A villain creates crises that only he can save us from. When out of the spotlight, he utters lines like “I control the truth,” and “it’s easy to fool people when they’re already fooling themselves.” Meanwhile, a shrill InfoWars-style “journalist” props up the conspiracies spun by the villain.
Sound familiar? Welcome to the Marvel universe in the age of Trump and alternative facts.
Despite these intriguingly timely premises, Spider-Man: Far from Home is one of the weaker entries in the Marvel repertoire. Aside from too-infrequent heartfelt drama, it mostly feels as though the actors are gamely attempting to inject life into a lazy script.
This is unfortunate, because director Jon Watts has plenty of fine actors on hand, including Marisa Tomei (Aunt May), Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury), and Jake Gyllenhaal (as newcomer Quentin Beck, or Mysterio). And Tom Holland (Spidey) looks to be stretching himself too thinly these days – IMDb lists seven movies still slated for release this year or next! – but he’s done excellent work in prior films like The Lost City of Z.
Then there’s the humor that falls flat as often as not. Tony Revelori showed himself capable of subtle comedy in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, but here, he’s a Disney Channel version of a high school bully. Worse yet, pity poor Martin Starr – gut-laugh hilarious in Freaks and Geeks and Silicon Valley – for being cast as a cartoonishly dopey science teacher.
This is all the more a shame because the first Spider-Man movie in its latest reboot, 2017’s Homecoming, was such an enjoyable outing. I appreciate, too, Marvel’s efforts to diversify its cast. Peter Parker’s best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) and his obsessive love interest MJ (Zendaya) have more melanin than his peers in the earlier Spider-Man incarnations centered on Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield.
Spider-Man: Far from Home does have other strengths, however. Cleverly beginning with a high school news broadcast memorializing the superheroes who died fighting Thanos, it shows Peter flailing about for a new mentor and father figure after Tony Stark’s passing. As the old song says, there’s always something there to remind him, with memorials to Iron Man everywhere he looks.The story smartly continues the perennial Spidey theme of “with great power comes great responsibility,” as Peter simply wants to be a kid enjoying a high school trip to Europe with his best friend, scheming to woo MJ. Complicating matters is a tech gizmo bequeathed to Peter by Tony, signifying that Iron Man wanted Spider-Man to join the ranks of the Avengers.
Into the void left by Iron Man steps Mysterio/Quentin Beck, arriving from a parallel universe to fight elementals threatening every corner of the planet. The water elemental conveniently pops up in Venice, just as Peter’s school trip arrives there. As Quentin lost his family, and Peter lost Tony, they seem to complement one another. Quentin praises Peter’s intelligence and bravery, while calmly offering paternal advice.
It’s unfortunate this promising plot isn’t shored up by inspired directing or consistently plausible dialogue. And Mysterio is a fascinating character, psychologically and visually. His swirling cloud helmet, the green energy bolts he fires from his hands, the illusions he’s able to craft: all of these feel new and vibrant.
Spider-Man: Far from Home ends with a delectable tease of thematic directions its next installment might head towards. This gives me some hope, as Spider-Man has been my favorite superhero since childhood, and 2004’s Spider-Man 2 (the one with Alfred Molina as Doc Ock) and last year’s exuberant Into the Spider-Verse proved that terrific stories about the boy with the Spider sense can be realized on screen.
Additionally, in my corner of Bible Belt Trumplandia, I welcome any blockbuster that could prompt viewers to question beliefs built on illusion. As Mysterio says, “People need to believe something; and nowadays, they’ll believe anything.”
(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )