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Review by Robert Brown
Over the course of the past 15 months, I have written four FilmFisher articles — now five — on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (Previously, I reviewed Avengers: Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp, and Avengers: Endgame, and I co-wrote a dialogue on the MCU with Timothy Lawrence). Obviously, I have devoted an absurd amount of hours (and pages!) to seriously considering and evaluating the MCU’s strengths and weaknesses. From the beginning of this long-term critical project until now, I have always sought to be both rigorously critical and persistently charitable, and I hope this has been evident to friends and foes of the franchise alike. I stand by what I said in my Infinity War review: “I so want this scrappy series of films to succeed.”
I begin with this apologetic disclaimer and review of my track record, because this review will be shorter than the previous ones, and my tone in it may well come across as exasperated or unforgiving. I have already said so much about these films, and Spider-Man: Far From Home does not inspire me to add much to the conversation. What is worse, what the film does prompt me to say is more like an admission of defeat than a vote of continued confidence. So far I have been amiably (if not ardently) defending these films, but now I am of the mind that, if the franchise continues on its current trajectory, this defense will require more and more effort and reap fewer and fewer returns.
The problem with Marvel Studios is not that they make terrible films. Even The Incredible Hulk and Thor: The Dark World could not elicit that strong of a response from me. And the problem is not that they are unable to make excellent films. I hold The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier in high esteem. No, the problem with Marvel Studios is that the majority of their films are so pervasively passable — not necessarily mediocre, but passable — even though they’ve proven themselves capable of doing far more, and even though they are surrounded by predecessors and competitors that plainly show how they should be doing more. And the problem is that we the audience, whether through boredom, lowered standards, non-existent standards, or misplaced goodwill and excessive patience, tolerate and encourage this passableness. (Indeed, the last MCU Spider-Man movie, 2017’s Homecoming, explicitly and shamelessly mocked my patience and goodwill with its end-credits scene.)
There is nothing damagingly, damningly wrong with Spider-Man: Far From Home that would render it unwatchable. But neither is there much to commend it. To be sure, the film is uproariously funny, and the performances are engaging. The film even exceeds expectations in its action sequences. Because the set-pieces are staged live on location in European cities, instead of in wide-open spaces with bland computer-generated backgrounds, the tussles between Spider-Man, Mysterio, and the Elementals have a sense of tactility, geographical clarity, and human stakes that MCU battles have often lacked. I will also grant that the film has two show-stopping, jaw-dropping sequences that are among the MCU’s finest moments of visual storytelling.
But the MCU has almost always been funny, and often to its detriment. The performances have always been spot-on. As for the action scenes, I don’t think their quality or lack thereof has ever been a big draw for audiences. If we cancel out these factors on the basis that none of them are sufficient to elevate any MCU film above the rest of the pack, what is left for Far From Home to claim as its own? Not much. And whatever potential the film does have to its credit, it also has the unfortunate and baffling habit of mishandling it.
First, the film bungles its opportunity to examine what motivates or impedes Peter Parker’s heroism. The problem here is not that Far From Home shouldn’t have had Peter shrink back from the sacrifices required of him as Spider-Man, but that the reasons for his retreat are shallow and half-baked, as are the motivators for his triumphant return.
On this score, Spider-Man’s cinematic pedigree does the film no favors. If Far From Home is put in a bad light by the brighter stars of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it practically melts under the heat emanating from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, or even last year’s Into the Spider-Verse. Spider-Man 2 gave multiple genuine and relatable explanations for why Peter would want to be “Spider-Man no more,” and then it made an even more compelling argument for why, as Aunt May put it, “Sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams.” Into the Spider-Verse was about Miles Morales overcoming his fears and taking the leap of faith into heroism. And, dare I say it, one of The Amazing Spider-Man 2’s few redeeming qualities was the palpable and devastating gravity of the consequences of Peter’s choices. Spider-Man films have always been about — or have always been at their best when they were about — responsibility and consequences: the consequences of taking responsibility for oneself and one’s neighbor, and the consequences of failing to do so.
In Homecoming, Tom Holland’s MCU iteration of Peter Parker was overeager to jump into superhero action, and his reckless naïveté naturally caused others pain — that is, whenever Iron Man didn’t swoop in to clean up the mess. By the end of that film, however, Peter faced the Vulture without the assistance of Iron Man or his technology, and he sacrificed his chances of impressing his crush in the process. But in Far From Home, the Peter who once would have jumped at Nick Fury’s summons now only wants to be left alone for the summer, and his only objective is to impress another crush.
This dramatic change need not be inconsistent with Peter’s character development thus far. Following the life- and universe-altering events of Infinity War and Endgame, it would make sense if Peter was struggling with PTSD like Tony Stark did in Iron Man 3, or if Stark’s death was a dramatic wake-up call: if you live as Spider-Man, you will probably die as Spider-Man. But Far From Home doesn’t offer either of these viable options as its explanation for Peter’s anti-heroic mood. Instead, the film tries to make the case that Peter feels inadequate to be “the next Iron Man.” However, that sense of inadequacy was nonexistent in Homecoming, and it is never fully developed here.
In reality, the film gives more attention to Peter’s constant insistence that he just wants a break from being Spider-Man so that he can spend some time with MJ. When the fate of the world is at the mercy of whether or not Spider-Man keeps to his summer itinerary, Peter’s avoidance of heroism comes across as callous and unconscionable. Perhaps it is not a lack of confidence or a fear of failure that cause him to give the E.D.I.T.H. glasses to Quentin Beck, but selfishness. Peter is refusing responsibility because he doesn’t want to shoulder the consequences.
