Dissecting 'Spider-Man: Far From Home' and Its Twists and Turns
[This story contains spoilers for Spider-Man: Far From Home.]
The following is a spoiler-filled conversation about Spider-Man: Far From Home between Hollywood Reporter contributors Simon Abrams and Steven Boone. As the latest satellite installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Far From Home takes place after both Spider-Man: Homecoming and Avengers: Endgame. In Far From Home, our hero Peter Parker (Tom Holland) joins love interest MJ (Zendaya) and BFF Ned (Jacob Batalon) on a school-chaperoned European vacation. Whilst in Venice, Peter fights one of four Elemental monsters with S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and new hero Quentin “Mysterio” Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal). Face front, true believers, 'cause here come the spoilers!
This Week In Heat Vision breakdown
Simon Abrams (aka personal assistant to J. Jonah Jameson): Mr. Boone, I don't understand your position on the latest comic book movie, and I would very much like to. How can it be that you, a grown-up with a life (i.e., not a comic book fan), mostly enjoyed Spider-Man: Far From Home while I, a C.H.U.D. in a T-shirt (i.e., a comic book fan), can take it or leave it? Like you, I enjoy most of Far From Home's teen comedy scenes. I also mostly agree with the New York Times’s A.O. Scott, who writes: "As is often the case with these movies, a smaller, livelier entertainment is nested inside the roaring, clanking digital machinery."
If anything, Scott goes too easy on Far From Home: things start to slip downhill as soon as Peter tries on Tony Stark's techno-sunglasses for size (they call in drone strikes!). Peter repeatedly tells Nick Fury that he's more of a "friendly neighborhood" Spider-Man, but man, remember when Peter rejected Tony Stark’s job offer at the end of Homecoming, but then became an Avenger anyway? As a wise man once said: it’s déjà vu all over again!
I can't stand Far From Home’s inevitable trudge toward a unified universe where things just happen for the sake of brand reaffirmation. I don’t care for this movie’s take on Gyllenhaal’s character or the way that much of the plot feels like a wake for Tony Stark, Omniscient Millionaire. And I’m also frustrated by the way that movie’s makers never went far enough in developing either their #FakeNews media critique or their cute, but effective Archie Comics-style rom-com jokes. That stuff went nowhere and very slowly.
Which leaves me with an expensive-looking Avengers tie-in. Instead of wielding a reasonable amount of superpower responsibly, Peter has to shimmy his already heavy head into a pair of Tony Stark’s ultra-destructo sunglasses (tellingly named E.D.I.T.H., a self-conscious acronym for “Even Dead I’m the Hero”). I'm sorry, but come again? Didn't we already have this argument about rich people and drones when The Dark Knight came out? (I love that movie on a storytelling level, but am not so high on its symbolism.) Why is the only thing that can stop a bad guy with earth-scorching technology a Spider-Man with more boom-boom tech? And when are you gonna jump on, I'm starting to hate the sound of my own voice.
Steve Boone (aka Flash Thompson’s older, wiser brother): Indeed, I am not a comic book fan, but that doesn't make me a grown man with a life. As a C.H.U.D. in a painter's cap/recovering Trekkie, I love outlandish fantasy as much as the next nerd. And it's on that basic level that I enjoyed Far From Great. Like Homecoming and much of the old Raimi Spider-Man saga before it, this film has fun treating the material as what it once/often was: lighthearted young adult fiction. The one comic book I collected as a kid was Spidey, but what lingers in memory this century is the daily Spider-Man newspaper comic strip. Four-panel snippets, mostly about Peter Parker's everyday life colliding with his deadly vocation. Much ado about MJ.
Far From Terrible got to me via MJ. Will Peter Parker get the girl — this gawky, charming-in-spite-of-herself girl? Of course he will, but the suspense lies in how he will fumble and break her heart while juggling his secret identity en route.
This Mary Jane also carries the movie's messages in a giant mail sack à la Keenen Ivory Wayans in Don't Be a Menace.... She's the cute conveyor of what, for you, might be the most irritating aspect of Far From Subtle: its hot takes on Fake News, DeepFakes, cyberwarfare, etc. MJ is a blasé conspiracy theorist, so woke, so cynical and adaptable to the Latest Reality that we recognize her as a Generation Z savant.
