Monday, July 08, 2019

"Spider-Man: Far from Home": review

[NB: some spoilers.]

Ryan George's cheerful, satirical takedown of "Spider-Man: Far From Home" (watch it here) describes the movie as "a thin mint after a big meal." "Far from Home" is supposed to be the actual end of Marvel Studios' "Phase III" of its multi-movie narrative. Phase IV will showcase some of the heroes we're familiar with, but it will also go in a much more cosmic direction, telling the stories of the great and ancient beings who populate Marvel's colossal comic-book universe. I doubt Phase IV is going to interest me very much, so my journey with Marvel's Cinematic Universe (a.k.a. the MCU) may soon be coming to an end. For whatever reason, Marvel chose not to end Phase III with "Avengers: Endgame," which places a huge burden on "Far from Home," a movie that is the equivalent of the pooper-scooper clown with the snow shovel to pick up horseshit during a parade. Or a thin mint after a big meal. "Endgame" was a tough act to follow, but "Spider-Man" somehow had to follow it.

Be that as it may, "Far from Home" performs its duty adequately, being a worthy summer tentpole film. Most of the cast from "Spider-Man: Homecoming" is back, as is director Jon Watts. New to the cast is Jake Gyllenhaal as Mysterio, an enigmatic hero who claims to be from an alternate Earth that has been destroyed by monsters called elementals. Mysterio has ended up on "our" Earth, also known as "Earth-616" (per the comic-book designation).

Spider-Man (Tom Holland) has returned to the land of the living after Thanos's "Blip" was undone by the Hulk and Iron Man in "Endgame." The disaster is known worldwide as "The Blip" because few people know that the actual triggering event was a snap of Thanos's fingers while he was wearing the Infinity Gauntlet. People restored to life after five years of being missing now find themselves in the awkward position of not having aged while those around them, the ones who survived the mass genocide, have not only aged but have also moved on with their lives. "Far from Home" only hints at the awkwardness and potential horror that a mass resurrection of the dead might cause, largely playing the return of all these dead people for laughs. The upshot for Peter Parker and his friends Ned (Jacob Batalon) and MJ (Zendaya) is that they're still sophomores, and the crushing reality of high school still weighs upon them. Luckily, Peter & Co. are part of a tour group headed for Europe, and Peter is hoping simply to take a break from his stressful life as a superhero and spend time with his friends. Peter has growing feelings for MJ, however, and one obstacle in his path to romantic bliss is Chinese-American classmate Brad Davis (Remy Hii), who used to be a scrawny runt, but who has spent his five years in puberty overdrive, having become a smoldering, muscular chick-magnet in the interim—but also a bit of a dick. Brad has set his sights on MJ as well.

Peter's liaison with the Avengers, security head Happy Hogan (the always-welcome Jon Favreau, who has directed several MCU films), seems to have begun some sort of relationship with Peter's Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). Hogan has also been trying to warn Peter to expect an important call from head of SHIELD Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), but Peter keeps sending Fury to voicemail. Aunt May tosses a banana at Peter's head while he's prepping for Europe, and he's so distracted that his spider sense fails to alert him to the banana. This foreshadows a problem Peter will have fairly soon in the story (Aunt May embarrassingly refers to the spider sense as "the Peter tingle"); it also serves as a callback to Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man 2," in which Peter Parker loses some of his superpowers when he suffers from crippling self-doubt.

The students head off to Europe (with Aunt May packing Peter's StarkTech Spidey suit in his suitcase at the last minute). In Venice, a giant water elemental rises out of the canals and begins wrecking buildings and attacking people. Mysterio (Gyllenhaal) suddenly appears, resplendent in his Thor-like armor and blasting magical energy out of his hands like Dr. Strange. Peter hollers to Mysterio that he can help out, and the two work as a team to defeat the elemental. Nick Fury, frustrated at Peter's refusal to answer his calls, meets Peter in Peter's Venice hotel room, and the two head to an underground hideout where they meet Mysterio and Fury's assistant Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders). Mysterio explains he's from an alternate Earth, and that the elementals that destroyed his world have now come to this universe to wreak the same havoc. Peter, having just lost mentor and father-figure Tony Stark, latches on to Mysterio—real name Quentin Beck—as a sort of big brother. As Beck and Peter work together to take down a fire elemental, their bond seems to grow, and the friendship reaches a point where Peter gives Beck a pair of StarkTech glasses that Tony Stark had bequeathed to Peter.

