This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Jeremy’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
If there's one thing Marvel Studios has proven themselves incredibly adept at over the years (it's a lot more than just one thing, but work with me here folks), it's probably the rarest and most sought-after skill in our current blockbuster landscape: the ability to craft enjoyable, event-status fare that audiences keep coming back to again and again.
Somewhere along the way, though, I can't help but wonder if this skill turned into something more closely resembling a sleight-of-hand trick. Characters seem consistent enough with where we saw them last, the intricate connections to previous MCU adventures feel increasingly more creative and unexpected, and every emotional beat just plain lands - especially among big opening weekend crowds. But somehow, I'd argue this latest batch of movies doesn't quite measure up or feel as effective as they used to; almost like a Skrull impersonating a well-known hero, acting just differently enough to set them apart from the real thing.
To that end, Spider-Man: Far From Home marks the fifth MCU installment in a row that's left me cold and distant in a way even the poorer efforts in the past steered clear of, and I could easily trace this trend back to the majority of films released post-Age of Ultron. So what gives?
I don't think it's happenstance that Jon Watts' sequel to Homecoming feels endemic of many of the issues plaguing the MCU throughout much of its Phase Three. At the top of the list would have to be a relatively new emphasis on heat-of-the-moment thrills, ones that come at the expense of any sort of steady bricklaying involved in actually building up to those crowd-pleasing, usually gif-able scenes practically begging to go viral on Twitter. I'm talking about the infamous "Girl Power" empowerment moment in Avengers: Endgame - consisting of a handful of heroes who've rarely so much as said a word to one another in the previous ten years but arbitrarily come together in the final battle for their big corporate feminist statement all the same - just as much as I'm talking about Peter Parker's trip down Mysterio's mind-bending rabbit hole of illusions late in Far From Home.
Objectively cool. Legitimately next-level action. Stunningly evocative, unabashedly bold sequences that I can only imagine must be like watching comic book panels come to life.
Yet as true as all that might be, it only serves to highlight its hollowness. After walking around the first act as little more than a detached, vaguely charming blank slate, supposed hero Quentin Beck is revealed to be a wannabe impersonator. Working with a highly-motivated group of castoffs, Beck's seeming acts of heroism are exposed as a sham. His impressive battles are only drone-assisted sound and fury, his superpowers and supervillains only illusions. *
But hang on - what does any of this have to do with Peter Parker as a character, whether it be his identity crisis and PTSD following Tony Stark's death in Endgame or his perpetual struggle to balance civilian life with superheroics? Well, your guess is as good as mine.
Sure, the film does make half-hearted stabs at setting up Beck as a quasi-replacement father figure (in fairness, his one-on-one talks with Peter are some of the sequel's most enjoyable scenes), but that pesky 'blank slate' business keeps rearing its ugly head and robs their burgeoning dynamic of any actual substance. Without knowing a single thing about this Mysterio aside from his purposefully obfuscated backstory, it's mostly just left to audiences to daydream about how awesome it would be for Jake Gyllenhaal to be our dad for the day (for the record, this would be EXTREMELY awesome) as a substitute for what should've been a rich and dynamic relationship.
But the entire idea of using fancy VFX illusions in the first place as a tool for supervillainy? As an extension of any sort of attempt at underlying theme tying together the ideas of manipulation-for-profit with Peter's own personal conflicts at this stage of his life? Some mildly amusing dialogue towards the end hangs a lampshade on the idea of Peter wrestling with lies and deceptions while struggling to keep his identity a secret, but that's played as a cheap joke (and is paid off in, of all things, a mid-credits scene rather than within the movie itself) and proves to be as baked-in to his emotional journey as the legacy of the late Uncle Ben is baked-in to his gifted nephew's arc by this point. Which is to say, not at all. **
Hell, Mysterio's ultimate grudge doesn't even have much of anything to do with Peter Parker either. Like everything else with this iteration of Spider-Man, it all inevitably comes back to Tony Stark; in this case, his co-opting of Beck's memory-recreating invention from early in Captain America: Civil War and bruising his ego in the process sets Beck on a path where he would one day stage elaborate ruses in a gullible post-Thanos world to fool everyone into thinking he's a superhero just so, uh, he could get Tony's tech back? So he could continue doing what he's already been doing so successfully, only on a larger scale? To what end? Yeah, I don't know either.
