NOTE: I’m going to spoil the entire movie for you if you haven’t seen it yet, so abandon hope all ye who enter here.
I’m serious, people.
This is your last chance. In fact, I’m going to spoil the film’s biggest surprise in the very first paragraph, just to prove my point.
Okay, now I’m just checking to see whether you’re still reading these warnings, because I’m a considerate guy and not that dickhead who posted a FAR FROM HOME spoiler in the CIVIL WAR talkback. If you are in fact still reading, I want to take this opportunity to thank you all for sticking with me through this second AICN series, which ends tomorrow. That was a pun, by the way. The sticking part, not the tomorrow part.
I’m also going to nab this chance to let you know my STAR WARS series, ekm’s 31 DAYS OF THE FOURTH, is due to be published by Roxton Press just in time for THE RISE OF SKYWALKER’s December release. There’s going to be bonus content, as well, so stay tuned…
On to SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME. Here we go, ready or not.
Until today, I’d never shouted in a theater. Hopefully there’s no discovery of any Baltimore-based audience members experiencing heart failure after this morning’s viewing of SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME, particularly not as a result of my behavior; I shall avoid the local news for the next few days just to be sure. The reason I let out that orgasmic explosion of joy was the sight of J. K. Simmons, returning as a new, Alex Jones-style reinvention of an iconic Daily Bugle loudmouth with the last name “Jameson.” I saw the plot point coming moments before it happened, and the excitement came roaring out of me upon confirmation, and seriously, to anyone who may be experiencing chest pains right about now, it was unplanned, and completely without warning. I swear. But you have to admit, Simmons was the MVP in Raimi’s trilogy, and the sight of him returning to play a role only he can, was almost as unlikely as the previous notion that the MCU would ever exist with a Spider-Man swinging through it.
This is significant because Simmons actively campaigned to reprise the part of Jolly Jonah in the Marc Webb reboot, and echoed these statements during the uneasy alliance between Columbia Pictures and Marvel Studios. When it seemed nothing would come of these requests/pleas, he took the thankless role of Commissioner Gordon in the JUSTICE LEAGUE movie I once compared to a hideous, screaming baby; his part, along with most of the film, was hacked to pieces in a directorial swap that can best be called “Moustachegate.” The notion that he was tainted meat in the eyes of creative forces who didn’t want the stink of the DCEU on their otherwise clean hands wasn’t hard to understand, and there was likewise reason to speculate whether or not J.B. Smoove’s inclusion in FAR FROM HOME was setting up a surprise reveal. It wasn’t. Like other aspects of the character and his iconography, the Tom Holland Spidey has had his nemesis in the press receive a similar update – and one that’s true to lore, and even effectively incorporated into the PS4 video game – from loutish newspaper publisher to loutish TV and radio personality, and one who doesn’t vilify Spider-Man with Fake News; he celebrates Spider-Man with Fake News. It’s glorious, and still fits Stan Lee’s concept of The Illusion of Change.
Casting the only actor in the universe worthy of the part is simply one component of the Marvel machine that seems fueled by genuine love of Spidey, and his mythos. It’s right there, on the screen. Kevin Feige, John Watts, and all the creative forces behind this newest reimagining clearly realize that the character’s inclusion was likely an impossibility, but now that the opportunity is here, he’s being handled with a level of care that borders on devotion.
Because this is a movie about teenagers, I’ll give you the quick and dirty in appropriate SAT-fashion: FAR FROM HOME is to HOMECOMING as Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN 2 is to the first SPIDER-MAN. In fact, I’d call FAR FROM HOME better, at least insofar as sequels go, as it takes what was already there, and builds upon it magnificently.
It all comes back to that love I mentioned. This is a movie filled with sight gags and in-jokes, pepped throughout a story that translates the source material into something that’s somehow faithful while also wonderfully heretical. Is the average person going to notice the references to Hydro-Man’s in-comics alter ego, or the issue number in which he first appeared, showing up suddenly in a blink-and-you-miss-it shot? Or that Nick Fury’s license plate number is likewise Molten Man’s first issue number, and year of publication? Nope! How about the Italian-translated references to writers Gerry Conway, J.M. DeMatteis, David Michelinie, and Brian Michael Bendis, all of whom are featured as the names of various shops and businesses in Venice? Again, no. But do the fans notice this stuff? You’re goddamn right, we do. That’s why we’re fans, which, as I believe I wrote elsewhere, just happens to be short for fanatics. Lifelong fanaticism only makes this shit more giggle-worthy. And yes, our breath smells like Cheez Curls, so get the hell off my lawn.
