It feels strange to say that although we’re now on the eighth major studio release, Spider-Man has only now found his footing on the big screen. The Sony-backed Sam Raimi films were, like the Fox-backed Bryan Singer X-Men films, fine at the time of their release, but have shown some significant wear, especially when now held up the blinding light of the MCU films. While I will maintain that the train fight in Spider-Man 2 remains one of the greatest fight sequences in comic book movie history, there’s no denying that the advances in technology and CGI have enabled subsequent productions to truly bring the character to life on screen.
More importantly, we need to talk about just how damn perfect Tom Holland is as Peter Parker/Spider-Man, and how well the character has been handled by Kevin Feige and his writers. Holland manages to flawlessly project the nervousness and anxiety of a normal teenage kid, the fears and uncertainties of a kid with so much responsibility and power. Better yet, the writing staff allows him to do this without descending into pathos and angst. They’ve wisely removed Uncle Ben from the narrative for the most part, removing the crippling Crime Alley-style guilt that can make characters motivated by the deaths of loved ones feel exhausting. Instead, Peter does what he does because, as he said in Captain America: Civil War, “when you can do the things that I can, but you don’t? And then the bad things happen? They happen because of you.” It’s a simple yet great spin on the “with great power comes great responsibility” line, but it’s better because it’s his. Peter does what he does because he’s just … a good kid. Holland captures that, along with his loyalty, kindness, fears, stammers, awkward crushes, and everything else absolutely perfectly.
And he’s been through a lot. He fought Captain America and Falcon and the Winter Soldier. He brought down Giant-Man. He fought aliens, on Earth and in space. He died and came back. And Spider-Man: Far From Home asks: what now? Not just what’s next, not just what’s the new threat he has to face. But rather, how does Peter — and the world, really — come back from that kind of madness? How do we move on? In that sense, Far From Home serves as an excellent bookend to Avengers: Endgame because it actually makes a strong effort to answer those questions, and it does so fairly well. How do we re-integrate those who disappeared five years ago and reappeared, unaged and uncertain, to a world that was almost destroyed?
In Peter’s case, he does it by simply trying to live a normal life, by going on his school’s science trip to Europe, by hanging with his best buddy Ned (Jacob Batalon) and trying to kindle a romance with his crush, MJ (Zendaya), while fending off the annoying Flash (Tony Revolori) and another MJ suitor (Remy Hill). Of course, life has other plans for Peter, and soon he’s swept up in a conflict that he barely understands with giant element-based monsters while forging an alliance with a strange, superpowered newcomer named Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), and coping with even more responsibility being heaped on him by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). It’s a lot, and at times, it’s too much, pushing even the kindhearted Peter to the limits of his idealism. After all, he’s just a damn kid, not the next Iron Man.
Or is he?
That’s the odd question that the film asked, and it’s one of its stumbles as well. Yes, the challenge of the world (mirrored by the MCU, really) is what to do now that its two most iconic characters — Tony Stark and Steve Rogers — are dead or retired. And Far From Home seems to want to place so much of that burden on Peter, which … I keep coming back to the “he’s just a kid” part. But at the same time, the question must be asked: if not him, then who? That’s really what the film is asking, and while it’s a worthy question, I wasn’t crazy about how strongly they worked to remove the “friendly neighborhood” aspect of Peter and turn him into something bigger, more tech-dependent, more omniscient.
We’re getting ahead of ourselves, though. Far From Home is an interesting film and a surprisingly complicated one. It’s essentially a bridge between Phases for the MCU, and it handles that part well. It’s fun as hell, thanks again to great dialogue and writing and an utterly charming cast. Aside from the leads, everyone in the film is great to watch, down to the two beleaguered faculty members (Martin Starr and JB Smoove) struggling to deal with their students on this disaster-stricken field trip. The chemistry between Holland and Zendaya is damn adorable, and Ned is as sweet and goofy as ever. Fury, without all the trappings of SHIELD, is great with Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) as his lieutenant (though she’s still underused as always).
But the film struggles periodically, and it’s that deviation from the “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” idea that causes this struggle. At times, Far From Home is too big, too much. That’s not because I don’t feel like Peter is up to the job, but rather that the writers and director Jon Watts sometimes trip over the big set pieces. The action in the film is often huge and expansive and frequently drowns itself in its own excess. The film is at its best when it’s small and when it focuses on its characters and their stories and the mysteries that they’re facing, the puzzles that they’re trying to solve. This ties back to that idea of Peter being the next Tony. Is that what we want? Based on how the big moments are handled, I’m not confident it’s the right direction.
Despite that, Far From Home is still a lovely experience. Its story is a clever, interesting way to pave the way to the next phase and its characters are wonderful. Gyllenhaal looks like he’s having a grand time, and he’s effortless in his emotional range. Zendaya is sharp and weird and funny and full of equal parts wit and charm and an oddly endearing cynicism, playing the perfect foil to the hapless hopefulness of Peter and Ned’s silly optimism. Its pace is lightning fast and at times even overwhelming, but it comes out the other end intact and with its messaging clear. Spider-Man: Far From Home wants to tell us that even when he’s not home, he’s still your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man and while there are some bumps in that road, it paves the way for a bright future.