SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME (2019)

Review by LL Soares

Marvel Studios being the juggernaut it is, its movies have, at this point, transcended the comics that preceded them, creating a brand new history all their own. This is a good thing and a bad thing. Good for Marvel, because it means all these hit movies are interconnected and fans will probably see everything they put out, no matter what it is. Bad, because sometimes the comic book versions of things are actually better, and less entangled in the restrictiveness of the movie mythos. But because they don’t adhere to the new story – the good stuff has often been jettisoned, to be replaced by an inferior product.

Case in point: Spider-Man. He’s had a long and wildly uneven adventure on film so far. The first Sam Raimi trilogy was probably the most faithful to the comics, and gave us Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker. I liked the first one, loved the second one (due to a terrific performance by Alfred Molina and Spidey bad guy Doctor Octopus) and hated the third one (with its toothless take on Venom, its wasting of the Sandman, and that spastic “Spidey Dance” that Peter does in the street at one point). The next couple of films, starring Andrew Garfield as Parker, are so godawful, I’d rather just forget about them.

Which brings us to the current iteration of the character – Tom Holland’s version, which, despite being owned by SONY, has been embraced by Marvel Studios in a collaborative movie deal (probably due to the fact that SONY has often gotten it wrong, and Marvel knows how to always make money!), to the degree that he’s been completely integrated into the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) story, having appeared in his own films, as well as important milestones like CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016) and the last two AVENGERS flicks.

The latest Spider-Man is a fun character, mostly due to the casting of Tom Holland, who despite being in his 20s, is completely believable as an awkward teenager, made more awkward by the fact that he has the powers of a spider, and will go to great lengths to protect his secret identity (which way too many people know about). But while Holland gives us perhaps the quintessential Spider-Man, he is also bogged down with lots of baggage from the MCU. In my opinion, too much baggage. Mainly because Tony Stark, Iron Man himself, got involved with Peter early on (in the previous film, SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, 2017) and became his mentor, even providing him with costumes and state-of-the-art technology. Suddenly Parker wasn’t the kid from the comics who sewed his own costume and devised his own web shooters. Now he was just a kid who could stick to walls and who got all his gadgets and bling from Stark Industries. Which kind of undermines the creativity of our Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, turning him into just another sidekick of Tony Stark’s. It’s like they took most of what was unique about him and tossed it aside to make him conform more to the MCU.

Yes, Robert Downey Jr. was bigger than life as the Avenger who started it all way back in the original IRON MAN (2008). But that doesn’t mean that he has to overshadow the very character we’ve gone to the movies to see.

In the comics, Parker is a loner who has his own storyline, his own cast of characters, and his own problems. He doesn’t need to become a part of the Avengers storyline – he has enough drama on his own. From his insecurity when it comes to girls, to his worrying about his elderly Aunt May’s health, to his concern about his enemies finding out who he is, and putting those he loves in danger, there’s more than enough drama to go around if they just stick to Spider-Man’s original comic book roots.

In the movies, though, he’s not a loner anymore. He’s just another timecard-punching member of the Avengers, albeit a junior leaguer, still learning the ropes.

This may be just fine with you. Obviously a lot of people like the new version of Spider-Man as an Avenger-in-training, with access to all kinds of Stark Industries’ gadgets. And they like all the non-Spider-Man plot points that go with it. That’s fine. But as someone who grew up on the comics, and got a chance to know Parker in his original incarnation, the new version seems second rate. And the Avengers stuff just takes up too much space and time that could be used to make Spider-Man more “one of a kind.”

(By the way, the fact that SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE, 2018, doesn’t bring any of this Avengers baggage into the story–and it’s one terrific story–was why I still think it’s the best Spider-Man movie so far – way better than any of the live-action versions so far.)

Which brings us to SPIDERMAN: FAR FROM HOME, which takes place after the events of AVENGERS: ENDGAME, from earlier this year. Everyone who originally disappeared when Thanos decimated half of all life in the universe is back now (see ENDGAME for the details, I just don’t have the time to go into it here) and the event is being referred to as “The Blip.” Everyone who had disappeared is now 5 years younger than people who used to be the same age when they left.

