Superheroes don’t get vacations. It’s pretty much a major design flaw of the job. After all, the term “superhero” itself indicates someone who consistently saves the world from a very major level of threat. It’s the same for the characters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, of course. The second a hero sits down for a break, that’s when a new antagonist rears its head to complicate things.
It’s a harsh reality that Peter Parker, our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, becomes all too aware of in his second solo outing, Spider-Man: Far From Home. We find the web-slinger once again played by Tom Holland and on a class trip to Europe, which is inconveniently plagued by giant, rampaging monsters called Elementals. Stepping in to help defeat them is Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), also called Mysterio, who claims to be from a parallel Earth that’s already been destroyed by the Elementals. He’s backed up by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who tries to recruit a very reluctant Spider-Man into more Avengers-sized heroics.
That opening statement about heroes not getting downtime? It can also be applied to the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself. This is the third MCU film of 2019, coming very shortly after the massive, impossibly grand finale of Avengers: Endgame. The audience has barely had time to catch their breath before being swept back up into more MCU madness, with all the world-shaking, quick-edited stakes all of that that implies. Don’t feel bad if you’ve got hero fatigue, but also don’t let that stop you from enjoying what is, at its essence, a breezy, poppy, perfectly summer blockbuster of a film.
Far From Home should be given a lot of credit for not trying to up the stakes from Endgame. After all, Peter was one of the heroes that helped save the entire universe from Thanos’ schemes. The antagonists of Far From Home in fact aren’t trying to end the world or take it over. Rather, this time around they’re attacking the very notion of what being a hero actually is. Much like how the true enemy in Endgame was grief and its aftermath, here Peter’s biggest challenge is deciding what kind of hero he’s meant to be and, indeed, what it even means to be a hero in the first place. Is it deeds? Is it optics? Is it a combination of the two?
A major theme of Far From Home is Peter’s reluctance to take on the mantle of “head Avenger,” even though the public seems to be pressuring him into it. After all, most of the Avengers are gone, retired, or missing. That includes Peter’s mentor and father-figure Tony Stark/Iron Man, whose absence of presence looms large over Peter’s narrative arc. While the film never quite gets its hooks as deep as it probably should into that aspect, Tom Holland does a great job in conveying Peter’s insecurities about living up to Stark’s example, as well as his determination to make Iron Dad proud.
And the focus is squarely on Peter here, with few major figures from the rest of the MCU along for the ride beyond Nick Fury and his second-in-command Maria Hill. This is totally Spidey’s story, almost to a point of being exclusionary to the MCU as a whole. If there weren’t constant references to Thanos’ Snap and its reversal (here called the Blip), you might even think it’s a self-contained universe. That’s actually admirable on many levels, as it allows the Spider-Man solo films to focus more on Peter’s evolution and maturity than on advancing the MCU’s metaplot.
Plus, when you have an actor as charming, capable, and downright eager as Tom Holland playing one of comic history’s most iconic heroes, you want to spend a lot of time with him. Holland once again proves why he’s the best cinematic Spider-Man to date, effortlessly conveying Peter’s youthful exuberance, emotional turbulence, and courageous heart. Peter is still the awkward teen we’ve come to love, especially around his snarky, cynical love interest MJ (played by a scene-stealing and equally appealing Zendaya). But he’s also the quick-witted junior Avenger who went to space and helped stop an alien plot to decimate the galaxy. What’s great about Holland’s performance is that he’s consistent between those two extremes; Peter is Peter no matter if he has the Spider mask on or not. The man is the hero and the hero is the man, even if he doesn’t realize it as quickly as the audience does.
But Holland has a lot of competition in the charisma department with Jake Gyllenhaal as Mysterio. Gyllenhaal has a winning confidence here that often threatens to pull focus away from the film’s main character because…well, it’s Jake Gyllenhaal. He seems genuinely happy to be there, and he puts as much effort into his role as he does any indie drama he’s ever been in. Mysterio’s origin story is both buried deep in the MCU’s history, while also making a metatextual commentary on that history. In fact, he’s a character that could only exist after 10+ years of MCU fllms, but Gyllenhaal’s solid, sure-gripped performance keeps everything grounded.
It’s actors and performances like Holland’s, Gyllenhaal’s, and Zendaya’s that keep Far From Home from sinking under its own weight at times. The film’s first half has some major pacing issues that keep it from building a lot of momentum, focusing so much on Peter’s everyday struggles that we forget we’re watching a Marvel movie entirely. A handful of shoddy CGI moments in the first half don’t help, either, although once we get to Europe, things start to improve.
The film also has too many subplots that add little to nothing to the main story. A side story about Peter’s friend Ned is only slightly more relevant than the flirtation between Stark’s associate Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) and Peter’s Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). The latter seems to exist only as an excuse to keep Tomei in the franchise, which is honestly welcome while also being a bit of narrative dead weight. Similarly, while the subplot of handsome jock Brad (Remy Hii) vying with Peter for MJ’s affections doesn’t amount to anything, it does lead to a few humorous scenes, and Hii does his very best to make his scenes register.
It’s all those extraneous threads and beats that keep Far From Home from truly swinging off into the stratosphere, but the film as a whole is still a welcome, refreshing breeze compared to the storming emotional resonance of Endgame. It’s never as wickedly entertaining and efficient as last year’s Into the Spider-Verse, but it’s as humorous, colorful, and agile as you’d expect a Spider-Man film to be. Even though it’s a clear emotional evolution and maturation from Spider-Man: Homecoming, it’s still a vacation of its own from the epic nature of the MCU’s recent output. And like most vacations, it might not be perfect, but it leaves you with a lot of pleasant memories.
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B