Tom Holland swings into action in his second solo outing as Marvel’s web-slinger, but circumstances have changed substantially for teen Peter Parker since he first acquired his super powers in 2017’s origin-story reboot, “Homecoming.” He died, one of the victims of Thanos’ population-cleansing scheme in “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018), only to be predictably resuscitated, along with all the others lost, in “Avengers: Endgame” earlier this year. (Supposedly the “blip,” as it’s now called according to this picture, lasted a full half-decade, but that would have been an unconscionably long release hiatus in the Marvel Universe, whose financial exigencies demand the appearance of episodes at a much more rapid clip.) Despite the five-year passage of time, moreover, the returnees aged not a whit during the absence—surely a solace to Holland, who might otherwise have had to be replaced, even if he is actually a twenty-three year old playing younger.
Parker also must come to terms with the loss of Tony Stark, or Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), his mentor in the superhero trade and practically a surrogate father to him, who sacrificed himself in “Endgame” to counteract Thanos’ experiment in improving the universe through reverse Malthusianism. Morose memories of the lost hero haunt him, as do doubts about his ability to don the mantle of leadership that Stark intended him to take on. (Still, there’s room for a bit of levity even regarding such somber matters, as in the acronym Stark has assigned to the A.I. glasses he’s bequeathed to Peter.)
Given all that Parker has been through, it’s understandable that he feels the need for a break from spandex, so he’s looking forward to his class trip to Europe, not merely because it will give him a breather from Spidey duties—he doesn’t even want to take his costume along, though Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) packs it without his knowing—but because he has elaborate plans to use the excursion to announce his feelings for MJ (Zendaya) in the most romantic way imaginable.
Both elements of his plan go awry, of course, which reflects the essentially bifurcated nature of the picture—a characteristic it shares with its predecessor. Much of “Far From Home” is a high school comedy, starting with the opening sequence—an amusing Midtown High remembrance of the Blip and memorial to the heroes lost correcting it—and continuing through Peter’s stumbling efforts to get close to MJ, a thread that involves a handsome rival (Remi Hii) for her affections. It’s also in hilarious contrast to the good fortune of Peter’s best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) in linking up on the plane ride over with MJ’s best friend Betty (Angourie Rice). To add to the comic tone, the students are accompanied by a couple dorky teachers—bumbling Mr. Harrington (Martin Starr) and goofy Mr. Dell (JB Smoove). All of this is lighthearted, written affectionately in John Hughes style by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers and nicely played by director Jon Watts and his cast.
Naturally, the tale of teen romance is interrupted by Peter’s being called back to superhero duty by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his aide Maria (Cobie Smuthers). Earth, it seems, is being attacked by planet-destroying entities, called the Elementals for short—huge beings based on the four elements of ancient science. One has already destroyed a Mexican village, as we have seen in a prologue; luckily, an extraterrestrial ally showed up to assist—Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), a warrior who wears a fishbowl-like helmet in which strange fogs swirl and shoots beams of green power against his foes. He explains that he’s the last of the defenders of his home world, which was eradicated by the Elementals, and has followed them to earth to continue the battle. Fury has determined that the next target will be Venice, where Peter just happens to be, and insists that the boy embrace his responsibility and join Beck to combat the threat.
Parker demurs, but cannot stand idly by when the water monster invades the Venetian canals and his friends are endangered. He then agrees to go to Prague with the tour and join Beck in setting a trap for the Fire monster. Peter dons a new black suit in order to fool people into believing he’s not Spider-Man—in a humorous twist the public will come to call him Night Monkey—and Beck will eventually be dubbed Mysterio.
In the Marvel comic canon, of course, Mysterio is a venerable Spider-Man villain who traditionally relied on illusion—special effects trickery and hallucinogenic drugs—to torment the web-slinger. Here, however, he is reincarnated as a heroic figure with whom Peter bonds, becoming in effect a stand-in for Iron Man. Indeed, Peter concludes that Beck must be the true successor to Stark, and hands over the special glasses that were his inheritance from the mogul to him.
Of course, all is not as it seems, as the final act of the movie, played out in London, will demonstrate. An orgy of twists and CGI will culminate in Peter’s final embrace of his destiny, followed by a mid-credits scene that suggests his path will be very different from what he anticipated; a second sequence at the close of the credits suggests, moreover, that there was plenty of subterfuge going on throughout the entire movie, a spillover from “Captain Marvel” as well as “Endgame.” What that will mean for the continuation of the entire Universe narrative is an open question.
But that’s all for the future. For now, “Far From Home” is an engaging addition to the seemingly endless supply of product from the Marvel pipeline, bolstered by Holland’s winning turn and a welcome sense of humor, though the motive and workings of the villain’s scheme remain opaque. Within the limitations, however, Gyllenhaal delivers a canny performance, especially in the scenes he shares with Holland in the first half of the picture and Jackson does his stentorian shtick with zest, while Tomei and Jon Favreau, as Happy Hogan, Stark’s former aide and now Parker’s helper, both elicit some smiles. But it’s the younger cast members—Zendaya, Batalon and Rice—who, along with Holland, are especially enjoyable. The effects team, under Janek Sirrs’ supervision, does a reasonably good job, and the other technical contributions—Claude Paré’s production design, Matthew J. Lloyd’s cinematography, the editing by Dan Lebental and Leigh Folsom Boyd—are up to the Marvel Universe’s usual standards, as is Michael Giacchino’s score.
The result is a Spider-Man movie that’s a tad superior to its immediate predecessor, and as good as the first two Tobey Maguire outings. Depending on how the makers take the implications of that mid-credits sequence, however, the web slinger’s next cinematic move could take a fairly radical turn.