Yeah, whatever. Since the spectacle and drama beyond Peter's private life are about as believable as a Nollywood gunfight, MJ yawning at it all while mumbling her suspicions is the film's greatest production value. Watching her lose her cool around Peter (while Peter can't muster even a second of cool) is just sweet old-fashioned John Hughes stuff. The Gen-X kids in those movies didn't respect their elders (except for a wise, benevolent father here and there); the Gen-Z's in this film just don't believe their elders — or anyone peddling authority or truth. Only close friends and loved ones prove solid enough to trust.
After the screening, I learned that you appreciated this basic "Spider-Man and His Ordinary Friends" aspect of the film's first half. But what went wrong in the second half?
Abrams: During the second half of Far From Over, we get a schematic plot that I found to be so joyless and contrived that I could no longer suspend my disbelief. You hit the nail on the head with your John Hughes comparison, a pop culture reference that also speaks to what makes the movie’s first quarter work: Hughes knew how to structure a scene. Peter’s first rendezvous with Nick Fury is terrific because it's got the precision and zip of a great joke: if anybody else comes into Peter’s room, he and Nick are going to be attending a second funeral together. Same with the "boh" joke that MJ and Peter share: for a hot second, Peter seems to meet MJ on her too-cool-for-this-field-trip level.
I was never as impressed with the nuts-and-bolts craft of what happens once Quentin Beck takes Peter under his wing. Beyond this point, the plot seems to move for the sake of moving. Even the hallucination/dream sequence that Scott singles out — the one where Peter is overwhelmed by a waking nightmare of Spidey-centric guilt and anxiety — doesn’t move me beyond a point. Even the cutesy dialogue that Peter has with Happy Hogan (Jon “He’s So Money” Favreau) is too familiar and bland! Where’s the joy of Far From Home’s first quarter, and why does everything have to be fodder for such an underwhelming narrative formula?
I do, however, like the chemistry between Zendaya and Tom Holland. The vibe that these two actors share singlehandedly rescues the scene where MJ confronts Peter about his secret identity. It’s a sweet and awkward moment and it transcends the scene’s rote nature. I believed those kids and was with them. I can’t say the same once Far From Home drags viewers deeper into Tony Stark/Nick Fury/Quentin Beck territory, all of which feels like Marvel’s way of keeping everything — even one of several Spider-Man-related projects — pegged to the Avengers franchise.
Like Lou Gramm before me, I want to know what love is. What am I missing?
Boone: I doubt that you're "missing" anything. Maybe you just have higher expectations of this kind of film, the kind of hopes I used to hold out for summer movies — hope that Film X would retain a pleasing shape and, like a good meal, leave me sated but anticipating another plate upon the next craving. The last American fantasy film that delivered on that promise, for me, was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
(Like The Matrix, the last satisfying genre film before it, Crouching Tiger employed a lot of Hong Kong talent with decades of experience in crafting truly shapely scenes, sequences, set pieces and third acts. Incidentally, Hong Kong auteur Peter Chan beat A.O. Scott to describing the formula for blockbuster magnetism, nesting a little movie inside a big one.)
I was just happy the usual expensive-but-lousy CGI had legitimate motivation this time around: Mysterio's whole fraudulent enterprise depends on crappy holograms and his marks' Internet-addled attention spans. This movie is about the marriage of half-assed spectacle and a public that has seen everything but grasps very little. (I enjoyed the adorably, intentionally inept opening Whitney Houston-Windows MovieMaker ballad. Somewhere PT Anderson is grinning his face off.)
Yet the Superman IV chintziness of it all (including Mysterio's Party City-grade costume) is lovingly photographed. Per Marvel Studios usual, the lighting of actual people and surfaces is its own thrill. The effects are no more convincing than a Ray Harryhausen dinosaur and often nearly as charming. On the same hand, mere close-ups of Tom Holland flashing boyishly bright eyes get brilliant sheets of side light to match. There is a lilt and bounce to this film that I think little kids will groove to.
