You’ll see, Peter. People need to believe. And nowadays . . . they’ll believe anything.
After the magnificent one-two punch of Infinity War/Endgame, one would be forgiven, or, well, let’s just be frank, I should be forgiven for wondering if another Spider-Man movie was going to really cut it as a continuation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Well, forgive me and let’s move on, because what we have with Spider-Man: Far From Home is one of the savviest, most self-aware films in the entire MCU, a movie that I love even more with each passing day. It’s a movie about all the things that make up the MCU: heroic star-power, dazzling special effects, a credulous audience, sentimental nostalgia and the way the smartest people in the room use those things to gain power and control.
The story is simple enough at first glance. Still struggling with the death of Tony Stark, Peter Parker decides to set Spider-Man aside for a while, but when a new hero shows up from another dimension, chasing threats from that dimension, Peter finds himself back on the front lines. Watts has improved on Homecoming in basically every way, and I didn’t even hate Homecoming. Just on a basic filmmaking level, Watts has gotten far more comfortable directing action; the climactic plane scene in Homecoming was one of the worst, least coherent action sequences in the entire MCU, but here Watts feels confident enough to stage just about every action scene in broad daylight and it works. Tom Holland gives his best performance as Spider-Man yet; he’s still the struggling kid, but he’s working toward something big: learning to trust himself even as he has to face that trusting himself has led to mistakes in the past. A late scene with Holland and Jon Favreau, also probably giving his best MCU performance, is quiet and filled with grief, but not in a melodramatic way, but in a way that feels real and understated and ultimately leads to a place of hope and confidence. Jake Gyllenhaal is pitch perfect as Mysterio; more about that later. Zendaya is better than in Homecoming and used in a much better way. It’s also good to see Angourie Rice, who really stole the show in Shane Black’s The Nice Guys, given more to do; she carries it off with aplomb. Jacob Batalon, Tony Revolori (given a bit of extra development here), Martin Starr & J.B. Smoove are all excellent in supporting roles. And then there’s that cameo . . . you know the one . . . don’t spoil it please. I had it spoiled and I so wish I hadn’t. Let’s just say that’s brilliantly handled. If there’s a gripe on a superficial level, it would definitely have to be that Marisa Tomei’s vivacious and charismatic Aunt May is once again basically sidelined, used not much better than she was in Homecoming and that was really poorly. I mean, once again, she does a lot with a little, but why have someone this absolutely delightful if you’re barely going to use her?
But let me get to the reasons I really love this movie. I was just a bit thrown off at the beginning by just how heavily Tony Stark loomed over this movie. At least the other casualties get a brief “Getty Images” tribute video at the beginning, but Tony Stark’s Iron Man is a near constant presence at times. It was only later in the film that I realized just how smartly the filmmakers here had made Peter Parker an audience surrogate and the way he goes through his experiences with Mysterio a double of the movie-going experience. Like Peter, we’re used to having the image of Tony Stark loom over us, from posters and billboards and movie screens and, like Peter, we’re looking for the next guy to take his place. Jake Gyllenhaal arrives right on cue and his dashing, charming heroic image is exactly that of the next big MCU hero; it’s only at about the half-point of the film that we realize that he’s been manipulating Peter in just about every way, in just the same ways he’s been manipulating us. You think he doesn’t know how dashing the cape is or how much the beard makes him look like Tony Stark? He knows and he’s self-consciously working to get into that avuncular mentor space that Tony once occupied for Peter. What the film also explodes is the entire notion of celebrity and stardom; it takes, as we later see, an entire entourage of people to maintain the illusion surrounding this one celebrity, as it does in real life. Gyllenhaal’s puncturing his own charming screen image here, but he’s also lampooning the diva director who knows what he needs to provide to get an adoring audience (explosions, special effects, big spectacle), but still wants his own spin on it. “I’m not in love with the choreography,” he sighs at one point while overseeing the creation of a big set-piece action scene. The way this all plays into the central themes of the truth versus manipulated illusion is pitch perfect, and, while this is a meta-commentary on the movies/entertainment industry, it feels absolutely of its moment as well in this era of ever increasing propaganda and political performance art. Would that Mysterio’s lines would inspire at least a little self-reflection in the audience about how easily we buy into pre-packaged narratives. A little far-fetched? Maybe. But then again, there’s that wonderful head fake with the Multiverse and, while it may seem like a throwaway gag, it’s actually an important moment. Weren’t we all just as excited as Peter was when Mysterio revealed that there was a Multiverse? So eager to believe what we WANT to believe. And among my friends the reaction to the revelation that we’d been conned by that, even those of us who knew Mysterio was ultimately going to be a villain, was a kind of sheepish chagrin. The movie puts one over on us, just like it does Peter, and going there was a brilliant stroke. We’re all primed to believe in a Multiverse, ready to see it and ready to be entertained by it.
So, all in all, I think this is one of the smartest movies the MCU has given us to date and one of the few that comments in a really powerful way on the pertinent issues of the time. And it doesn’t skimp on the entertainment either. The smartest guys in the room are still killing it. 4 stars.
tl;dr – one of the smartest of the MCU movies is thematically compelling and brilliant; improves on Homecoming in every way: performance, style, tone and ideas. 4 stars.