s made possible by the death of Tony Stark, a death that hangs over this film in the way Uncle Ben has hung over previous Spidey movies. Tony represented a father figure for Peter, but more than that he represented safety; when the Ferry is split in two in Homecoming, Iron Man shows up to save the day. The death of Tony Stark leaves Peter without an Iron Man to rescue him. 

It graduates Peter to the next level, a step he does not want to take. He’s comfortable as the Outer Boros superhero, he doesn’t want to be the next Iron Man. And by that the movie doesn’t mean “guy in a suit of armor” but rather “a guiding force behind whom other heroes can gather.” I’m not really sure that’s the right step for Spider-Man (and, by the end of the credits stinger the movie indicates it’s not sure either), but there’s something really affirming about it. And it’s perfectly Spider-Man that the guy who trusts him the most is also super dead.

But it’s also perfectly Spider-Man that Peter should feel uncomfortable with responsibility while also totally encumbered by it. As the movie goes on he learns that Tony’s left him something in his will – EDITH, a super AI satellite system that is controlled via a very Tony Stark pair of sunglasses. Peter quickly comes to believe he’s not ready for this responsibility (he accidentally calls in a lethal drone strike on a romantic rival, again a perfectly Spider-Man thing) and so he’s more than willing to give it up to the first adult who seems trustworthy.

And again, in a perfectly Spider-Man situation Peter gives it to absolutely the wrong guy. FFH has taken the beloved but fairly corny villain Mysterio and given him new life. In the comics Quentin Beck was a failed special effects guy who used the tricks of his trade to rob banks, but in the MCU he’s an unnamed guy (Beck is, as far as I can tell, a fake name) who used to work for Tony Stark. And not just any guy – he’s the guy who invented the holographic machine that Stark demos at the beginning of Civil War. The one Stark named BARF, an acronym that infuriates faux-Beck.

Working with a bunch of other aggrieved Stark employees, Beck creates the story of a superhero fleeing his home dimension, where the Earth has been destroyed, to warn us of a major threat – the Elementals, beings of air, fire, water and earth who are gaining immense power. But none of it is real; the Elementals are elaborate holograms with a physical component created by cloaked drones; while the light show plays out the drones actually blow things up and hurt people.

The reason for all of this? Beck (I guess that’s just what we’ll call him) recognizes that even as one of the smartest guys in the room he can’t get anybody to pay attention to him unless he’s wearing a cape and shooting lasers. Since he’s not really the heroic type he creates menaces that he can defeat, and in the process become the new Iron Man, the title Spidey is trying to shrug off like Atlas as written by Ayn Rand. Beck’s equation is

Create fake threats
Defeat them
??????
Profit

It’s actually a pretty good plan, if we’re being honest – the world is in its post-Avengers state, and Mysterio (he gets the name from an Italian newscast) fills in the void for a desperate globe. And for a desperate Spider-Man; losing his latest father figure, Peter is looking for anybody to whom he can cling, who can offer him some sense of comfort and safety. Peter doesn’t want to be an adult yet, and this is a very classic Spider-Man dilemma. 

But Peter is unable to get out from under his eternal sense of guilt. After a short moment of elation at handing off the responsibility of EDITH he becomes aware that Mysterio isn’t everything he claims to be, and all of a sudden realizes he fucked up in a very, very big way.

It’s a great arc, because it presents a very specific kind of coming of age story that is so appropriate for this character. It isn’t about Peter becoming sexually active (although he gets a smooch) or getting dark and violent, but rather about Peter coming to understand that adulthood means there is no cavalry, no one to come to your rescue. Being an adult is about being responsible for yourself and your mistakes.

There’s also a great reversal of the Tony/Peter relationship with Peter/Quentin Beck. I think Beck actually likes Peter; just as Tony did, he sees a kindred spirit. This kid is like him, but he’s also totally unlike him. Where Beck is driven entirely by resentment – thinking only of himself – Peter is driven by his sense of responsibility to others. Peter gets to see another father figure and not only be betrayed by him but also understand what he himself doesn’t want to be.

This is honestly the best possible reinterpretation of Mysterio. I’ve always loved the character, but with his green suit and big fishbowl helmet he’s always seemed just on the other side of silly to the masses. But Mysterio is cool because he attacks Spider-Man mentally, through the use of illusion. Mysterio’s threats, in the comics, have rarely been all that physical, but the best Spidey foes have always come after his self-confidence anyway. 

Jon Watts takes Mysterio and unleashes him in truly inventive and fun ways in this film. There are two dreamlike battle sequences that are, for me, highlights of the year to date. These hallucinatory sequences are the latest examples of the MCU finally getting a little visually inventive, and I welcome it – especially the zombie Tony Stark, skeletal face covered in bugs, bursting from his grave – and beyond that they’re just a lot of fun. Maybe my only complaint is that I would like to have seen more of this stuff, but even at just two sequences FFH stands out in a stolid landscape of CGI blockbusters that can make anything happen and seem content to make those things happen in dark, hard to see and poorly blocked ways. 

Jake Gyllenhaal is so good as Mysterio, and his resurgence as an indie darling/interesting actor brings a great level of metatext to the movie. See, Beck is mad that you need to be a superhero to get attention these days, so he’s going to play a superhero – a truly delightful metaphor for our current cinematic state of affairs. What Gyllenhaal does really well is transition from an almost cartoonishly good guy when he’s playing Mysterio as a hero to an almost cartoonishly bad guy while always maintaining an inner human reality. Gyllenhaal is an actor who isn’t afraid to go big, and he’s come to understand that his good looks and his penchant for broadness can be played as menacing (he just has scary crazy eyes), and he turns it on and off like a switch. 

Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio is probably the second best cinematic Spidey villain, coming in behind Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock, who has the advantage of having a more emotional backstory. But Mysterio, while less of a tragic figure than Octavius, is kind of a relatable guy. To bring a second The Simpsons reference into this review, Mysterio has big Frank Grimes energy – the competent guy who somehow keeps getting passed over by other, flashier people. I think there’s something very 21st century about this kind of resentment, the feeling a lot of people have watching YouTube game streamers and Instagram influencers and bloggers and reality show stars. It’s the feeling of “I know I am better than these people, and yet they’re getting all the attention.”

And all the attention is everything. Even when the SFX background is removed, taking away Beck’s showbiz aspect, it makes sense that a big part of Mysterio’s plan is to get famous. In many ways that’s the goal in and of itself – maybe that’s the ???? in the plan I listed above, and maybe the attention and the profit are one and the same. Beck wants validation, and he’ll take it any way he can get it, even by being completely false. If that isn’t latter days of the 2010s vibes, I don’t know what is.

Which is one of the reasons I’m excited about the reveal in the mid-credits scene. Mysterio’s final victory (is it final? We never see Beck’s corpse being taken away. When a dude’s whole schtick is misdirection and illusion, you want to stay with his body until it’s loaded into the crematorium) is revealing Spider-Man’s identity to the world and framing him for all the destruction Beck caused. The attention that Mysterio wanted is transferred over to Spider-Man, and done so in a negative way; this iteration of Spidey has been uniquely Gen Z so far, and I think this opens the door to a whole new idea: the canceled superhero.

Of course Spidey as hated figure is a classic trope from the early days of the comic and, I think, one of the defining aspects of the character. I love seeing this come back as I think it’s incredibly important. Peter shouldn’t be able to escape into being Spider-Man in the way he has been able to so far; being Spidey should have its own sense of freedom and excitement, but it should also be a terrible burden for him. Making him best pals with Tony Stark was an interesting way of setting the new franchise apart from what came before, but returning him to his roots as the despised target of disinfo from J Jonah Jameson actually brings Tom Holland’s Spidey to where he needs to be.

One thing this iteration of Spidey has gotten exactly right from the start is the soap opera aspect. Spider-Man has always had a complicated life not only as the superhero but also as Peter Parker, and that life has been sprawling with secondary characters. FFH has a bunch of secondary characters, and they get their own little arcs. Some of these arcs are clearly about the trilogy – Flash Thompson gets left off in a position that I think will heavily inform what happens to him in the next movie – while some get arcs that work just within the confines of this film. Ned, in particular, gets a nicely contained (and cute, and against stereotype) love story that really feels to me like the kind of background storyline that would have happened in Amazing Spider-Man in the late 60s and early 70s – a love story that has nothing to do with Spider-Man or the villain in any meaningful way.