On paper, this inner conflict would not have been a bad direction in which to take the character. Spider-Man 2 went down a similar path and delivered the best superhero film of all time. However, Far From Home does not address Peter’s moral failure. The film makes it seem like Peter is galvanized back into action by a pep talk from Happy Hogan, who assures him that Tony had faith him. But again, Peter’s weakness is not that he doesn’t feel ready to be the next Iron Man, but that he is refusing to be Spider-Man — or at least, that he is refusing to accept the full ramifications of being Spider-Man. The finale is not about Peter reclaiming the responsibility of being Spider-Man, but about him mitigating the consequences of his irresponsibility. Peter clearly regrets giving the glasses to Quentin Beck, for this was obviously a big mistake. But does he ever express regret for wanting to give the glasses to anyone? Giving away the glasses was wrong, not because Peter gave them to the wrong person, but because Stark willed them to be his responsibility, and abdicating that responsibility was selfish. Yet Peter never recognizes or confesses the selfishness that started all the trouble. When he defeats Beck, regains Fury’s trust, and finally gets the girl, Peter has so successfully dodged the bullet of his folly that the folly is all but forgotten.
Second, the film bungles its opportunity to examine Tony Stark’s legacy. The purported dramatic question of Far From Home is whether or not Peter wants to become the next Iron Man. To underline this question, the glasses are Peter’s literal inheritance from Stark. Moreover, the villain bears an uncanny resemblance to Stark, insinuates himself into Stark’s place as Peter’s mentor, and — in a replication of the villain plot of Iron Man 3 (not to mention The Incredibles) — turns out to be a man who was snubbed by Stark and now seeks revenge using Stark's own tools.
The MCU has had an ongoing preoccupation with children grappling with the sins of their fathers, and since Stark was a father figure to Peter, the film sets itself up to be the next variation on the theme. If the film had fully committed to this approach to the story at hand, it might have been the best “sins of the father” story in the entire MCU. Because Stark is such a complex character, Peter would have had to make a nuanced response to the good, bad, and ugly precedents he set. The dramatic question of the film should have been, “Will Peter still want to become the next Iron Man, after he discovers the extent of Tony Stark’s moral failings?” The answer to that question — if answered honestly and thoroughly — is not at all straightforward, which is why it is so unfortunate that the film avoids the question entirely.
One would expect that Stark’s complicity in Mysterio’s origins would be troubling for Peter, but Peter never receives this revelation. Instead, Peter’s perspective on Stark is kept one-sidedly reverential. Meanwhile, the film’s perspective on Stark is mired in contradiction. On the one hand, the film asks the audience to believe that Peter is too timid to claim the Iron Man legacy, because it is so lofty. On the other hand, the film drops hints that the legacy is sordid. Even as Peter continues to idolize Stark, the audience should be left wondering why Stark could ever be idolized. Case in point: not only did Stark create most of his own worst enemies (including Mysterio), but he also somehow thought it would be a good idea to give a teenager full, unfettered, and sole access to a cache of surveillance drones — and those drones happen to double as WMDs. Speaking of which...
Third, the film bungles whatever opportunity it might have had to say anything worthwhile about the current state of technology. Just as The Winter Soldier captured the zeitgeist of the Snowden era, Far From Home aims to strike a chord with audiences with its allusions to deepfakes and fake news. However, the film only manages to say that deepfakes are dangerous — well, duh — and that we are now totally (and maybe hopelessly) lost in a post-truth age of willful gullibility and shameless spin — but we knew that already. Moreover, the film even goes against the ethic of The Winter Soldier in its blasé treatment of said drones and WMDs. The worst scene in the entire film is probably the one where Peter almost kills a bus-load of classmates and teachers when he tells E.D.I.T.H. to treat a rival student as a threat. Strangely, the scene is used as a source of comic relief and as a way of underlining Peter’s immaturity. But this is one of those instances where you cannot have your cake and eat it too, and it raises some troubling questions. If it is dangerous for Peter to have access to WMDs, then shouldn’t we be questioning Stark’s judgment, not his? And if Stark repented of being an arms dealer, regretted helping with Project Insight (the villain plot of Winter Soldier), and rued the day he created Ultron, then why on earth would he be giving Peter the equivalent of all three of those evils wrapped into one? Moreover, if we the audience were supposed to feel horror at the prospect of any unsuspecting person being killed by a drone strike in Winter Soldier, why are we now being asked to laugh at that prospect? I’ll admit to the fact that I was also laughing at the bus scene, but the more I think about it, the more my own laughter disturbs me.
Fourth and finally, the film bungles whatever opportunity it might have had to say anything about duplicity. If Spider-Man movies have traditionally been films about responsibility and consequences, they have also been films about truth-telling. Responsibility always involves bearing faithful witness to the truth, no matter the consequences. Lies are one of the most drastic abdications of responsibility, reaping their own consequences. In keeping with this theme, Far From Home finds Peter burdened by the secrets he must keep from his friends and facing multiple false accusations from his enemies. Meanwhile, Beck creates an elaborate lie that continues to deceive people even after his apparent death. However, what right does the film have to condemn Beck’s duplicity, when after the end credits it is revealed that some of the good guys are also duplicitous, likewise pretending to be people they aren’t? The possibilities introduced by the end-credits stinger are no doubt intriguing, but the scene also renders so much of what happens in the film inconsequential. The person who criticizes Spider-Man for taking a vacation while the world is in danger is, it turns out, doing the same thing.
All this is to say that while Far From Home is perfectly entertaining on the surface, it is frustratingly incomplete upon closer examination. It’s a passable MCU film, but a poor Spider-Man film. I would go so far as to say that, although it may not be morally wrong to watch or enjoy the film, there are a number of things morally wrong with it that should at least give us pause before proceeding. Better yet, why not just rent the Spider-Man trilogy and Into the Spider-Verse instead, and watch four good films at home for the price of one not-so-good film... you know, far from home?
- Release DateJuly 2, 2019