This review was originally published last month. We are republishing the piece as the film hits theaters this weekend.
After the momentous finale of Avengers: Endgame, some Marvel fans will feel let down by the soft, spoofy opening of Spider-Man: Far From Home and the generic events of the first hour. The film is amusing in a PG, teen-action-comedy way, but after a fire monster erupts from the bowels of Prague and a wobbly Peter Parker (Tom Holland) watches from the sidelines as a more mature, authoritative superhero dubbed Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) saves the city, you might think, “Is that all there is?” Peter has been a bit of a drag to that point, blowing off Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to pursue a relationship with M.J. (Zendaya) on a school trip to Europe. He has trouble telling her that he, you know, likes her, as she has trouble telling him that she, you know, likes him — and all that mooning and stammering seems mighty low-stakes next to, you know, resurrecting half the population of the galaxy. Nick Fury and his sidekick Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) don’t seem fully present, and Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio — a.k.a. Quentin Beck, who hails from somewhere in the multiverse — is a hollow stand-in for Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. As boredom settled in, I began to wonder whether Marvel had made a rare mistake.
I forgot, though: Marvel doesn’t make mistakes. Say what you will about the studio — I could talk your head off about the ways in which its success has effectively sucked the soul out of the mainstream film industry — but the people at the top are frighteningly in tune with what their audience wants, before their audience even knows. The director, Jon Watts, and the writers, Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, come from hipper sitcoms, and they found the right tone in their first Spider-Man film, Spider-Man: Homecoming — lightly comic but with big emotional stakes (thanks, in part, to Tom Holland). They know the expectations are even higher this time, which could be why the first half of Far From Home is so meh. Maybe they want you to think they’ve failed, so you’ll respect them even more when you realize you’ve been so ingeniously faked out. I sure did.
And that’s all I should probably say in a world so touchy about spoilers (oh, for the days when a critic could reckon with the whole of a movie’s trajectory without hearing, “You suck now, you sucked then, and you’ll always suck”), but it’s worth looking at Spider-Man: Far From Home’s larger question. (Aye, it has one.) What is Peter — and what are we — to do in a world in which the principal heroes are gone, baby, gone? Iron Man, the Widow, the Cap: terminated. Thor: off losing weight (or something). The rest: ??? Earth is reckoning with a profound trauma that has been dubbed “the Blip,” denoting the five-year interval in which half the world vanished and then returned to a planet that had sadly moved on. A young 16, Peter doesn’t want to fight planet-killers. He wants to be “your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man,” catching thieves just like flies, look out. He wants a girlfriend. He wants to stop thinking of his surrogate dad, Tony Stark — but there are photos of the guy everywhere, as well as a couple of flashbacks ensuring Robert Downey Jr. will get his cut of this picture, too. What Peter has to learn is that he can’t entirely leave the field. The world needs him. We need him. Sony and Disney stockholders need him.
The second half of Spider-Man: Far from Home is a single, scary, brilliantly sustained climax in which what’s real seems just as improbable as what isn’t. There’s a good reason for that — it’s all CGI! But Watts and his designers use that uncertainty to generate real dread: How can we tell what’s real and what isn’t when none of it’s real but some of it can kill characters that we care for? Nothing can top the dizzying multidimensionality of last year’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, but Watts and company were aware of that masterwork (perhaps the films even share personnel) and of how high the bar has been set. At its most dazzling (and frightening) Far From Home disintegrates its own illusions and reassembles them before your eyes, and you share Peter’s existential vertigo. He hasn’t fully mastered his own powers, and there are no maps or instruction booklets in this world — only that maddeningly unreliable Spidey-sense.
Although he’s the youngest Spider-Man, Holland has a classic farceur’s energy and focus (he’s a Brit, after all), and his Spider-Man is never a cartoon. He will always be Peter playing Spider-Man, with a bit of Pirandellian self-consciousness in every gesture and inflection. (Where does Peter end and Spidey begin? How weird is the point where they blur?) Peter does something staggeringly stupid in the middle of the movie, but Holland makes you pity rather than hate this clueless boy who’s sure he can’t live up to his role models. And you can’t resent Peter for tying himself in knots over M.J. Zendaya is an original. She’s kooky without being dithery — a dry kook, with a voice that seems lower than Holland’s (which is full of squeaks). She doesn’t make you feel that M.J. is part of Peter’s movie but that he’s part of hers and lucky to be so.
It’s too bad the rest of the cast is stuck with cartoon material — though I enjoyed Gyllenhaal’s hamminess and saucer-like orbs. Jacob Batalon’s Ned is high-octane camp, and so obviously the comic relief that he lowers the stakes. (As his improbable girlfriend, the delightful Angourie Rice — of The Nice Guys and The Beguiled — gets by by underplaying.) As a geekily gung-ho teacher, Martin Starr doesn’t give you time to register how dumb the part is, blasting past your defenses. But Jon Favreau as Stark Industries caretaker Happy Hogan isn’t so confident. Favreau directed the first Iron Man film, which kicked this whole series off, and he’s a reliable helmsman of computer-generated spectacles like The Jungle Book. But as a performer, he’s rusty — he no longer seems at home in front of the camera. In their big scenes, Holland is acting for two, and I cringed when the film fixed Happy up with Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), the way you would if your divorced or widowed mom brought home a guy you don’t want to pass on the way to the bathroom in the morning. Let Happy date Aunt May in some other part of the multiverse!
One more thing: You really need to stay for the two post-credit sequences. The first is a worrisome surprise, the second — at the veeerrrrrry end — a colossal joke that lands, making the film seem even wittier.