AVENGERS: ENDGAME was sort of THE LAST JEDI as far as Marvel movies go: it left many people bewildered by their disappointment, and the folks who like it overcompensate by liking it too much. The situation’s like CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR in terms of family division and line-drawing, except in this case, ENDGAME is 1) just a movie, and 2) I was right about it not making any sense, so shut up. Regardless of how you felt about it, the whole Back From the Snap thing created so many issues that weren’t limited simply to the already massive conceptual stumbling block of half a world’s population returning five years younger than everyone who was left behind. You’ve also got to address the state of the economy. The government. Ecostructure. Systems of belief. Depression and PTSD. There’s so much to unpack, and had we gotten a Black Panther or Hawkeye film next, or just about any other character in the starring role, it would likely be some sort of existential examination of these issues, which factored in (but were also largely ignored) by the melancholic first hour of ENDGAME.
FAR FROM HOME is the antidote. In writing about the MCU, I said the most Spider-Man thing that Spider-Man could do would be to make a terrible joke about returning from the dead. That’s exactly what we get here, except the entire film is joking about it, literally right from the start. In the opening minutes, we’re treated to more of Midtown High’s all-too-accurate morning news show, in which Betty Brant – in spectacularly pointed fashion – tells both her co-host, and by extension, the audience itself, that all that ENDGAME nonsense is confusing, and that it’s time to move on. Any further mention of what the 616 Universe is now referring to as “The Blip” is used for the sake of humor. It’s so meta that one can’t help but ponder whether this was alwaysbaked into the script, or inserted at the eleventh hour.*
Have you seen HOMECOMING? Then you know what you’re in for. If you found the humor enjoyable in 2017, you’ll enjoy here, too. FAR FROM HOME is willing to dig a bit deeper for laughs when mining the conventions of the admittedly silly Comic Book Movie genre, but never has fun at the expense of the material; it’s too busy having fun with it. There’s drama here for sure – particularly the void left in Peter’s life, and indeed, in the world itself, by the death of Tony Stark – but FAR FROM HOME finds in it the balance of Fun and Pathos that the best Spider-Creators understood instinctively. Raimi’s films brilliantly captured the intrinsic sadness of a guy who will always be haunted by one bad decision he can never undo,** but making three films permeated by this singular emotion is like coloring Spider-Man completely in blue with your Crayon, and then covering every inch of the page in the same hue. Watts is more effective insofar as his ability to deal with universal concepts like young love, untimely death, and reincarnation five years after one’s disappearance from reality; he outlines them in colors that brighten up the overall picture.
He also continues the trend of taking one-note villains and adding new dimension. In much the same way that the Vulture was transformed into a blue-collar guy who decides to fuck the system that tried to fuck him, Mysterio is given an absolutely believable reason to exist, as we discover that this “new Iron Man” is actually less a character than a construct. He’s a scam, a hoax, perpetrated by Quentin Beck and his fellow Stark ex-employees, all of whom nurse a quite understandable grudge. Every aspect of who he is represents a form of corporate branding. It turns out that those of us who believed the trailers, and pondered whether or not 1) Beck’s claims to be from another dimension were true, and 2) if this was an escape hatch to allow Spidey to move into the Sonyverse without having to infect the MCU with their garbage, were completely wrong.*** Mysterio is less an insurance policy than a fully-formed character, both in terms of Beck’s motivations, and as the notion of a conceptualized, manufactured hero for the gullible masses who've had all their illusions shattered by The Blip.
The decisions made here are brilliant, as we see that bit-part actors going all the way back to the first IRON MAN, return to dismantle both Stark’s legacy, and the safeguards defending his tech; and that earlier events – such as an early scene in CIVIL WAR – are seamlessly retconned to include appearances by new players. Mysterio is no longer Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s invention as an FX artist using Hollywood tech to fabricate the appearance of magic; he’s using our Hollywood magic by way of Tony Stark’s fictional creations, to fabricate the magic of belief. We’re faced with the inescapable conclusion that a dead Avenger the world is mourning is an illusion himself: the idealized power of surface over substance, which makes it all too easy to use his very tricks for purposes that are in many ways just as narcissistic.
That isn’t to say that fans will be disappointed by this new take on Mysterio. He’s still the same bullshit artist, and his trickery – particularly the kind that sends Peter through a tour of his tormented psyche, complete with an appearance from Zombie Iron Man – are so well-realized as to make me regret not seeing this in 3-D.**** Even his comic book modus operandi is given a nod as we watch Beck creating his “battles” in the studio, working with an editor while scripting dialogue for real-life appearances still waiting to be shot. Jake Gyllenhaal is the Alfred Molina of this sequel, in that he delivers his dialogue in operatic fashion that never descends into camp. He knows what kind of movie he’s in, and also knows that if he doesn’t buy into the part, no one else will, either.
