Spider-Man: Far From Home

3 out of 5

Directed by: Jon Watts

It’s really high praise that the thing that stands out most in a big ol’, Marvel / Sony tentpole movie is the characters. And not the rather faceless snippy-cutesy characters a lot of the Marvel cast has somewhat fallen into as the MCU has gotten big enough to mimic its occasionally faceless print versions (or is it that the comics are trying to align with the films…?) – and if that sounds rather dismissive, I more mean that the movies have, by the nature of success encouraging similarity, established a rather homogenous and harmless tone – rather, director Jon Watts, writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, and an incredibly well cast set of not-actually-high-school-age-but-young-enough-to-be-convincing youngsters, have maintained the upbeat and organic repartee of Peter Parker (Tom Holland) and friends, making all the non-web-swinging time we spend with them quite a joy.

The opposite side of that suggests the web-swinging might not be a joy, and it’s not so much that as it is that the requisite spectacle of these flicks has a hard time settling next to the local-town vibe of Parker trying to figure out how to confess his crush on MJ (Zendaya) during a European class trip. The bits surrounding the action are perfect: Peter having to make up lame excuses for almost getting caught out or called out on Elemental-destroying business by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and once the movie has had its 2 hr+ runtime to actually build up to a climactic sequence, it totally wins: the last run of action is excellently choreographed, cutting between Spidey quips and last-minute heroics and his classmates scurrying around, running away from city-destroying danger. But prior to that, the movie is in quite a rush to introduce new character Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhall), who’s got a fancy, smoke-spewing suit and comes with news of multiversal beasties – said Elementals, which, as the name suggests, are creatures of fire, water, etc. – against which he requires S.H.I.E.L.D.’s help. …And, in lieu of various Avengers being dead or off-world, Spider-Man’s. This rush – and some story-centric workarounds – encourage Far From Home to be frontloaded with several big sequences, and it all feels way too prepackaged to actually have much impact. Occasionally, Watts is able to inject some personality in these scenes, but for the most part, they don’t feel “earned” by the movie, so much as shorthand (…shorthand requiring tons of money, alas) to get us to where we need to be.

This is also all at the expense of Gyllenhall’s character getting a proper introduction. He’s suddenly just there, a fully-suited, fully-trusted hero, and the film takes a couple stabs at justifying this – including a cold open that tries to establish how he got in good with Fury and crew – but it doesn’t sit right in a cinematic universe that tends to revel in its origin stories and whatnot, and also draws into question how some really brilliant folk like Peter Parker and some really skeptical folk like Fury and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) just go whole hog on embracing him. While the beat-by-beat moments work – even if the bonding stuff between Mysterio and Spider-Man (or rather, ‘Quentin Beck’ and ‘Peter Parker’) is cheeseball, it’s believably cheeseball for the mentor / kid dynamic they give the two – and Gyllenhall absolutely is able to own the character once things get going, that first hour-ish of setup and I-guess-we-need-an-action-scene-hero timing can feel a bit rote and silly. After the fact, you can circle back around on this stuff and nod as to why it was done as such, but that’s exactly what it is: after the fact. And I’m not sure that’s really excusable for a two hour distraction-fest – i.e. I was unable to be successfully distracted.

The effects also occasionally suffer, which always feels mean to say since we know how time-consuming that work is. There’s an awful lot of too-obvious blue screen (or at least some kind of touch ups that are affecting the backgrounds / skylines) and when Holland’s suit is all Tony Starked digital, it’s pretty unconvincing. Again, once the movie finds its rhythms, this stuff starts to sing – I’d assume the main focus was on the concluding sequence, and that really does hold together the whole way through. However, elsewhere, I’d compliment music maestro Michael Giacchino for coming up with the first Marvel theme that actually stuck out to me during the film – not just sounding like a standard variant on Dave Johnson’s hero themes.

These quirks aside, I’m still left with good feelings by the film: it stands tonally right next to Spider-Man: Homecoming, is ultimately a lot of fun, and all of the character stuff that can get swept ‘neath a spectacled-carpet in other blockbusters ends up making a lasting impression.