As the first movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to be released after the shoot-the-works finale of the “Avengers” saga, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” gets to test-drive a crucial question of blockbuster culture, if not movie aesthetics: What does it feel like to watch a Marvel film in a post-Avengers world? Is there anything at stake left?
There has, on occasion, been something at stake in a Marvel movie (“Iron Man,” the first two “Captain America” films, “Black Panther,” fill in your quirky favorite), yet rarely does it have much to do with how the end of civilization looms up in these movies. It has to do with that mysterious, hard-to-bottle chemistry of audience and superhero — the flow of actor, character, mythology, and FX concept as they merge and navigate a universe of eye-widening hermetic excitement. On that score, “Far From Home” takes a quantum leap — or maybe just a spider swing — over the first Peter Parker film in the MCU, 2017’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” (Many out there were fans; I was mixed.)
The key to the new movie’s appeal, apart from the fact that Tom Holland acts with far greater confidence and verve in the title role, is that the entire film is a bit of a fake-out, and I mean that in a very positive way. There’s a good twist, and it’s totally central (I won’t reveal it), but what’s resonant about it is that it enables “Far From Home” to play around with the very issue of what matters in a superhero movie.
Peter, now 16, is about to embark on a class trip to Europe — an educational jaunt through several classic locations, which he’s looking forward to mostly as a chance to woo MJ, played by Zendaya as a girl so sharp and tough and knowing that she’s not going to give her heart to just anyone, or maybe anyone at all. Zendaya is sly enough to play attitude as armor; we see the cool and the cover-up. The plane ride over to Venice is a mini cheeseball rom-com in which Peter, seated rows away from MJ, has to watch her connect with Brad Davis (Remy Hii), a kid in his class who aged five years during “the blip” — the murder of half the human race, and the reinstatement of same, that the last two “Avengers” movies were about. He’s now a ripped and handsome dude who’s become Peter’s rival for MJ’s affections.
At heart, it’s all very teen-movie standard, as is the over-the-top joke of a nattering nerd like Ned (Jacob Batalon) and a Betty like Betty (Angourie Rice) calling each other “babe” by the end of the plane trip. The superhero element is that Peter has been given an invaluable gift by his late hero and mentor, Tony Stark — it’s Tony’s tinted glasses, which when you put them on speak to you in a Siri voice named Edith, which commands a multi-tracked intelligence system worth billions of dollars. When Peter, in a semi-inadvertent act of passive aggression, uses Edith to call forth a drone to attack Brad during a bus ride, it’s a lethal joke, but it’s also a sign of how powerful Edith is.
In Venice, Peter and his high-school chums are confronted by what is showcased as the film’s apocalyptic villains: a series of humongous FX creatures known as the Elementals, who come from another world, or from the elements (or something), and take the form of a water monster made entirely of surging, crashing waves that rise up out of the city’s green canals and destroy everything around them (the damage done to Venetian architecture — bridges, church towers — makes the collapsing Venice building at the climax of “Casino Royale” look like a fallen shingle), and then, in Prague, a spectacular beast of roaring fire that looks like the spectacular beast of roaring fire we’ve seen in a dozen other movies.
But there’s also a new hero on hand: Quentin Beck, played by Jake Gyllenhaal as an eagle-eyed evil-fighter who wears a helmet that resembles a fish bowl (or maybe a snow globe) filled with gas. Quentin shoots out a welter of iridescent green lightning that looks like the most awesome visual effect of 1982, and after Peter and his pals nickname him “Mysterio” (based on Italian news reports about his exploits), the name sticks, and he takes Peter under his wing. There’s a touching moment between the two when Peter asks Quentin to try on Tony’s glasses, and the older crime-fighter, with his beard and raffish grin, suddenly bears a remarkable resemblance to Tony.
Quentin, it turns out, isn’t quite what he seems, but that’s a routine twist. The real twist is that reality, in “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” isn’t what it seems. Peter, who tries to hide the fact that he’s Spider-Man by donning a black ninja version of his costume (inspiring Europeans to call him “the Night Monkey”), is fighting a magic trick of evil. It’s as if he’s in a matrix he has to unplug from — and when he does, the film almost seems to be commenting on the fanciful essence of comic-book cinema. Mysterio, beneath his powers, turns out to be a kind of flimflam visual-effects wizard. But is this a meta statement on the genre or just a neat way of pulling the rug out from under us?
It’s mostly rug-pulling, though of a deft and satisfying sort. The most recent “Spider-Man” movie, the animated “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” was a head-spinning piece of pop art, and there are moments when this one echoes its playful and layered spirit, though to less visionary effect. Yet the director, Jon Watts, returning from “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” doesn’t just rehash the standard sticky-web flying theatrics. (This is the eighth “Spider-Man” movie; we’ve been there, spun that.) He pits Spider-Man against a drone army of illusion, a one-way mirror controlled by a button.
There is, the more you think about it, a logical glitch built into the premise (is actual destruction being done? and if so, how?), yet the movie spins you past it. Gyllenhaal’s performance, which starts off a bit dorky, turns into a knowing piece of satire, and though Holland, in his boyishly appealing away, still comes uncomfortably close at times to suggesting the second coming of Patrick Dempsey, he plays Peter as an instinctive but reluctant hero whose doubts about his ability to live up to the role that Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has chosen for him evolve into a genuine inner conflict — he’s torn between viewing himself as the boy he is and growing up a lot faster than he’d like to.
Where does “Far From Home” fall on the scale of “Spider-Man” movies? It’s more urgent than the last one (and should be even bigger at the box office), with a richer sense of malevolence, and Holland’s kid-in-over-his-head hero — awkward and ingenuous, romantic and quicksilver — is alive inside in a way that Andrew Garfield’s Peter never was. “Far From Home” gets closer, in spirit, to the good Tobey Maguire films. (It has a kiss worthy of the first “Spider-Man.”) By the end, this Spider-Man really does find his tingle, yet coming after “Into the Spider-Verse,” with its swirling psychedelic imagery and identity games and trap doors of perception, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” touches all the bases of a conventional Marvel movie. It doesn’t take you out of this world. But it’s good enough to summon the kick — or maybe just the illusion — of consequence.