Jake Gyllenhaal delights in a jumbled, jumbo-sized adventure
Characters in Spider-Man: Far From Home talk about their lives like they’re marketing a superhero sequel. A high schooler named Betty Brant (Angourie Rice) quickly recaps the recent decimation and resurrection of the Earth’s population, concluding: “It’s time to move on to a new phase in our lives.” That word, “phase,” is a beloved piece of corporate lingo, and in Far From Home, all humanity speaks fluent boardroom. A mysterious man named Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal) describes a potential disaster as “an Avengers-level event,” a phrase you just know some studio executive used to describe Godzilla vs. Kong before his golden parachute caught on fire. This is a Spider-Man movie that pitches Spider-Man as somebody else’s franchise extension. “The whole world is asking ‘Who’s gonna be the next Iron Man?,’” says Peter Parker (Tom Holland), struggling to honor the holy example of his universe’s primal brand.
Tony Stark is dead, and so he is everywhere. There is a wall of Iron Man art in Peter’s classroom. European street artists spraypaint Starkfaced graffiti. On commercial airlines, the in-flight entertainment features a quickie documentary titled Heart of Iron: The Tony Stark Story. The movie’s treatment of the late hero feels spiritual, he wrote, restraining himself from noting how certain totalitarians hang their portrait everywhere. And this continues a new trend in Spidey cinema. In last year’s Enter the Spider-Verse, Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) and his New York City mourned the noble sacrifice of one Spider-Man. In Far From Home, that messianic awe has viralized global.
“I need a break,” Peter says. Like, same. Tony’s sacrifice in Avengers: Endgame left me cold. The reverential mode of superhero storytelling doesn’t interest me, or maybe I prefer another kind of religion. (My favorite Marvel sagas are about righteous cleansing patricide.)
Peter’s high school class is going on a Eurotrip. They’ll fly to Venice, then on to Paris — a perfect Eiffel opportunity for Peter to show chill nihilist MJ (Zendaya) how much he likes her. It’s a teen getaway! Peter’s pal Ned (Jacob Batalon) finds love on the road. JB Smoove and Martin Starr play unprepared chaperones. Remy Hii steals scenes as Brad, an infuriatingly dashing rival for MJ’s affections, such a Brad. Rich kid Flash (Tony Revolori) is getting mad likes on Insta, I googled some of those words.
Holland has already been Spider-Man in more movies than anyone, benefiting from parent company Sony’s shared custody arrangement with Marvel. He is earnest, and awkward in a chatty way. There’s a throwaway joke: Another student thinks Peter must be working as a male escort, because he keeps disappearing without explanation. The gag lands because you could kinda buy this Peter as a secret gigolo. He’s surely handsome enough, compared to, say, Tobey Maguire, whose Peter Parker was (I mean this as a massive, serious, self-reflexive compliment) a beady-eyed weirdo with resting killface. In Far From Home, Holland is a fun member of a chipper teen ensemble. It takes a long time for Peter and MJ to properly speak, but at least Zendaya has more to do here than in Homecoming.
And then Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) shows up to remind Peter that he was Chosen One’d by Iron Man, handpicked to inherit a global arsenal of omniscience. The schism between these plot strands is violent. Fury enters the movie by shooting Ned in the throat. It’s only “a mild tranquilizer,” the spymaster swears. Coincidentally, the presence of S.H.I.E.L.D. is usually a mild tranquilizer for me. Do you love scenes where people wear black to discuss plot points in front of computer mainframes? Then even you might wonder why Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) sheds more personality every time she frowns over Fury’s shoulder.
Fury’s got a surprise, for Peter and for us. Enter Gyllenhaal’s Quentin, known as Mysterio. Far From Home scrambles the comic book character’s history. Now he’s a multiversal refugee from a destroyed Earth. Quentin wants to help Spider-Man defeat rampaging elemental monsters. Gyllenhaal gives a clever, careful performance. He’s another mentor figure, a shadow-Tony teaching tricky new lessons. He looks charismatic and kooky-cool in green-gold exo-armor, flying around with the jangly grace of a busted biplane.
Director Jon Watts has fun with the foreign locations, though he films every dialogue scene with shot-reverse-shot repetition. The screenwriters are Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, onetime Community staffers who pepper the dialogue with laughlines. Like Homecoming, Far From Home is another champagne superhero movie, airdropping high-tech wonders into puny Parker’s life. It’s fun to play with all the cheatcodes, I know! Lost in some European country, this Spider-Man calls for help, and a jet arrives.
Confession: Nothing I’ve written so far really matters. There is a twist that altered my perspective on the story, maybe even more extremely than the screenwriters intended. I don’t think it spoils anything to say that Far From Home is a little critical of superheroes, though it also equates being critical of superheroes with homicidal mania. Or maybe that’s off the mark? I’m aiming through fog. Waves of meta crash through the final act. This is a giant-sized megamovie, full of costume changes and ravaging blorbsters, obvious turns and unsettling surprises.
I wound up liking Far From Home more than any Spider-Man film this decade. There’s something eerie in the constant assertion of Tony Stark as Tycoon SuperJesus — but don’t underestimate the shifty layers of the final act. The hero worship has a slippery quality here, with a less cheerful purpose than the sincere devotion of Homecoming or Into the Spider-Verse. The teen characters really are a blast, even if one key person skips a whole movie of development between scenes. Some digital effects look good in a boring way, and then some digital effects look bad in a perfect way. “Is this real?” asks Spider-Man. In the end, I really didn’t know. Far From Home succeeds with an unusual, troubling virtue: The best parts are the most fake.