Back in 2017, Spider-Man: Homecoming introduced Peter Parker to the sound of Spoon’s eternally catchy indie-rock anthem “The Underdog,” a song that slyly symbolized the idea of a friendly neighborhood superhero still looking to come into his own. Spider-Man: Far From Home opens, equally humorously, and no less significantly, on Whitney Houston’s platinum-coated cover of “I Will Always Love You” from The Bodyguard. It’s a choice cut, pulling triple duty as a slice of I Love the ’90s nostalgia, a tactically tacky tear-jerker, and a prompt for potentially genuine emotion.
As the song plays underneath a cheesy iMovie tribute to Tony Stark and the other casualties of Avengers: Endgame created by the grieving but aesthetically challenged students of Midtown High School, we are moved (at least theoretically) to contemplate a world—or an entire Cinematic Universe—without many of its marquee names, especially Robert Downey Jr., whose Photoshopped head shot seems to be smirking at the soundtrack. Later in the film, Peter comes into possession of a pair of technologically advanced sunglasses bequeathed by his mentor, whose code name, “E.D.I.T.H.,” is Tony’s acronymical joke from beyond the grave: It stands for “Even Dead, I’m The Hero.”
If the most enjoyable thing about the very enjoyable Homecoming was the self-reflexive interplay between Downey and star Tom Holland—with the older actor serving both inside the film’s narrative and meta-textually as a torch-passing father figure—the most ambitious aspect of Far From Home is its attempt to use the same dynamic as a structuring absence.
This is a deceptively load-bearing movie, tasked with the heavy lifting of depicting the post-post-apocalyptic fallout of Endgame, in which several billion vaporized souls were suddenly returned to their daily lives in media res, as well as remapping the narrative boundaries of the MCU. It doesn’t quite ace these assignments. While Endgame’s scene of Captain America counseling a room of grief-stricken survivors was a bit of a botch, it at least attempted some real gravitas. Far From Home shrugs off the wide-scale implications of billions of people coming back from the dead and doesn’t even let the experience faze Peter, who is locked into the same character arc as if the whole turning-into-dust thing didn’t happen.
Given the weirdly effortless appeal of Homecoming, which more or less successfully disguised its status as one more piece of interlocking product beneath a veneer of humility, I very much wanted Far From Home to keep the Spider-Man strand of Marvel’s experiment-slash-empire-building taut and strong. It doesn’t quite hold, though; not all the way through, and not in all the places that count, either.
At this point, saying that a Marvel movie features a strong, expert cast of actors doing their thing is both predictable and almost beside the point. Just like last time, the kids—not only Holland, but also Jacob Batalon’s goofy Ned, Tony Revolori’s hateful Flash, and Zendaya’s terse MJ (who is Mary Jane 2.0, if not in actual name than in spirit)—are more than alright. It’s a group worth spending time with, which is why the superficially twisty but deeply predictable adventure they’ve been shoved into is a letdown. Even within the very promising plotline of a high school class trip to Europe—a situation extremely conducive to relaxed hangout vibes—the movie never really gets a chance to breathe. It’s rushed and hectic where its predecessor had a lovely sense of pace.
The feeling of a pushy, elaborately stage-managed narrative is, admittedly, of a piece with what’s going on in Far From Home, which also introduces Jake Gyllenhaal as Quentin Beck, a.k.a. Mysterio, an interplanetary soldier whose square jaw is visible through his beard. Beck projects the kind of stoic heroism that Peter can’t quite conjure up, and which Parker admires, envies, and yearns for in Tony’s absence. In Homecoming, Peter’s desire to join the fray was his defining characteristic; now, he’s hesitant to step up (or, as Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury puts it via a literally Shakespearean aside, “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”).
