Skip to main content

Please do not start calling it my “Peter Tingle”.

Spider-Man: Far From Home
(2019)

(SPOILERS) I had a feeling the makers of Spider-Man: Far From Home weren’t making life easy for themselves when they picked Mysterio as – yes – the villain the piece, and the finished movie bears that out. Because Quentin Beck’s nature as an illusionist/ master manipulator, rather than an antagonist prone to getting into extended punch-ups with our hero, means there’s added onus on dexterous, surprising and slippery plotting, and screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers only partially succeed in that regard. Which doesn’t mean Far From Home fails to deliver a series of standout sequences and twists, but as a whole it just isn’t as well sustained as its Spider-predecessor.

McKenna and Sommers – who have been on something of a big-screen roll over the last three years, with The Lego Batman Movie, Homecoming, Welcome to the Jungle and Ant-Man and the Wasp – only add to their hurdles by setting the movie around a school summer trip to Europe. Rather than an avalanche of bawdy incident – although, Peter Parker does get snapped with his trousers down – in the context of a superhero movie, this leads to a stop-start structure that has difficulty gaining momentum. Peter, previously eager to be an Avenger and do anything and everything superheroic, is now dragging his heels about the same, mooning over MJ (so this is equivalent, sort-of-not, to Spider-Man 2’s Spider-Man No More!). It works in context – because the teen stuff in these movies is so well honed – but it’s also a touch awkward, the kid formerly leaping at the chance not to be thought of as a teen now only wanting to be one.

These early scenes are full of great material, nevertheless. Much as Homecoming amusingly recapped (Spidey’s involvement in) Civil War, Far From Home addresses everything – well, most of the things – you considered might arise as a consequence of Endgame’s five-year lag for returning snapees, with all manner of amusing (Flash ratted for trying to buy drink on an airplane) and disturbed consequences (Mr Harrington’s wife pretended she’d been snapped so as to leave him). But you feel yourself waiting for the plot proper to kick in – there’s a teaser scene introducing Jake Gyllenhaal’s Quentin Beck/ Mysterio, and it’s just off enough to make you unsure about him even if you don’t know his history. If you do know his history, you’re left wondering how much the (as it turns out, fake-out) multiverse device may be retconning his character (but let’s face it, everyone who did presumed it would only be up to a point); as it turns out, every initial assumption is correct, that Beck is who he usually is, and his Elementals are just fancy holograms.

The problem with all of this is that you can feel yourself waiting for a reveal or twist for a good hour of the running time – not that the proceedings aren’t mostly amiable, enjoyable and diverting, because they are, but there’s no real internal tension, and if anything’s going to ultimately adversely affect Far From Home’s box office, it’s this. Peter doesn’t even get to be especially proactive or intuitive with regard to Beck’s machinations; he has to have a whacking great illusion shown to him as exactly that before he cottons on. And then we’re treated to what I have to assume is self-aware piece of exposition from Beck congratulating his team. Why? Because it goes on for so long. But it isn’t especially witty, so I don’t know how much that’s actually the case. Plus, it seems the set mould for Peter’s villains’ motivation is to be dictated by Stark’s mistreatment/legacy – “He renamed my life’s work BARF” – which is as poor a crutch as a pervasive OsCorp.

These events give the movie the pulse it desperately needs, though, putting Peter on track to sort things out rather than backing out, and emphasising that, rather than just being a trickster, Quentin is a sociopath willing to kill with impunity. There’s still the essential problem that Gyllenhaal just doesn’t make a very interesting villain here – sure, he can fake amenability with Peter, and he can adopt a slightly camp theatricality as his natural self, but he’s unable to find anything to really dig in to (perhaps we should just be grateful he didn’t play the part in the style of Okja). I think, despite how well, at times, his trickery works, Beck might be the most vanilla of all Spidey foes across the various movie iterations (well, perhaps not Dan DeHaan’s Green Goblin).