If you think of these Marvel Cinematic Universe films as overweight movie serials or TV series episodes, you'll grade them with less heartache. This one brought to mind the not-awful franchise ripoffs of my '80s youth, B-movies like the Indiana Jones-as-a-pirate flick Nate and Hayes. In Far From Clever's case, Marvel is ripping off itself. Whatever secures the bag — isn't that how the kids say it these days?
Abrams: I'm going to ignore your blasphemous Ray Harryhausen comparison and instead focus on the concept of lowered expectations. In my suitably grandiose opinion, only mediocre to lousy movies benefit from lowered expectations. Remember Bumblebee, the recent Transformers movies that many of our peers liked, partly because it was not another Michael Bay movie? I didn't like that one, either!
If anything, I feel like Far From Home benefits significantly from Marvel Studios' release strategy: after the imaginative, upbeat and generally superior Into the Spider-Verse, but also after the programmatic, apocalyptic and mostly fine Avengers: Endgame. First, they make us want more Spidey. Then, they ostentatiously close a chapter in one of the most drawn-out, undercooked, middle-managed cinematic super-sagas. Now it's time for summer vacation with Peter Parker and the gang. Sounds great, but why couldn't they just give me that movie instead of filling the post-Endgame hole in my heart (shhh) with a villain whose relationship to the last couple of films is hastily explained in an expository monologue that starts off as a joke at its own expense, and ends as a machine to deliver more contrivances.
I always want to love the Spider-Man movies because I love rooting for Peter Parker, Local Under-dog (Queens, what what!) as he tries to do right by his loved ones and also insinuates himself into a bizarre world populated by a lizard-person, a big-game hunter, and fishbowl-guy, too. I like Spider-man as a lightning rod for juvie melodrama.... I don't care for him as a tentpole for more impersonal Avengers movies.
I also don't care for a quarter-assed media critique or an insubstantial series of thrice reheated rom-com cliches: they're like an old married couple! And they can't decide what they want to be! And she's smarter than he thinks! OK, but, like, can you do something with those conventions other than rehashing them? Something? Anything? Going through the motions is only so interesting. You've got to give me something to go on beyond a promising start and a whole lot of whatever on the side.
I don't know, I guess I don't get how you, of all people, were kinda fine with Far From Home. Doesn't a movie have to succeed on its own terms? How did this do that for you?
Boone: My Ray Harryhausen comparison might just be a cry for help from a broken man. Perhaps 20 years of increasingly "drawn-out, undercooked, middle-managed" summer movies have broken me down. I think many of our critical peers have beaten me to this place. (Anyone who had a kind word for Bumblebee deserves our compassion and the appropriate behavioral health support group.)
I agree that the Mysterio detour/major plot point is a trifling waste of narrative resources that settles the question of whether Far From Netflix wants to be a movie or a TV show. The Mysterio-Stark grudge reveal firmly answers: TV! During that barroom staff meeting the film becomes a chatty, meticulous SNL-short version of itself.
As for the post-Endgame thread: it was inevitable, given how tightly Holland's Spidey was woven into the Avengers-Thanos saga. The filmmakers put Stark's tall shadow to thematic use as another generational dilemma: Peter has all the technology, no one suited to guide him, no context for the expectations Nick Fury and other perpetually pissed-off adults thrust upon him. If that ain't a complaint I've heard from many a Gen-Y and Gen-Z rookie, in whatever endeavor....
Mysterio's bitterness as a passed-over corporate Salieri may also resonate more with kids who suffer misplaced adult angst on a daily basis.
So I don't see the film's second half as all Avengers tie-in plot machine, as you suggest. When Peter finally defeats Mysterio, he's clearly as heartbroken as Kurt Russell was over Samuel Jackson's phony "Lincoln letter" in The Hateful Eight. He wanted Mysterio to be real.
And we wanted this film to glide and soar like Spidey through the Manhattan skyline. Disillusionment is this film's other major theme and production value.
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