Beck’s charisma is, of course, booby-trapped: Marvel’s plea to critics to not “spoil” the true agenda of Gyllenhaal’s character reeks of a weird disrespect for the audience’s intelligence. For anybody who didn’t read Spider-Man comics in the 1970s (or the ’80s, ’90s, 2000s, or 2010s) or who doesn’t have access to Google, it’s still pretty easy to guess that a guy named Mysterio is not what he seems, and that Beck’s self-servingly tragic tale about protecting Earth from voracious, vaporous invaders called the Elementals isn’t the whole story. Still, it’s possible to highlight the character’s flashy, narcissistic showmanship (he insists on his cape being perfectly ironed) without fully deconstructing it or resorting to spoilers. Let’s just say that the semiotics of superheroes—the vertiginous sense of disbelief they inspire in the faithful—is what Far From Home is ultimately about.
The casting of Gyllenhaal is especially witty, not only in light of rumors that he was once up for the role of Peter Parker, but also in the shadow of his indelible antihero act in Nightcrawler where, not content to simply cover the news, his character took measures to help make it.
As he’s entering his prime, Gyllenhaal has become a high-wire, daredevil actor, sometimes to a fault: He can set the tone of a movie or send it spinning out of control. He gives a shaded, entertaining performance here, but Beck just isn’t as good a foil for Peter as Michael Keaton’s Vulture was back in Homecoming—a movie whose big twist was actually surprising, all the more so for being hidden in plain sight. What made Vulture so compelling was his bristling sense of grievance, rooted in a resentment for Tony Stark that was legible subtextually as annoyance with the whole front-running Avengers brand (maybe that’s why I was sort of rooting for him). In the end, Homecoming came down to a teenage kid brawling with his girlfriend’s overprotective father on a deserted stretch of Coney Island—the intensity factor was high while the stakes were (relatively) low.
In Far From Home, Beck’s stories about planet-destroying monsters are utterly generic. Even if that familiarity is the point—a test of sorts for both the characters and the audience—it doesn’t make sitting through the efficient yet blandly choreographed action set pieces any more exciting. Nor does the admittedly funny staging of the biggest of the various mid-film revelations fully offset the ridiculousness (even by comic book movie standards) of the villain’s master plan, which ramps up the technocratic overkill of the Iron Man franchise to a near breaking point. (I would guess that no film in history has featured this many drones.) The endless pileup of remote-controlled drones and bespoke gadgets made me long for the stretch of Homecoming when Peter is forced to prove his worth without the benefit of his custom-fit Stark Industries suit.
On some level, all Marvel movies are built to be, if not director-proof, then auteur-resistant. I may be in the minority, but I didn’t think that Ryan Coogler (a terrific filmmaker) really managed to explode the template with Black Panther, while the Russo brothers—for all their delusions of Antonioni-ian grandeur—are clearly craftsmen working with massive resources rather than especially subversive or expressive artists. Jon Watts, who directed both Spider-Man movies (a gig he scored via the smartly engineered low-budget thriller Cop Car) doesn’t seem to have skyscraping stylistic ambitions, but he does get to flex a little more this time, with sequences trapping Peter in a series of audio-visually-enhanced hallucinations (again, Google “Mysterio” and try to act surprised).
These are fairly imaginative and kinetic scenes, but unfortunately for Watts, they can’t match the balletic abstraction of last year’s wonderful, fully animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a film with an authentically poetic sensibility, rather than one trying to graft a few trippy interludes onto something that otherwise looks and sounds like it rolled off the same high-end assembly line as a half-dozen other recent blockbusters.
Quality control is the name of Marvel’s game, and while its rewards are inarguable so are its pitfalls. I can’t remember who it was that said, a few years ago, that criticizing Pixar—not in the sense of putting the studio down, but trying to actually write critically about its output—was like attempting to analyze an aircraft carrier. An aircraft carrier is, by definition, massive, intricate, and flawless: it works, and it takes a lot of impossibly talented people to build one from scratch. An aircraft carrier is also probably not best understood as a work of art. That may sound harsh, but the fact is that, like Pixar (if not even more so), Marvel is in the aircraft-carrier business.
The Holland-era Spider-Man movies are swift and streamlined models with their own buoyancy, but their gleaming array of in-jokes, fan service, and only superficially risky deviations from their predecessors are all hallmarks of product rather than the stuff that dreams are made of. They’re likable, for sure. But the song isn’t called “I Will Always Like You,” is it?