Indeed, I’d reached the conclusion that it was only the double guessing of whether he really was a genuine hero from Earth-833 that sustained Beck at all… until the point where director Jon Watts goes full-on hyper-surreal and Peter’s experiential world crashes down around him. There are a couple of rather glib allusions to fake news explaining why Beck’s trickery lands so successfully, since people will believe anything right now (and pointedly, MJ is a conspiracy theorist, but in the dismissible movie sense rather than relating to any actual conspiracies), except one’s left thinking why shouldn’tthey, given the preconception-challenging nature of the MCU? I’d also been slightly underwhelmed by the “all done with mirrors”, Now You See Me sleight of hand of Beck and his crew (when you start to analyse the details of the Elementals fantasy, how long would the deceit actually have held up?) But this bravura sequence actually manages to conjure something of an all-consuming assault on the senses, whereby having one’s reality entirely overwhelmed and controlled suddenly becomes horribly, paralysingly feasible. The way in which Peter plunges from illusion to illusion without pause to gather breath kind of makes me wish Watts was making the Doctor Strange movies (I find it odd hearing some diminish his abilities; he isn’t a stylist, in the sense of one who draws attention to their manipulation of the frame, but he might be the best the MCU currently has at getting the most from the material).

Part of the pre-release conversation regarding the illusionary element concerned whether Nick Fury might or might not be Nick Fury, and it seemed inevitable that, at some point, Quentin would assume his identity; I entirely didn’texpect the reveal that he was a Skrull (Ben Mendelsohn’s Talos) for the entire movie, while actual Nick takes some R’n’R. Funny as that is, it’s also slightly irritating, since it implies that Beck didn’t have to aim very high to pull the wool over various eyes (ie he really is a c-list villain, despite the magnificent goldfish bowl – oh, what we missed not having Bruce Campbell play him).

Far From Home plays a lot with the subject of Peter’s secret identity, from the blasé way Nick (Skrull Nick) makes it clear everyone in SHIELD knows who Spider-Man really is, to MJ being suspicious – Zendaya has good chemistry with Holland, and the decision to have MJ find out yields dividends, both in the jostling for supreme confidante with Ned and her complete aversion to flying through the air with Spider-Man – and even Brad noting how weirdly he acts. So I don’t know where they’re intending to go after JJ Jonah Jameson reveals his identity to the world during the end credits. How do you backtrack on that? If you can’t, in a way, it’s a shame this element has been discarded, as a lot of the comedy value inherent in hiding his alter ego goes with it. On the other hand… all I could think was how fantastic it was to have JK Simmons back, twelve years later, as J Jonah. It’s rightly admitting no one could better his version, and he’s duly as superb as ever, if minus a little hair (that Beck survived was no surprise, since it’s in his nature). JB Smoove had been rumoured as the new Jameson, but he’s relegated to a teacher role that, by the picture’s PG-13 nature, doesn’t really make the best use of him.

Mention of JJ brings to mind another area that has hitherto been starkly lacking in both the Webb version and the MCU: Peter’s spider-sense, or “Peter Tingle”. It’s referenced so frequently here, I can only assume the makers of Homecoming had been duly chastened for failing to feature it. And it is well used in a Force way, with Peter having to pick his way through illusions using his senses alone.

Other areas work breezily in the manner of writers in their element – the Happy/May and Ned/Betty Brant subplots are note-perfect ("Night Monkey, save us!"), and it has to be said that Favreau is tops throughout this movie; I’d much rather see this from him creatively than his personality-free Disney live-action remakes. The spectre of Tony is large, of course, and generally well-used to reflective effect. Indeed, while I’m a big supporter of Tom Holland as a fun-loving incarnation of Peter/Spidey, his plumbing the depths here is instantly affecting. Naturally, Nick/Talos needs to guilt-trip him in Tony’s place – about not being fit to take his mentor’s baton – but the character has that self-inflicted pressure anyway; it just isn’t laid on with a trowel per earlier versions. I do think they need to start dispensing with the “Peter always screws up but then puts it right”, though, or he’ll just end up looking like Condorman. The whole deal with the EDITH glasses (“Even Dead I’m The Hero”) is very funny, especially the drone hit on Brad, but a hero has to come into his own at some point.

