No sooner than superhero-movie audiences have finished recovering from the three-hour marathon of Avengers: Endgame, Marvel Studios is shoving us all back into the shared universe. Entry No. 23 in Kevin Feige’s sandbox is Spider-Man: Far From Home, the second star outing for this century’s third live-action web-slinger (Tom Holland), and our first look at the MCU after the Great Unsnappening.
But where Endgame closed somberly, Far From Home swings back toward the frothiness that made its predecessor, Spider-Man: Homecoming, such a pleasurable near-diversion from the otherwise rigid confines of the Marvel series. Simply, Peter Parker and his friends are trying to have fun again and reclaim the teenage years lost when Thanos dusted them out of existence.
As contrivance would have it, most of Peter’s classmates (Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, Tony Revolori) from Homecoming shared his temporary fate, and thus are the same ages they were prior to Endgame’s five-year time jump. Still, Far From Home does offer a few looks at how civilization is recovering from what is now known in-universe as “the Blip.” Though a bit heavy with exposition, it’s often handled faithfully to its young characters’ membership in an extremely online, constantly live-streaming generation.
But hanging most heavily on Parker is the death of Tony Stark. Unlike his predecessors, who arrived at their Spider-statuses organically, Holland’s turn has been as Iron Man’s teen assistant. And without his cool, billionaire mentor, what’s a Spider-Man to do?
Once Parker and his classmates set off for their European tour, Far From Home starts to recapture some of Homecoming’s charm, resembling a high-school comedy from a bygone era. Many of the hallmarks are there: awkward seat assignments on the long flight to Venice, clueless chaperones (Martin Starr and J.B. Smoove), the class bully being an ugly American, and Peter crafting a sure-to-fail plan to win MJ’s (Zendaya) affection.
Of course, this being an MCU adventure, it can’t be a hangout movie for more than a few beats, and Spidey is promptly whisked away by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) so he can team up with Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), who flies and shoots lasers from his hands to defeat a quartet of monsters known as the “Elementals,” who might be from another dimension.
From there, Far From Home takes many of the same turns we’ve come to see nearly two dozen times since the MCU first booted up. Some characters are playing both sides, Peter screws around with Iron Man-level technology he can’t handle, and Fury diverts the school trip to accommodate the mission. And the choreography of the final battle shares a lot with the ending of Iron Man 3 — then again, no medium recycles as much as comic books.
Credit Marvel Studios for at least making it look fresh, then. Mysterio’s powers, when fully revealed, fill the screen in mind-bending fashion. As the latest A-lister to take a Marvel role (and paycheck), Gyllenhaal knows exactly when to ham it up. And Jackson, in what seems like his thousandth appearance in one of these movies, manages to bring something new to Fury, who despite a decade of bossing around Earth’s mightiest heroes, struggles to stage-manage a 16-year-old.
Even at its best though, Far From Home is just one more puzzle piece as Marvel barrels toward its next big team-up. And as difficult as it is to view this entry as its own story, it’s impossible to evaluate without acknowledging the glut of other Spider-Man content out there. As good as Holland is in the role (and he’s often great) the Tobey Maguire era still burns brightest for many. (There may even be a small contingent who hold a torch for Andrew Garfield.) A recent Playstation game gave Spider-fans an immersive trip through their hero’s world — with a pretty solid story to boot.
And then there’s last year’s Into the Spider-Verse, which popped out not just for its wondrous animation, but for making it a Miles Morales story, raising up the kinds of characters who give more people a chance to see themselves in a superhero tale. The MCU, even after the advents of Black Panther and Captain Marvel, can seem regressive by comparison. But Homecoming and Far From Home have at least done their part to push things forward by surrounding Peter Parker with a cast that looks like the kids who would attend a New York City public magnet high school in 2019.
Spider-Man plays best, though, when he’s operating on the friendly, neighborhood level. Unfortunately, there’s not much of that happening. Characters repeatedly refer to the Elementals as an “Avengers-level” threat, but with no Avengers available — some are dead, others simply fulfilled their contracts — the job falls to Spidey. The upshot is that the characters who tether Peter to the ground are relegated to either bookend roles, like in Aunt May’s (Marisa Tomei) case or Ned’s comic relief.
And all the Iron Man eulogizing becomes meta-commentary. A scene in which Peter and Tony Stark’s former driver Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) bond over their bereavement, while one of the movie’s best, feels just a bit like the MCU mourning itself for no longer having the services of Robert Downey Jr.
If I sound like I’m complaining, well, I am a little. It’s been a long Infinity War. Far From Home is actually the MCU at its most average, and I mean that as a compliment: Sure, it might have few memorable plot points, but it’s consistently fun, clever when it needs to be, and I’ll probably watch it a half-dozen more times when it hits a streaming service.