A hat’s just a hat – until it isn’t. Wave a magic wand over it, stick your hand in, and you might find a rabbit. The hat’s ordinariness obscures the magic.
Director Jon Watts may not be a magician by trade, but in “Spider-Man: Far from Home”, he proves surprisingly adept at pulling something out of the nothing that is the homogenized cookie-cutter world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I didn’t think that the eighth film with the name “Spider-Man” in the title would have anything new to add to this story or this genre, but leave it to Watts to pleasantly surprise me.
Watts also directed 2017’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming”, Peter Parker’s debut in the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe. Per the norm for these MCU films, “Homecoming” was a just fine script elevated by performances from seasoned professionals like Michael Keaton and Marisa Tomei and fresh-faced newcomer Tom Holland. It was a solid product that blended in effortlessly with the other MCU films – so much so that Gwyneth Paltrow didn’t even realize she was in it.
Paltrow’s confusion illustrates the major problem with these MCU films- their interchangeability. I hate the phrase “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all”, but in the case of these Marvel films, the cliche holds true. They all follow the same stock formula: Punches, quips, pseudoscience and abdominal muscles.
In the early going, “Far from Home” seems to follow the same tried-and-true formula: While on a “science field trip” in Europe where alarmingly little science is happening, Peter Parker is recruited by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to fight “elementals” – creatures made of water, fire, wind etc.
The film has a few interesting ideas from the get-go with Watts giving Parker some mild PTSD following the events of “Avengers: Endgame”, a much more bloated and decidedly less enjoyable superhero movie. Parker insists he isn’t cut out for this superhero stuff anymore.
“I’m just a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man,” Parker tells Fury.
“Bitch please! You’ve been to space!” Fury replies.
The joke hints at one of the great pleasures of the film’s script: its deconstruction of the whole MCU mythos. As the series has evolved, things have gotten considerably weirder in the MCU what with all the talking raccoons, supreme sorcerers and world-ending finger snaps going around. Parker’s poor classmates, like the average MCU viewer, are a little lost at this point.
“It’s been a long, dramatic, somewhat confusing road,” one of Parker’s classmates says. And indeed it has.
So nobody really asks any questions when Quinton Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal) shows up claiming he’s from an alternate-reality earth. Because, really, how is that stranger than a tri-syllabic tree man at this point?
But Beck, it turns out, is just an out-of-work holographic illusions specialist looking to make his mark on the world. He knows the world is desperate for a hero and will believe anything in order to get one. So he conjures up a few fake villains and a cool costume for himself and gets to work.
“These days, you can be the smartest man in the room, the most qualified, and no one cares,” Beck says. “Unless you’re flying around with a cape, or shooting lasers from your hands, no one will ever listen. Well, I’ve got a cape and lasers… And everyone will listen.”
There’s something kind of refreshing about a superhero film where the stakes are this low and where the true villains are lies, misperception and ego and not a giant purple alien. Watts makes “Far from Home” a film about fake news, fearmongering and the power of belief. For a film that could have easily been a paycheck movie for him, you have to admire his ambition.
A lot of the credit has to go to scriptwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, both veterans of the MCU, for playing with the house formula. It’s also easy to appreciate their genuinely funny script, which gives some great moments to Jackson, Tomei and especially Martin Starr and J.B. Smoove as the school trip chaperones.
For all its clever subversions of the MCU formula, “Far from Home” (rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some language and brief suggestive comments) follows it pretty closely. There is still a proliferation of punches, quips, pseudoscience and abdominal muscles. Diehard MCU fans will love it, but those who haven’t fallen under Marvel’s spell at this point probably never will.
At over two hours, “Far from Home” drags a bit, and like most Marvel films, it seems to be stretched a little thin by the time the credits roll. Marvel, as always, seems to prefer style over substance.
But, eight films in, the “Spider-Man” franchise shouldn’t be nearly as fresh or as funny as it is in “Far from Home.” You can argue whether the world really needs a ninth Spider-Man film (already scheduled for 2021), but with Watts, McKenna and Sommers at the helm, the idea seems almost palatable.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.