The casting is what truly sets this new Spider-Man apart from similar faire. With the exception of the AVENGERS flicks, no other Marvel mini-franchise has had as large an ensemble, and one that’s just so god damn likeable that even throwaway lines manage to land. Tom Holland is obviously the star of the show, and with good reason – he’s just so adorable as both Peter and Spider-Man that you want to tell him to look both ways before swinging across the street, and much of this is due to an aggressive earnestness reminiscent of Mark Hamill’s approach to a similar hero. But they’re all great, particularly Zendaya, who is used here in a similar function as Kirsten Dunst and Emma Stone, but far more effectively. I might prefer an MJ who’s a redhead, but I’ll take a likeable personality over a chick who stands a guy up at the altar when she didn’t even love him in the first place.
So yeah, you get a summer hook-up between Ned and Betty, minus the reveal that he’s sort of the Hobgoblin, and her subsequent descent into mental illness; you see Peter and MJ’s relationship verbally consummated amidst the wreckage of the London/Tower Bridge battle; there’s a move toward the paternal with Happy Hogan; even Martin Starr’s Mr. Harrington has a new tragedy in his love life to awkwardly tear himself to pieces over. Even Nick Fury’s unexpected transition from Badass to Insecure Badass also manages to acknowledge the fallout from ENDGAME in a way that lets us all have a laugh at his expense. Everyone is growing, and changing. In that (Spider) Sense, FAR FROM HOME is exactly what we want from a continuity-based sequel.
If this particular piece feels punchier and less focused than most, it’s because I just saw a new SPIDER-MAN movie, and it was an amazing SPIDER-MAN movie. Thoughts are bouncing around inside my skull, and I’m like a dog chasing butterflies. Look, another one! And another one! It’s the best kind of reaction. If there’s something Marvel’s done right, it’s the effortless way it’s created a version of the character that a kid can enjoy because they immediately relate to how nerve-racking it is to secure the seat next to girl they’re pining for; a curmudgeonly guy like myself can appreciate that exact same moment, because I’ve been there, and I remember those days. That’s the secret weapon in these new movies.
Sam Raimi delivered films that were timeless in the sense that they evoked the original stories of the 1960s and 70s, and in a way that rendered his take non-era-specific to a certain degree. SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME is equally timeless, because it speaks to children of all ages. It’s the movie every fan wants.
Now get off my lawn, because I'm busy trying to figure out whether that was really Nick Fury there at the end, or a lookalike planted by the Skrulls in advance of their Secret Invasion.
Equally pointed, but potentially far more controversial, is Nick Fury’s very antagonistic attitude toward the MCU’s Captain Marvel. “Do not invoke her name,” he warns Peter when the latter asks whether Carol Danvers and her alter ego are available for the present mission, and the delivery is so dismissive that it seems less designed for laughs than assurance that, no, Marvel Studios doesn’t like the character, either. It’s true that Fury’s something of a dick to everyone, and has only just moments before referred to Peter as a “bitch” in that way only Samuel L. Jackson can; but having a man so aggressively devalue a figure introduced specifically for female representation is a questionable decision at best. In fact, when I saw FAR FROM HOME, I was in the company of sci-fi author Megan Morgan, who also writes extensively on the subject of women in the fantasy genre, and her gasp at Fury’s comment was almost as loud as the War Whoop I let loose when J. K. Simmons showed up at the end of the movie.
**Especially when they involve chocolate milk.
***The better decision to retain control of the character is to snare Spidey in MCU-based continuity he can’t possibly escape. To drop so many existing threads – particularly those spun around characters like Tony Stark, The Blip, or any number of things Kevin Feige wouldn’t likely permit in an all-Sony iteration of the character – would suck the blood right out of a third film. Now we just have to wait for the announcement that the deal’s been renewed, which, given the wildly successful and audience-friendly FAR FROM HOME, has to be accepted as a given. If anything, expect this film to over-perform for no other reason than the way it cleanses the palette after a very dark and depressing AVENGERS movie.
****Christopher Nolan said that his decision to shoot THE DARK KNIGHT RISES in IMAX rather than 3-D was based on the wildly opposite effect of either format on the audience. In the case of IMAX, he said, the image is larger, and encourages an appreciation of the overall canvas; 3-D, he argued, creates tunnel vision, and an inability to see more than those details the eye is immediately drawn toward. He didn’t comment on the decision to make a terrible Batman movie, though.
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)