Then there’s the Peter/MJ storyline. I’ve loved this iteration of their romance, and the way it has tentatively budded over two films has been heartwarming and lovely. What’s especially nice in FFH is the way that MJ actually gets a little more space to be somebody; in this film we see that her sardonic, morbid exterior is really a suit of armor, and that she lets Peter in carries a lot of emotional weight for us. When these two get together – foregone as it may have been once we learned her initials – it really means something, and it is touching. 

Zendaya has snuck up on me – I mean, I knew she was Meechee, but did I know she had this depth? It’s interesting that she’s playing a disaffected high school student in FFH while playing a very different kind of disaffected high school student in Euphoria over on HBO; it feels like she’s cornered the market on this kind of character for her generation. That she can do it within the confines of the lightness of the MCU and the darkness of HBO only proves how good she is; I’m curious what her larger range is, but for now I’m happy to see her exploring this space as well as she is.

And Tom Holland – like I said, this is the Peter Parker. To quote Jesus Christ, “It is accomplished.” Holland is so good I want Disney and Sony to extend their deal for the next twenty years and I want to see him play Peter through college, young adulthood and eventually marriage. I want to go to the grave secure in the knowledge that somewhere out there Tom Holland is suiting up to play a 45 year old Peter Parker, getting back into the game to assist Miles Morales. I want him to have Hugh Jackman-like longevity in this role. 

He’s earned it, and in FFH he plays a lot of Peter’s growing maturity in ways that feel like growth, not sudden character change. The script is smart in how it approaches this stuff, and it hits some Parker classics – giving up EDITH is this franchise’s take on the “Spider-Man No More!” moment – while adding some new numbers to the canon. 

One of the ways that this movie tells us that Peter has learned a lot of lessons and that he’s stepping up to the next level – and that he’s more than the next Iron Man – happens in the final battle. Facing off against Mysterio’s swarm of drones, Pete stands in a Spider-Man costume he made in a portable Tony Stark gizmo, standing behind a makeshift shield and wielding a hammer-like mace. There, on the Tower Bridge (bridges: so important in pivotal Spider-Man moments!) Peter embodies the original three Avengers. Spider-Man has always been the face of Marvel Comics, always the most popular hero, but the storytellers have sometimes struggled to understand how to make Spidey work with that kind of profile in-universe. I think this image in this movie does everything you would ever want; while Spidey may not end up as beloved as the Avengers he stands there representing the best of them.

I think the big lesson Peter learns is about trust – both in himself and others. In many ways this is one of the hardest coming of age lessons to learn, figuring out how to trust people once you’ve had that trust betrayed. It’s really important to me that, after learning Beck scammed him, Peter is willing to open up to MJ about his secret life (and I think it’s really great that she Lois Lanes his secret ID). Learning about boundaries doesn’t mean erecting walls, it means being aware and mindful of in who you place your trust. 

That’s true maturity; there’s a version of this movie where Peter ends up more isolated and that’s called a Batman movie. But the Spider-Man version of it is always going to have that push-and-pull between a big, open heart and mistrust. There’s a lot of push-and-pull at the center of good Spidey stories – the push-and-pull between identities, the push-and-pull between Peter’s desire to be rid of responsibility and his almost pathological need to shoulder it, the push-and-pull between the funny and the deadly serious. This is what makes Spider-Man the most understandable of all the superheroes – he’s closest to you and me. He’s torn, and his greatest drama is always internal.

Holland gets that, and he plays it even as his Peter is perhaps the lightest and funnest of all the incarnations yet. He’s certainly the funniest, but he still has that gnawing self-doubt and itchy self-interest playing just below the surface. This is another reason why I want Holland to play this character for decades; I think he gets the battles that wage within Peter and he is able to get them across without playing the character as too emo or too goofy. 

I didn’t love the final post-credits sequence (although it adds a layer to Peter’s aloneness when he was in Europe), mainly because I legitimately don’t understand why Marvel is taking the Skrulls in this direction, but beyond that I walked out of Spider-Man: Far From Home elated and excited again about this cinematic universe that had begun to feel a little leaden to me. I enjoyed the hell out of Shazam! earlier this year, and I thought DC had out-Marveled Marvel with that one, but now with FFH Marvel returns to show everybody how it’s done. Not only is FFH a delight on its own, it proves that the shared universe has legs, that it can feed story and character rather than detract from it, and it really shows that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a specific place, no matter where in that universe you travel.
In Spider-Man: Far From Home Spidey never saved the world, but he did save the MCU.

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