But even in death, Iron Man's penchant for creating new enemies wherever he goes and whatever he does lives on, and with his own misguided death comes the added responsibility for those left behind to have to clean up his messes. And no, before you get your hopes up, that potentially tantalizing thread isn't ever so much as hinted at in this story either. Casting a shadow of doubt on his martyr status and forcing some introspection over just how complicated a legacy Stark left behind? That would involve a perspective far more genuinely interested in the ramifications of the events in Endgame, something this Spidey sequel is sorely equipped to handle beyond rote superficiality.
Along the same lines, Far From Home falls into the exact same trap that befell the last four films before it - tunnel vision. ***
In other words, think of it as the one major failure in a film's priorities that results in a cascading effect, muddying up what these stories really want to be about in the first place (if anything) and why we should continue to care about them beyond their fidelity to the comics or our own sense of obligation.
Here, it's most prevalent in how Watts and his writers approach Peter's relationship with his 'ordinary' life. As a movie far more concerned with Spider-Man than the kid behind the mask, it's already at a disadvantage in terms of creating a personal world that's legitimately at risk of coming to blows with Peter's superhero adventures - in spite of so much of the film's narrative gears telling us that we should be concerned by how much the threat of the mysterious (Mysterio-s? I'm sorry) Elementals interferes with the class trip to Europe and Peter's oft-stated goal of simply wanting to get closer to MJ. Outside of his best friend Ned Leeds, whose romantic escapades with Betty Brant just might be the highlight of the entire for me, no supporting character gets the benefit of interiority to define themselves apart from Peter. Not Aunt May and her bare-bones fling with Happy Hogan, not Flash Thompson as Peter's reimagined bully, and certainly not Brad Davis, Peter's afterthought of a rival for MJ's affections.
Worst of all, however, not even Zendaya's MJ can avoid falling victim to this disconnect. Compared to the very real sacrifices constantly made by Tobey Maguire's Peter over the course of Sam Raimi's trilogy or the very real threat of loss and self-doubt constantly hounding Shameik Moore's Miles Morales throughout Into the Spider-Verse, the only tangible sense of responsibility and stakes this version of Spider-Man can muster up is . . . the occasional botched meet-cute with his crush; a crush that's clearly meant to blossom into full-fledged romance, yet one that's never given a single reason for existing beyond the mere fact that, well, MJ and Peter are an item in the comics so they should probably be one here too.
The crippling myopia at the heart of Far From Home, then, is its inability to give even the barest hint of depth to anyone outside of Peter Parker. And Peter, too, ends up being done a disservice as we've now watched two entire movies that claim to be about Spider-Man learning to establish himself apart from Iron Man and the Avengers . . . yet repeatedly ping-pong back to the same old ground of how profoundly indebted he is to Iron Man and the Avengers. ****
I could go on about this film's steadfast refusal to engage with real-world issues - like when out of nowhere, Flash (a Latino from a family of financial means) arrogantly bullies Peter (a white male from a considerably less well-off single guardian household) about their class differences early on, gets put in his place by MJ (an African-American) . . . and then the topic simply never comes up again, aside from a passing remark by Beck performatively raging against Tony Stark's wealth later on. Or about the copious use of drone warfare that, while flirting with the idea that it's maybe too much power for a 16-year-old to be saddled with (though it also seems to be speaking out of both sides of its mouth by implying that Peter has always been worthy of such a 'gift', if only he had the self-confidence to accept it?), Far From Home fundamentally never takes a stand on critiquing Tony's apparent idea to leave this behind as part of his legacy in the first place. Or hey, what about the one time the script decides to step foot in a political arena even vaguely similar to our own, only to promptly spend that bullet on a Peter Parker "fake news" joke about the trustworthiness (or lack thereof) of the press?
But as irritatingly empty as they are, those specific issues are rendered as mere footnotes compared to the larger concerns here. We already know why the Marvel Cinematic Universe usually errs on the side of safe and apolitical when it can get away with it, after all.
What's really worth discussing is how and why the MCU has found itself at a point where it's become willing to trade in all the hard work previously put into earning every iconic moment (think of all the heavy-lifting the very first Avengers had to do early on to make its final act sing the way it did, or Iron Man and The First Avenger laying the groundwork for a decade of audience investment in two heroes previously deemed too silly to ever become pop culture stalwarts) in favor of fleeting moments of "cool" that, while gloriously comic-booky, nonetheless shatters into a million cynical pieces when placed under the slightest scrutiny. Not to mention the recent, frankly insidious habit of avoiding making these latest movies about anything meaningful, instead settling for an inoffensive existence as another cog in the machine.
Knowing me, I'll probably be singing a different song once James Gunn wraps up his Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy. I'm sure I'll be a curious onlooker when the rebooted Fantastic Four and X-Men make their grand appearances in the MCU. But deep down, I'll always feel that something went horribly awry once this saga shifted into Thanos-mode.
There's no going back to how things were though, as we're told the MCU's post-Snap world is still struggling to accept, and it's probably well past time I came to terms with that too.
* Unfortunately, this was my first hint that Far From Home was working under misguided priorities. Saving Quentin Beck's big villainous reveal for a last-minute plot twist isn't a bad inclination in and of itself, to be fair, but the problem lies in whether this twist enriches everything we saw before and forces us to recontextualize previous assumptions . . . or whether it simply serves as shock to audiences and the characters for the sake of it.
And unlike the truly inspired bombshell from Homecoming, that the father of Peter's crush Liz Allen was actually the unhinged Vulture we'd been following all along - a reveal that brought Peter's double-lives crashing into one another in spectacularly tense fashion, while also forcing us to reconsider everything Adrian Toomes has been fighting for up to that point - learning the true nature of Quentin Beck/Mysterio comes across as a pale imitation of that first successful twist, only with far less significance or thematic relevance attached this time around. It certainly doesn't help that the reveal itself rapidly devolves into one of the most egregious and clunky "Character informs other characters of information they already know, solely to catch up audiences" exposition dumps in recent memory.
In cases like this, it's valid to question if such a critical turn was worth dropping on unsuspecting audiences out of nowhere purely for the shock value, or whether staging an early reveal and allowing dramatic irony/tension to run its course while viewers anticipate the other shoe to drop would've been more effective.
** There's a moment during one of Mysterio's funhouse-esque hallucinatory sequences where he strings along a helpless Peter with illusion after illusion and ultimately leaves him by a gravestone. I immediately got chills at this point, though for slightly different reasons than were likely intended. After being impressed by how thoroughly a Marvel movie finally embraced non-literal storytelling, especially through action (in which Age of Ultron and Black Panther are really the only notable examples), for the briefest of seconds, I actually became excited at the thought that this would be revealed to be Uncle Ben Parker's final resting spot. I mean, imagine Beck using Stark's infinite resources at his disposal to REALLY hit this teenage punk where it hurts and traumatize him into submission with the reminder of his first and greatest failing. What would be more perfect than Beck throwing Peter's ingrained guilt right in his face at this most critical of moments? Well, turns out the gravestone belonged to none other than the MCU's official Uncle Ben proxy - Tony Stark. Because of course it did. As someone who didn't really mind the emphasis on Iron Man in Homecoming, Far From Home somehow manages to take it to a whole new extreme.
*** Let's go through the list of previous single-minded offenders:
Infinity War is swallowed up by its insistence on positioning Thanos as the 'main protagonist' at the cost of all else, shunting the actual Avengers off to the side as an underutilized cast of supporting roles.
Ant-Man and the Wasp, a film supposedly about the mother/daughter bond between Janet and Hope van Dyne, bizarrely forgets to include their actual relationship - and along with it, any reason for us to actually care - beyond a bare-minimum flashback early on.
Captain Marvel is too busy obsessing over power levels and making a definitive feminist symbol to bother giving Carol Danvers any semblance of a personality [insert Lindsay Ellis' thread here]
And Endgame? Endgame takes the concept of tunnel vision to new heights as it refuses to deal with the events of the momentous Snap in any real way, instead focusing on wacky time travel shenanigans that mistakes fan-service for pathos and an inert final battle with a version of Thanos who has no cause to fight and no connection whatsoever with any of our heroes.
**** In case you're wondering, this is where I admit that I don't quite buy into the narrative that the common complaints about MCU Spider-Man mostly amounting to "Iron Man Jr" have somehow, once and for all, become debunked with this movie. Here's why: after a series of on-the-nose but meaningless parallels to Iron Man 3, the real kicker comes when a lost and desperate Peter places a call to his get-out-of-jail-free card, Happy Hogan, complete with his fancy Stark jet and fancy Stark-funded Spidey suits. It'd be bad enough if we were only treated to a painfully obvious reenactment of Tony building his first Iron Man suits, but Far From Home goes several steps further - to punctuate their pep-talk about removing the weight of expectations that comes with trying to be "the next Iron Man", we get an AC/DC needle-drop. You know, to really ram home the idea that Peter Parker is, uh, most definitely his own person altogether and doesn't owe his entire existence to Tony Stark? This sorry display is merely the most obvious of several instances where the film tells us over and over again that it's about one thing, but ends up showing us something very, very different.