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The Neighborhood Got a Whole Lot Bigger

Jake Gyllenhaal
Jake Gyllenhaal
Columbia Pictures
 129 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed ByJon Watts
Starring: Tom Holland, Jake Gyllenhaal    
Spider-Man Far from Home

NOTE: This review of necessity contains some mild spoilers for Spider-Man: Far from Home.


After you’ve spent an entire decade building up to two mega-blockbuster movies in which you first make half the world’s population vanish and then bring them back again, what do you do for an encore? That’s the questions the folks at Marvel had to answer following the billion-dollar success of Avengers: Endgame. Now, two months later, we have the answer in Spider-Man: Far from Home. The filmmakers didn’t try to outdo themselves (a task that would probably have proved impossible). Instead, they went back to basics and built on what made the last Spider-Man film work, while, at the same time, laying the groundwork for the next phase in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.


At the start, we should note that, unlike their counterparts at DC Comics whose properties are exclusively the assets of Warner Brothers, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is fractured, owing to some piecemeal film rights deals signed by Stan Lee in the 1960s. Most of the Marvel characters are part of the Disney corporate umbrella, but their crown jewel, Spider-Man, is owned by Sony. After Sony farmed out Spidey to help the Avengers in a couple of earlier Marvel films, Disney returns the favor here, by incorporating some of the Avengers: Endgame characters and storyline into Spider-Man: Far from Home. The result is a fitting companion piece for the last Avengers film.


Spider-Man: Far from Home, like its most immediate predecessor, Spider-Man: Homecoming, concentrates on the private life of Peter Parker (Tom Holland), Spider-Man’s secret identity. Even though he has superpowers and helped save the Earth as part of the Avengers (and spent five years in limbo in the process), Peter is still a high school student with the usual hopes and fears. Chief among both of those is his fascination with his classmate, MJ (Zendaya). Peter is too shy to make a move on MJ, but he thinks that his upcoming class trip to Europe will give him that opportunity.


The trip does provide opportunity, but of a different sort. As the students go sightseeing in Venice, they, and everyone else in the city, are attacked by a giant monster formed from the waters of the canal (see clip below). Peter tries to stop the creature, but only the arrival of a new masked superhero (dubbed Mysterio by the local press) saves the day. Later, Peter learns from SHIELD Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) that Mysterio is actually Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), who claims to be a refugee from a different world in the multiverse. Beck says that his planet was destroyed by these giant creatures, called Elementals, and he has made it his mission to go from world to world trying to prevent further destruction. Fury asks Peter to join Quentin in battling the remaining Elemental, but Peter declines, feeling that he’s not up to the job. He then has a heart-to-heart talk with Quentin, who tries to give Peter some fatherly advice. After their conversation, Peter decides that Quentin is the hero the world needs and gives Beck a pair of sunglasses that are actually a valuable piece of high-tech equipment that Tony Stark (the now-deceased Iron Man) left to the young man.


As anyone who has ever read an issue of Spider-Man comics (or has ever seen more than a handful of movies) knows, Beck/Mysterio is not who he seems. In fact, he is a disgruntled former Stark employee, who, along with other ex-Starkers that feel the same way created the Elementals using a combination of state-of-the-art holographic imagery and drones to create a highly realistic illusion. Beck wants to “defeat” the Elementals so that he can become the superhero everyone turns to now that the Avengers are pretty much out of the picture.


Spider-Man: Far from Home was directed by Jon Watts, who helmed the last Spider-Man movie, and written by Chris McKenna and Erik Summers, who also worked on the earlier film. They know how to follow a successful blueprint, and this film adapts and expands the themes of its predecessor. Key among these is the concept of Peter’s search for a father figure. As many people know, Peter’s guilt over the death of his Uncle Ben, who raised the boy after his parents died, led to his deciding to use his Spider-Man powers as a force for good. That search for a new father figure led Peter first to Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) and now, after Iron Man’s death, Peter naturally gravitates to Quentin Beck.


Mysterio continues in the villainous footsteps of the Vulture (Michael Keaton), Spider-Man’s foe in the first movie. Both could have been routine bad guys, but the scripts took steps to humanize them. It’s tantalizingly unclear just how sincere Beck’s fatherly advice to Peter is, but Jake Gyllenhaal does an excellent job in the role. At various times, he is suitably paternal and over-the-top wacko. I’d also note that when wearing the Mysterio costume (minus the ridiculous fishbowl helmet), Gyllenhaal looks like the epitome of a superhero. That outfit is the best costume I’ve seen in the Marvel movies.


While a good superhero movie needs a good villain, it also requires solid support, and this second trip into Peter’s high school life has eminently believable characters. Needless to say, those who don’t care for reliving high school angst on a superhero big screen won’t care for all the storylines, but for those who still have fond memories of The Breakfast Club, the subplots of the loves and rivalries of Peter and his friends make for a good counterpoint to the superhero action. And, throughout all this, the performance of Tom Holland, now 23 but still convincing as a 16-year-old, makes all the high school subplots work.


Ironically, it’s the action in Spider-Man: Far from Home that may wind up disappointing viewers who have grown accustomed to the over-the-top Marvel pyrotechnics. Mysterio differs from other supervillains in that he has no powers other than the arts of illusion and misdirection. In that, he’s very similar to the CGI wizards who create these movies in the first place. Since he can’t fight Spider-Man as other villains have in the past (there is no climactic final encounter between the two), he tries to play tricks with Peter’s mind, first by duping him into giving up his high-tech goggles, and later by setting up Cabinet of Dr. Caligari-styled illusions to disorient Peter. It’s a unique approach to a major action spectacular, and, frankly, one that director Watt doesn’t quite get right. But I enjoyed the idea and effort that went into this approach to the action, even if it fell a bit short of the mark.


Dial back some of the CGI effects, and Spider-Man: Far from Home could have been a Netflix effort. It concentrates on the human element and the relationships between Peter and his friends, as well as that between Peter and Quentin Beck. These relationships ground the movie even when the action reaches some over-the-top extremes. I get the distinct feeling that the Marvel Cinematic Universe intends to pull back somewhat and concentrate on smaller, more personal films in the future. In that regard, Spider-Man: Far from Home makes a great bridge from the old chapter of the universe to the next one. The action here may be far from home, but the emotions feel right at home.

In this clip, Mysterio arrives to save the city of Venice from a giant monster made out of water.

Read other reviews of Spider-Man: Far from Home: 

Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019) on IMDb