Film (2019). Marvel Studios, Columbia Pictures, Pascal Pictures. Directed by Jon Watts. Written by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, based on the Marvel Comic by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Cast includes Jacob Batalon, Jon Favreau, Jake Gyllenhaal, Tom Holland, Samuel L Jackson, J B Smoove, Cobie Smulders, Martin Starr, Marisa Tomei and Zendaya. 129 minutes. Colour.
Marvel staple Nick Fury (Jackson) investigates attacks from the Earth and Air Elementals which were foiled by Quentin Beck (Gyllenhaal), soon known for his exploits as Mysterio; he explains to Fury that he is a warrior from a Parallel World version of Earth where his family and civilization were destroyed by the Elementals, driving him to come to the somewhat chastened recent world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to prevent the same disaster happening again. Fury, apparently taking this as gospel, turns to Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Holland) to protect the planet, delivering control of the late Tony Stark's Weapons arsenal to Peter in the form of a pair of glasses which give him access to an AI control system pithily called Even Dead, I'm The Hero or E.D.I.T.H. But Peter is on a school trip to Europe, so what follows is a harassment campaign by Nick Fury where he follows him across Europe, pressuring him into abandoning his commitment to school and an ordinary teenage social life to be a hero full-time. This attempted conscription of a child soldier is portrayed as the reasonable behaviour of a heroic figure.
Peter is more impressed with Quentin Beck/Mysterio. Empathetic and kind, Beck respects Peter's opinions and decisions, leading Peter to see him, if not as a surrogate father like Tony Stark, then at least a cool uncle. During a meeting in Prague, Peter surrenders the E.D.I.T.H. glasses to Beck, believing him worthier of the burden of controlling the world's greatest nongovernmental weapons of mass destruction. Beck then immediately reveals himself as the mastermind behind the Elemental Attacks, leading to the traditional final battle between Peter and a villainous ex-mentor.
Spider-Man: Far from Home is not a wholly bad movie. It has its high points, mainly thanks to its cast. Gyllanhaal and Holland successfully cultivate a sense of camaraderie, trust and friendship that makes Mysterio's suddenly-revealed villainy genuinely shocking, while Holland and Zendaya's teen romance is truly charming to see blossom. Visually, it is a beautiful film, as it should be with its access to the best effects and production money can buy. Despite its connection to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, many of the tortuous plot points of the other Marvel films are reduced to background events, which gives the film a refreshing freedom; it is almost possible to forget you are watching a Marvel film at times, at least until the next mention of Tony Stark. It follows closely in the footsteps of its predecessor, Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) directed by Jon Watts, and that is where it commits its greatest sins. Although it is written by Chris McKenna and Erik Somers, who worked on the previous instalment, its most regrettable failing is that it does not seem to know what to do with the character of Peter Parker.
The heart and soul of Spider-Man as a character lies in his working-class background and in his connection to the city of New York, whose geography, culture and people are almost as much part of the Spider-Man mythology as the character and his Villains. In every iteration, Spider-Man has been a young person from Queens struggling to juggle the responsibilities of his family, school or career, and superhero work, along with the personal and financial stresses that entails. He has always been designed to be relatable; even in comics where he joined the Avengers, he was constantly cast as the big brother figure to the teenage superhero teams like the Runaways onto whom readers were supposed to project. More than that, his roots in Queens, his family's modest means and inability to completely devote himself to any one aspect of his life mean that his anxiety and personal dramas have always been ones that young people can project their own anxieties onto.
This is a fact that is entirely lost on the writers of Far from Home, who separate the character from his city; turning him from a "friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man" into a member of an international paramilitary with an arachnid theme. In Spider-Man: Homecoming, the antagonist is a small business owner whose contract to clean up the city is taken over by Stark Industries, leading him to be driven out of business and turn to illegal weapons dealing as a way of making a living. In Far from Home, the villain Beck/Mysterio is similarly a disgruntled former employee of Stark Industries, who has formed a union of like-minded former employees. Beck's true villainous motivations are revealed in a scene where he monologues to his fellow union members about how their life's work was stolen by Tony Stark, who then left the Technology made possible by their expertise in the hands of a child. The disgruntled employees now seek to use their hologram and weapons technology to manufacture the Elemental attacks and the figure of Mysterio in order to take advantage of the world's infatuation with heroism, bombastic splendour and raw power over knowledge and hard work. It is difficult to disagree with their opinion of the Marvel universe. But in gaining this perspective they transform Peter Parker from a working-class teenager into the surrogate son and heir of a billionaire weapons profiteer in control of a ballistic weapons system, which he then uses against fellow members of the working class whose livelihoods were ruined by Stark Industries. Spider-Man: Far from Home essentially turns Peter Parker into a superpowered union buster.
The final act of the movie takes place in London, where Mysterio and his crew stage use E.D.I.T.H. to stage an attack which they can then foil, making sure that Mysterio's reputation as a hero is firmly established. Peter, with the help of Mary-Jane and Tony Stark's onetime driver Happy, pursue him there and eventually defeat him against the backdrop of the Thames and London's iconic skyline (one wonders why supervillain fights never take place in Cardiff or Sigtuna). In a mid-final-credits scene, as Peter and Mary-Jane begin their relationship among the rooftops of New York, footage of Mysterio's final moments is broadcast, doctored to frame Spider-Man for the drone attack and his death before exposing his secret identity to the world, thereby falling back on that old reliable standard of Spider-Man as both a beloved icon of New York and a put-upon misunderstood hero hated by the boomers of his city. [DN]