Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.
While on a school trip to Europe, Peter Parker teams up with a new superhero to battle rampaging Elemental creatures…
The world is in mourning and the students at New York City’s Midtown High School have put together an in-memoriam video. After the events of Avengers: Endgame, several of the planet’s biggest superheroes are now out of the picture – including the late Tony Stark, aka Iron Man. As well as marking the start of a new phase in the Marvel Cinematic Universe series, the video also neatly reminds us of its recent ‘blipping’ storyline, which saw half of all life cease to exist for a period of time. Viewers who have only been following Spider-Man’s solo films would otherwise be justified in asking why the main characters in this sequel are still in school despite it being five years later.
Aside from not having existing for half a decade, not much has changed for schoolboy Peter Parker (Tom Holland). He still lives with his MILFy Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), is still attracted to his iconoclastic classmate MJ (Zendaya), is still best pals with the nerdy Ned (Jacob Batalon)… and is still splitting his time between studying and secretly suiting up as the superhero Spider-Man. But Pete can sense that a big change is on its way. With so many other Avengers now out of the game, Peter fears that he’ll be asked to step up and become a full-time protector of humanity. He’s even started to ignore phone calls from Avengers supremo Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson, in roughly his 700th MCU appearance).
A convenient distraction then arrives in the form of an overseas school trip. We’re launched into what could be described as Marvel’s European Vacation, which sees Peter, Ned, MJ and their friends travel to ‘Venice, Italy’. There’s wide-eyed sightseeing, musical montages, romantic hijinks, language confusions, and a trip to the world’s least-well-attended opera. As with Tom Holland’s first Spider-Man film, it’s all very light on its feet and likeable – the only blemish being the overly goofy teacher characters who fail to raise a smile. Holland himself is breathlessly energetic and endearing. But just as everything is going nicely touristy, disaster strikes. A huge water monster rises out of Venice’s canals and begins to cause carnage. Peter knows he should leap into action to help people – and helpfully, Aunt May has remembered to pack his Spider-Man outfit – but he can’t risk revealing his identity. Then another hero arrives on the scene and deals with the threat…
The newcomer, who soon acquires the suitably cool name of Mysterio, is the film’s main guest star and is played by Jake Gyllenhaal. At first he appears to be a derivative mish-mash of previous MCU characters – the look of Thor, the abilities of Doctor Strange, the nobility of Captain America – and the way he bests the ‘Water Elemental’ is via a typically busy, noisy, slightly cartoony and over-scored flurry of action, stunts and CGI. We’ve seen all this before, haven’t we? Well, yes we have. Many, many times. But there’s a postmodern sting in this tale…
After the chaos has subsided, Nick Fury arrives in Venice and introduces Peter to Mysterio, who says his real name is Quentin Beck and he’s from a now-destroyed version of Earth in an alternate reality. ‘This is Earth 616,’ he tells Peter. ‘I’m from Earth 833.’ The notion of there being several parallel Earths has long been a staple in superhero comic books, which have used the idea of a multiverse to present fresh takes on the same characters as well as team-up crossover events. The MCU film series has actually sourced some of its stories and ideas from more than one of these ‘realities’, while the concept has been a big feature of both the animated Marvel film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and the various TV shows in DC’s Arrowverse franchise.
The thing is, though? It’s all a lie. The multiverse idea in Far From Home is just sleight-of-hand intended to disguise Beck’s true identity and motivations. After Peter and Mysterio become close and even fight side by side when a Fire Elemental monster roars through Prague, the movie pulls one of those bold plot twists that occur every now and again in the MCU series. The reveal comes at the end of a downbeat, confessional scene around the hour mark. Peter has been struggling with his destiny as the new Tony Stark, and Mysterio – still in his superhero get-up – offers kindly, avuncular advice while the two chat in a quiet Prague pub. However, once a pepped-up Peter has left, the furnishings slowly fade away, as do some of the patrons. The scene was a piece of theatre, refitting an abandoned building as a busy bar via hologrammatic projectors. Beck then breaks character and we realise that Peter has been had. He’s the mark in the kind of long con used in The Sting or Ocean’s 11.
But there’s more going on here than just a flip-flop story point. ‘Someone get this stupid costume off me,’ Beck cries to his team, now he can stop acting like a hero. That disparaging remark about the ‘Mysterio’ outfit is the start of a smart and self-aware deconstruction of the Marvel house style. It soon becomes clear that Spider-man: Far From Home is having some fun at its own expense. In fact, it’s spoofing the whole superhero-movie genre.
We’re quickly told the backstory and the team’s motivations. Beck *is* from Peter’s version of Earth, and was actually a colleague of Tony Stark’s. Furious that Tony stole some of his breakthrough work without adequate credit – and jealous that Iron Man’s mantle is now being passed on to a teenager – he wants revenge. He’s rounded up some similarly aggrieved people and devised a plan. The destroyed version of Earth in an alternate dimension is just a cover story, an invention designed to fool Peter and Nick Fury. In con-artist terminology, it’s the convincer. It also fools us viewers, because it’s precisely the kind of plotline that today’s superhero films dabble with. ‘A soldier from another Earth named Quentin fighting space monsters in Europe is totally ridiculous,’ sneers Beck to his minions. ‘And apparently the kind of thing people will believe right now.’ He’s talking as much about modern cinema-goers as he is about Peter and Nick.
We also learn that Beck’s team are using holo technology and covert weapons to stage the Elemental attacks. The monsters themselves are just part of the illusion. This means an extra level of self-aware tomfoolery, because we then see Beck reviewing the ‘special effects’ beforehand. He watches a rehearsal of the faux carnage behind closed doors, and asks for tweaks and changes like a movie director approving the work of his VFX team. The sequence is fun and unexpected, but it’s also ridiculing the artifice of modern blockbusters. That’s an admirable joke for a billion-dollar franchise to pull.
If there’s a downside, then perhaps it’s that the metatextuality draws attention to this version of Spider-Man sometimes not feeling very Spider-Man-y. The MCU approach to the character has been to mould him into a replacement Iron Man. The character’s original USP – a friendly neighbourhood crime-fighter – is being ignored in favour of him acquiring a can-do-anything cybersuit, a pair of hi-tech smart glasses and help from an AI voiced by a sexy female. There’s fun in the way Peter – sometimes inadvertently – uses his new tech to get the upper hand in his bid to date MJ, but the youthful, playful distinction of the original character is being blurred. Perhaps the MCU creative team have sympathy with Quentin Beck. After all, Beck and his associates want the power that comes from being the planet’s biggest superhero – and, as Beck says, if you have a cape and some lasers then everyone will listen to you.
Eight Night Monkeys out of 10