A Marvel movie doesn't have to do a lot to succeed. The formula is built on lack of commitment, alternating between scenes of halfhearted workplace comedy and outsourced action scenes taking place in gray sub-basements, fields, and parking lots. A scan for signs of genuine life in these films would most always come up flat. Across most of them, any sense of style — or of personality and ideas, or of characters with wants and needs (the longtime engines of feature filmmaking) — is more something to gesture at than to actually bother feeling or expressing in the work. It's best, too, not to transgress by the standards of any nation's government in terms of content or suggested themes; after all, the Walt Disney Corporation (working here with Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures) wants these things in theaters for months, whether they're playing in China, Europe, or here.
Though it would be hard to call the latest Spider-Man deeply transgressive, it's crafty, smart, and fairly confrontational without being smug about it, addressing the legacy of these duller features head-on. It begins as a light comedy about a Queens high schooler (Tom Holland as Peter Parker) who wants to escape his day-to-day pressures with a supervised summer trip to Europe — a welcome change of pace that's free of superheroics. Along the way, it manages to retain a small romantic comedy within it: a simple one of stolen glances, sweet character performances, and tentative gestures — all with a sense of genuine humor, a palpable pulse, and an air of convincing modernity about it. This small movie nestled within a grander feature feels alive through dialogue, performance, and charm.
Before too long, though, the new Spider-Man comes to be about both less and more. Ambushed on his trip by Samuel Jackson's superspy Nick Fury, Peter finds himself swept into fighting an impending global threat, working alongside a stranded, extradimensional warrior named Mysterio to fight off a series of quickly exposited elemental monsters. That warrior — played in a cameo by a haggardly charming Jake Gyllenhaal, wearing an extraordinary gleaming helmet and suit based on old-school comic book artist Steve Ditko's design — attempts to offer some mentorship to Peter, filling a void left by his former mentor Iron Man, offering bromides that range from romantic pursuits to a life lived heroically.
If that last paragraph sounds hackneyed, the movie absolutely knows it; without spoiling too much, there's a pretty ingenious sleight of hand involved here, one that frames the movie's key antagonist as essentially the director of a spectacle-driven Marvel movie. By staging massive threats for the sake of elevating the profile of an appointed, striving hero, the (rather charismatic) villain in question manipulates a global audience of onlookers and news media to his own self-serving ends. If that sounds familiar, it should — "People will believe anything these days," the crook says at one point, calling to mind our commander in chief — making for a twist that allows the movie's struggle against its own, implicitly conservative position as one of twenty-something Marvel movies to become central to the movie's text.
With the lead antagonist's powers of deception warping what's onscreen, director Jon Watts (especially in one pretty stunning effects sequence) opens the door to a major psychic confrontation, one in which Spider-Man's dragged through a trippy, haunting world of private and collective woe. Though the scene's an effects spectacle in the extreme, it's grounded by roots in battering physical trauma and driving cultural referents, haunted too (but not overburdened) by recent onscreen deaths and suggestive, subtle-enough elements of fascist imagery. All these things are depicted — like the movie's use of drones — as genuine sources of dislocation and horror, making for a shifting world of ego-assaulting effects that digs far deeper than an Inception or a Doctor Strange, feeling freer than most anything of this genre that's not traditionally (or two-dimensionally) animated. Effects here feel better-integrated than usual, and the entire feel of the movie's enhanced, too, by its use of location shooting across a wide range of European locales.
That's not to say the movie's spotless. It's got a few clunkers of comedic beats and some lines that feel as though they may have been studio-mandated, with the film seeming to reluctantly contort itself at times to tie itself into the overall Marvel Cinematic Universe. (When Fury berates Peter for being unprepared and insufficiently committed, the scenes feel arch, unmotivated, and unwelcome — like the very worst parts of Rick Linklater's Boyhood). These flaws — disgracefully — are unavoidable, but Watts is smart enough to engage with them in the movie's text, even if he can't always resolve or avoid them (though I hope next time he gets a longer leash). What better way to confront a lie than to oppose it with a story that's deeper, more empathetically involving, and far truer?
That's this movie's existential position — the role of both its lead and the film itself. To Far From Home's credit, it confronts the limits of its genre casually and without any notable whiff of condescension, making for a work that's riddled with as much charm and surprise as it seems it really can be. Even without these pieces being wrapped into its story, the new Spider-Man feels like a throwback to an older, more holistically built era of studio movies — if only for caring about the people in it and in front of it much more than we're lately used to. In a world in which our politics and our most popular stories are built on ever-thinner conceits and shams, this one asks tough, honest questions that aren't drowned out by its required beats — for they're spoken confidently and without pretense, from a place of genuine concern.
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