But the most salient area where the theme of Spider-Man replacing Iron Man takes shape has nothing do with the MCU’s internal hierarchy; it’s simply that Holland is the closest the series has come to a naturally engaging, charismatic lead since Robert Downey Jr. You can make Thor and Cap funny, but it mostly has to be manufactured around them; Holland is gifted a character he can channel his energies into, even when the overall results are patchy (but not Iron Man II patchy, fortunately). It will be interesting to see where Spidey is taken following Spider-Man: Far From Home, but there’s the sense that, with one more Sony film in their agreement, and the post-credits scenes here, Kevin Feige is striving for maximum eventfulness for the character under the assumption of losing him. Which would be a shame, as Holland isn’t even the age Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield were when they took on the role.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Big things have small beginnings.

Prometheus (2012) Post- Gladiator , Ridley Scott opted for an “All work and no pondering” approach to film making. The result has been the completion of as many movies since the turn of the Millennium as he directed in the previous twenty years. Now well into his seventies, he has experienced the most sustained period of success of his career.  For me, it’s also been easily the least-interesting period. All of them entirely competently made, but all displaying the machine-tooled approach that was previously more associated with his brother.

Isn’t sugar better than vinegar?

Femme Fatale (2002) (SPOILERS) Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.

Beer is for breakfast around here. Drink or begone.

Cocktail (1988) (SPOILERS) When Tarantino claims the 1980s (and 1950s) as the worst movie decade, I’m inclined to invite him to shut his butt down. But should he then flourish Cocktail as Exhibit A, I’d be forced to admit he has a point. Cocktail is a horrifying, malignant piece of dreck, a testament to the efficacy of persuasive star power on a blithely rapt and undiscerning audience. Not only is it morally vacuous, it’s dramatically inert. And it relies on Tom’s toothy charms to a degree that would have any sensitive soul rushed to the A&E suffering from toxic shock (Tom’s most recently displayed toothy charms will likely have even his staunchest devotees less than sure of themselves, however, as he metamorphoses into your favourite grandma). And it was a huge box office hit.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.

Moonraker (1979) Depending upon your disposition, and quite possibly age, Moonraker is either the Bond film that finally jumped the shark or the one that is most gloriously redolent of Roger Moore’s knowing take on the character. Many Bond aficionados will no doubt utter its name with thinly disguised contempt, just as they will extol with gravity how Timothy Dalton represented a masterful return to the core values of the series. If you regard For Your Eyes Only as a refreshing return to basics after the excesses of the previous two entries, and particularly the space opera grandstanding of this one, it’s probably fair to say you don’t much like Roger Moore’s take on Bond.

It's something trying to get out.

The Owl Service (1969-70) I may have caught a glimpse of Channel 4’s repeat of  The Owl Service  in 1987, but not enough to stick in the mind. My formative experience was Alan Garner’s novel, which was read several years earlier during English lessons. Garner’s tapestry of magical-mythical storytelling had an impact, with its possession theme and blending of legend with the here and now. Garner depicts a Britain where past and present are mutable, and where there is no safety net of objective reality; life becomes a strange waking dream. His fantasy landscapes are both attractive and disturbing; the uncanny reaching out from the corners of the attic.  But I have to admit that the themes of class and discrimination went virtually unnoticed in the wake of such high weirdness. The other Garner books I read saw young protagonists transported to fantasy realms. The resonance of  The Owl Service  came from the fragmenting of the rural normal. When the author notes that he neve

These are not soda cans you asked me to get for you.

The Devil’s Own (1997) (SPOILERS) Naturally, a Hollywood movie taking the Troubles as a backdrop is sure to encounter difficulties. It’s the push-pull of wanting to make a big meaningful statement about something weighty, sobering and significant in the real world and bottling it when it comes to the messy intricacies of the same. So inevitably, the results invariably tend to the facile and trite. I’m entirely sure The Devil’s Own would have floundered even if Harrison Ford hadn’t come on board and demanded rewrites, but as it is, the finished movie packs a lot of talent to largely redundant end.