In 2017, I was a bit unkind I think, to Spider-Man: Homecoming. Perhaps it was a mixture of a terrible theatrical experience, an uncomfortable seat, and other outside influences. Then I watched it at home again on a quiet Friday night, and realized what a fool I had been. The initial solo outing for Tom Holland‘s Peter Parker was an absolute delight, and one of the very few of the MCU’s franchise outings that played better on the small screen. Maybe it’s the charming teen comedy approach, or the smaller scale of it all, or the way Holland plays Peter Parker like Marty McFly. All of these wonderful elements found themselves combining in a second viewing in a way that just hit me perfectly. I suddenly got it, and just in time for its sequel, Spider-Man: Far From Home. Let me give you an easy place to hit the ejector switch if you want to venture no further. Far From Home is among the MCU’s best efforts and, taken in concert with the previous film, elevate it to the top tier of the Studio’s solo franchises.
But to dig into the whys and hows, we need to talk about Mysterio.
Mysterio aka Quentin Beck, has long been my favorite Spider-Man related character. I’m sure it was the fishbowl head, or the cape with the eyes designed into its clasps. But I was always fascinated with this villain and scoured quarter bins trying to find comics that he appeared in. To my mind, he’s the finest of many immaculate Steve Ditko designs. And in Spider-Man: Far from Home, he makes his big debut. Played by Jake Gyllenhaal, its a complete re-conceptualization of the villain. This time, he’s actually a hero! Specifically, a traveler from a parallel universe whose earth was destroyed by a group of element-based beings called (what else?) Elementals. In order to stop them from threatening our own world, the first Earth 616 reference by the way, he teams with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), who in turn have few options to join their crusade: and so they turn to Spidey!
The suitably gaudy dimensional hopper plays a bit of a mentor role to Peter, with the younger webslinger struggling after the loss of Tony Stark after the events of Endgame. This new hero, seemingly rather established on his own world, steps in to give Peter guidance, not only in how he can step up to fill the void left in Stark’s absence, but even in his romantic life. There’s an incredible meta-angle there, particularly when one considers that Gyllenhaal almost became Spider-Man during the Raimi days. Even when he and Peter are having heart to hearts in a bar, there’s an element of of it that sounded like an older Peter talking to a younger one. A happy accident surely, but one that’s nice to appreciate. But those two advisory points serve as the fulcrum of Peter’s struggle throughout the film.
Before leaving for his class trip to Europe, Peter plots with his pal Ned (Jacob Batalon) about how he’ll finally confess his feelings for MJ (Zendaya). The barriers in his way, including a romantic rival who has 5 years on Peter thanks to Thanos’ snap, form one half of Far From Home’s highly effective emotional core. The underlying theme is really hammered home in a parting gift – some very cool high tech shades – given to Peter by the now departed Stark. They come with a note that basically passes on the role of “the next Tony Stark” to Peter. While everyone else is dealing with the effects of “The Blip”, as Thanos’ snap is publicly known, Peter is basically having his MCU on-screen Uncle Ben moment with Tony’s loss. He’s redefining himself a bit as a hero in a similar fashion, particularly the growing sense of responsibility that follows in the wake of filling Tony’s shoes. That there’s a scene with Iron Man director Jon Favreau (back as a goateed Happy Hogan) sewing Spider-Man up and basically prepping him for his greater role in things is not at all lost on the audience.
Before I drown in the thematics of it all, it must be emphasized that Far From Home is a blast. As funny as Homecoming and turning up the dial on all those things you loved about that one, while also focusing itself on character first and foremost, something that occasionally gets lost in all the strum and drang of the MCU’s machinations. Sure, the actual European trip isn’t much more than window dressing – and the audaciousness of a trip of that nature existing during your high school years aside – but it allows for some really nicely put together action beats. The thrill of watching Holland skitter and dance around on Venetian rooftops, and swing around a Praha carnival, all in support of this new, immensely powerful hero, is exhilarating stuff. Plus, I wouldn’t trade J.B. Smoove and Martin Starr‘s teachers turned trip chaperones for the world.
While much has been said about the pre-planning of Marvel’s second unit where their action sequences are set, either they or director Jon Watts, perhaps both, have grown from some of the slight pitfalls of their last outing. The battles with the Elementals are centered into generally smaller spaces, and play a bit better to the inherent skillset of Spider-Man: many walls to climb, fewer wide open spaces. And much of the problematic “rubber man” effect that has always been so prominent in these movies has been minimized. I guess when he’s not swinging around giant skyscrapers, it’s easier to focus as much as possible on the actual weight and physical density of the character. Plus, whoever is responsible for the brilliant display of Mysterio’s abilities towards the backhalf needs a raise. It might be my favorite MCU moment of all time.
It’s hard to topple Thor: Ragnarok as the best film of the MCU, but it sure comes close. It furthers Peter’s journey, gives you firm glimpse of the post-Endgame status-quo, provides a canvas for Peter’s charming friends, and introduces a brand new vibrant character into the MCU.
By the way, make sure you stay through the entire credits. It’s so very, very worth it this time around.