What happens next might constitute a huge spoiler, but because comic-book readers all know that Mysterio is one of the better-known Spidey villains, it's really no spoiler to say that Mysterio's objective, this entire time, has been to obtain those StarkTech glasses, which give the wearer full access to Tony Stark's entire stockpile of StarkTech weaponry. Beck, as it turns out, is a disgruntled ex-employee of StarkTech, a special-effects wizard who got fired when it became clear he was too mentally unstable to continue working for Tony Stark. Beck was the man behind the BARF (binary augmented retro-framing) technology that appeared in "Captain America: Civil War"—the tech that allowed Stark to replay his past memories as an externalized holographic projection for a whole audience to see. Peter, with help from MJ, discovers that Beck is a fraud: he's not from an alternate Earth, and these elementals are little more than holographic illusions that can create real damage through swarm-capable, weaponized StarkTech drones. Beck, the unhinged illusionist, wants to be recognized as a hero while bamboozling the world.

The rest of the movie is about how Peter tries to keep his friends, teachers, and classmates out of danger while wrestling with multiple desires and obligations: his romantic feelings for MJ, his need to defeat Mysterio, and his efforts at finding the balance between being a superhero and being a normal teen—all while preserving his secret identity so that none of his loved ones can ever be in danger.

Jon Watts still has a lot to learn about directing fight scenes; he doesn't seem to have evolved much from the previous "Spider-Man" movie, which means the fights against the elementals tend to showcase a great deal of confusingly swooping camera work punctuated by gusts, flares, eddies, and explosions. This is especially true of the action sequence in Prague. Watts is much better with character-related elements: "Spider-Man: Far from Home" works well as a typical 1980s-era high-school comedy. The movie is well paced and well scripted, with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments (as usual, I was often the only one laughing in a theater packed with Koreans who had to rely on dodgy subtitles to get what was going on). The budding romance between Peter and MJ is cute and wholesome and refreshingly un-cynical—the polar opposite of a movie like 1995's "Kids."

As a villain, Mysterio is something of a mixed bag. Being a disgruntled StarkTech employee puts him in the same league as many of the human villains in the MCU: Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) from 2008's "Iron Man," Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) from "Spider-Man: Homecoming," the Vanko family in "Iron Man 2," etc. Mysterio also continues the MCU tradition of making Tony Stark the cause of everyone's troubles: Mysterio's holography is his own design, but the swarming murder-drones are all StarkTech. I didn't find Mysterio as compelling of a villain as Adrian Toomes had been, but at the same time, the way in which Mysterio ended up fighting Spider-Man was very much in the spirit of the comic books: Mysterio's gift is the ability to make a person doubt reality. Peter is only able to combat the assaults of Mysterio's illusions by digging deep within himself and rediscovering his... Peter tingle. Whereas the fight scenes involving the elementals were filmed in a sloppy and confusing manner, the almost metaphysical fight scenes involving Mysterio were among the best moments in the movie.

Unfortunately—as Ryan George notes in his satirical skewering—the most memorable parts of "Spider-Man: Far from Home" come during the mid-credits and post-credits scenes. The mid-credits scene presents Spider-Man with his greatest challenge yet while also heralding the return of a much-beloved character from the Sam Raimi era, and the post-credits scene makes you rethink everything you just saw in the main part of the film while also providing a tie-in with the recent "Captain Marvel."

All in all, "Spider-Man: Far from Home" does what it sets out to do: it entertains you without being all that memorable. In spirit, the movie has much in common with an episode of "Scooby Doo," in which the villain always turns out not to be supernatural. Quentin Beck's rather pedestrian motivations put him in the same silly, frustrated camp as Syndrome from "The Incredibles"—a villain who wants to seem a hero. But because Beck is an illusionist, and because the movie provides sly hints that things are not what they seem, Beck's ultimate fate may be in doubt, and this has been confirmed by the online commentary over whether Mysterio is, by the end of the movie, truly gone. So let's give "Far from Home" credit for being savvier than it first appears, even though, in the end, it's light entertainment at best.

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