Anyway, Peter (Tom Holland) wants to take a break from super-heroing and go on a class trip to Europe with familiar faces like his best friend Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon), the girl he has a major crush on, MJ (Zendaya), and big-mouth bully Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori, who just doesn’t work at all for me in the role!). There’s also the smart Betty Brant (Angourie Rice), who has a romance with Ned overseas, Brad Davis (Remy Hii), a new student who is competing with Peter for MJ’s attention and who isn’t above dirty tricks to get an edge, and the teachers Mr. Harrington (Martin Starr, from FREAKS AND GEEKS and SILICON VALLEY) and Mr. Dell (comedian J. B. Smoove), trying to keep the kids all together, and lots of other nameless faces as other kids in the class.

Peter wants to be a normal kid so badly that he leaves his costume behind, but his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei – whoever heard of a hot Aunt May? It still doesn’t work for me!), who now knows about his secret identity, packs it for him “just in case.” Of course, Hot Aunt May is still dating Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), Tony Stark’s right hand man when he was still alive, which creates for more tension, as Peter isn’t sure what he thinks about them as a couple.

In Europe, Peter gets tracked down by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who wants him to help S.H.I.E.L.D. deal with an otherworldly threat in the form of giant “Elementals” – creatures that embody the elements – ice, air, fire, etc., that are from another dimension and threaten to destroy the world. The main line of defense against them is Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal) , aka Mysterio, who has been using his his visually stunning (but kind of vague) powers to stop the monsters so far. Mysterio is also from that other dimension, an Earth that has been destroyed by the Elementals, and he’s trying to help Fury and the gang stop it from happening here.

Peter wants nothing to do with the mission. He doesn’t’ think he’s powerful enough to fight such major threats (and, really, why aren’t other Avengers involved instead?) and he doesn’t want his fellow high schoolers to know his true identity, if he’s always disappearing from the trip. Fury seems to let him off the hook, but then manipulates the kids’ trip so that Peter can keep up appearances, and eventually help fight the monsters, both at the same time.

Of course, anyone who is a long-time comics fan knows that Mysterio isn’t a hero, he’s a bad guy, and you just know he’ll eventually reveal his true colors. Meanwhile, the world is in danger from elemental beasts!

I have to admit, I really hated the storyline here. The Elementals are really boring villains with no personalities. Once we find out what’s really going on, it gets a little more interesting, but not much. I’ve been looking forward to Mysterio being the main villain in a Spider-Man movie since the Sam Raimi days, so it’s a kick to finally see him onscreen, fishbowl helmet and all. And Gyllenhaal is okay in the role, although he’s not even half as exciting as Michael Keaton was as the Vulture in HOMECOMING. Now that was a formidable antagonist! (For all the problems with HOMECOMING – many of which are my same problems here – Keaton’s Vulture is what worked best for me! Gyllenhaal doesn’t even come close.)

But, seriously, I hated almost everything they have Mysterio do in this movie. It could have been a much more exciting plot! And of course, even the Mysterio storyline has to somehow tie into the legacy of Tony Stark. Even though the character is dead, his presence is so much in this movie, it seems more like an Iron Man movie than a Spider-Man one.

And I didn’t even mention the crazy high-tech glasses (like a Google Glass on Steroids) that Happy gives Peter at one point, since Mr. Stark wanted him to have access to all his goodies. Those glasses tie into the plot, too.

FAR FROM HOME was directed by Jon Watts, who previously directed videos for bands like Fatboy Slim, Death Cab for Cutie, and Swedish House Mafia, as well as the movies CLOWN (2014) and COP CAR (2015), and he does a decent enough job of keeping things all together and moving them at a good pace. I was much less impressed with the script by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers (who were also writers for SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, 2017, and ANT-MAN AND THE WASP, 2018), which I’m sure the people at Marvel loved, but which I really hated.

The strange thing is, I think the performances here are really good. Tom Holland is the most likeable and faithful-to-the-comics version of Peter Parker so far (as far as his personality and his youth), Zendaya is interesting (and kinda cool) as MJ, Gyllenhaal and Jackson are also good. It’s the story they’re all involved in that I can’t stand.

But like I said, this is all subjective. Considering how much money this movie is making, a lot of people disagree with me. But as someone who remembers Peter Parker from his earliest days, FAR FROM HOME just doesn’t feel like a Spider-Man movie to me. It’s something inferior, and most of it just seemed like a lot of action and CGI, but totally without a point.

I give SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME 1 ½ knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME ~ one and a half knives.

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