"...a quiet little sojourn into the mind of a grieving teen reconciling what he’s seen with his age."

Spider-Man's European Vacation

(070619) WARNING: There will obviously be Avengers: Endgame spoilers below.

It’s a post-“blip” world (the word humanity has agreed upon as a stand-in for the five-year period where half of world’s population disappeared at the snap of Thanos’ fingers) and the usual faces are gone. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) can no longer rely on Steve Rogers’ idealism, Natasha Romanoff’s loyalty, or Tony Stark’s genius as a last line of defense when Earth is challenged with a force the boots on the ground simply cannot handle. Captain Marvel is off saving planets light years away, Thor is chumming it up with the Guardians of the Galaxy, and Sam Wilson probably hasn’t fully transitioned from wings to shield to truly wrap his head around what he’s lost. The only American-based Avenger still intact (more or less) is a teenager.

And you can’t really say that considering the bond Peter Parker (Tom Holland) had with Stark. As an orphan being raised by his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), Tony was more than a mentor. He was a father figure to admire even when he didn’t think himself worthy of such adulation. He taught Peter what it meant to be heroic, to sacrifice, and to understand nobody can do what they do alone. So while he’s still a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man attending high school with a majority of his friends who also got “blipped” and therefore remained in the same grade as him (Zendaya‘s MJ, Jacob Batalon‘s Ned, Tony Revolori‘s Flash, and Angourie Rice‘s Betty), Peter doesn’t quite know what to do next … what Tony would have him do next.

It doesn’t help that Iron Man murals have been painted on walls everywhere he turns to remind him how that line of communication and support is gone. And for a guy who was so gung-ho about joining the team that he almost helped an alien-tech arms dealer escape capture a few years back, experiencing defeat in space with a villain as powerful as Thanos would make anyone second-guess his/her place in the bigger picture. Maybe a school science trip to Europe is exactly what he needs to decompress and take stock. Maybe someone else can save the universe this week so the only pressure he feels is telling MJ he likes her.

This is the opening premise of Jon Watts‘ Spider-Man: Far From Home. Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers have seemingly written a quiet little sojourn into the mind of a grieving teenager reconciling what he’s seen with his age. There’s a real sense of introspection by all involved whether a budding romance between Aunt May and Tony’s head of security Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) or Peter receiving a final posthumous gift from Stark in the form of sunglasses with an impossibly intuitive, artificial intelligence codenamed EDITH. So when Fury shows up in Peter’s Venice hotel room to usher him towards a meeting with the enigmatic Quentin “Mysterio” Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), you can relate to the exasperated sigh. Can he compartmentalize his priorities and jump into the flames again? Should he?

It’s a great way to throw us back into this world so soon after Avengers: Endgame because it dials things down to deal with what’s been left. That doesn’t mean the film isn’t also funny, however, since it’s still a coming-of-age adventure with hormonal teens and ill-equipped teachers. Spider-Man needs this duality in tone to succeed because he’s just an awkward kid trying his best that can’t stop himself from putting those he loves above any grand utilitarian ideal of “the greater good.” He must be allowed the room to make mistakes and hopefully learn from them despite a super-suit full of bells and whistles to complement an off-the-charts IQ like Tony. Peter’s insecurities are thus his cross to bear in lieu of his idol’s parallel ego-fueled guilt.

The mission this time around stems from a force similar in scope to the Greek Gods that’s risen to destroy the planet like they did Beck’s. He explains he’s from an alternate Earth within the multiverse—the last surviving warrior who’s made it his mission to save other worlds from the same scourge. Fury and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) cross his path while Beck defeats two of the four, offering assistance for the rest. Being that Spider-Man is such a tool in their belt regardless of his own autonomy, they capitalize on the coincidence of his class being in Europe with the elementals to bring him up to speed. He must consequently make a choice. Be Spider-Man and live his destiny or reclaim his childhood as Peter Parker.

Anyone who knows the name Mysterio knows he’s a super villain in the Spider-Man canon. And while you can probably guess what it is that’s happening to predict why Beck and Peter will inevitably be on opposite sides, the reason might still surprise you. Gyllenhaal’s performance shifting from stoically compassionate role model to unhinged wild card might too unless you’ve seen what he’s done in Okja and Velvet Buzzsaw to prepare yourself for the eccentric characters he has gravitated towards of late. Because the trailers have done a real good job keeping things contained to the film’s first act, however, I don’t want to be the one to spoil what is an effective flip if also certifiably manic in its retrofitting of the franchise to make it all work.

What I will say is that the whole adopts a weirdly satisfying meta-narrative wherein we go behind the Hollywood computer graphics curtain to watch the artifice broken down as a form of artifice in its own right. There’s this sense of illusion wherein nothing you see can ever be trusted with Watts and company crafting a couple set pieces that prove more surreal than the gravity-defying fight choreography of Doctor Strange since bending physics can never equal the horrific disorientation of manipulated hallucination. One extended sequence has the potential of giving you motion sickness as Spider-Man is thrown into vertigo-inducing free falls with but two feet of distance to the ground before the entire environment shifts to instantly do it all over again somewhere completely different.

But while the production design and special effects are top-notch entertainment to match Gyllenhaal’s go-for-broke villainy, McKenna and Sommers placed it atop their more grounded plot about a teenager coming into his own. They broach the subjects of puppy love, social media, and privacy via Peter’s classmates while also setting up a more profound commentary on the current state of our world making it so we’ve become too numb towards “crazy” to question, fact-check, or trust ourselves in the face of the powerful dissuasion that mass paranoia and shared delusion inflict. The latter involves both the wide reach of Mysterio’s apocalyptic visions and the unyielding public projection of who Spider-Man should become that hits Peter without any thought of the person who’s wearing the mask.

In the end it’s this more personal, insular story that allows Far From Home to exist as a bridge to more exhilarating drama yet to come. Think of the Ant-Man films rather than Captain America where over-arching narrative takes a backseat to pure character building. Here’s the thing, though: sometimes that’s better because we’re not constantly inundated with the severity of what it all means. Some of that comes through simply because this is Avengers: Endgame's epilogue and thus inherently mired in war’s cost, but it’s mostly an awakening for Peter to step into the spotlight and realize he might have what it takes to honor Stark’s legacy after all. And while the mid-credit culmination is explosive, a journey can often prove just as worthwhile as its unforgettable destination.

Directed by:   Jon Watts
Written by:   Screenplay by Erik Sommers, from a story by Chris McKenna.  Based on the Marvel Comics characters and stories by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko.
Starring:   Tom Holland, Samuel L. Jackson, Jake Gyllenhaal 
Released:   070219
Length:   129 minutes
Rating:    Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some language and brief suggestive comments

SPIDERMAN FAR FROM HOME © 2019 Walt Disney Pictures
Review © 2019 Alternate Reality, Inc.