Just because we’re only a mere two months removed from the prevailing finality of Avengers: Endgame, where several disparate threads came together and signature characters met their end in what felt like a saga’s conclusion, doesn’t mean that the gears of the Marvel Cinematic Universe aren’t still turning. Spider-Man: Far From Home is the gateway to the MCU’s future, a film whose existence wouldn’t be possible without the events of Endgame, but one that serves as a similar springboard for the next wave (sorry, “Phase”) of Marvel movies. It’s a unique space to occupy – uncharted, actually, since for the last decade, all MCU lore has been derived from the Iron Man and Captain America films. But now the torch is being passed: it’s clear that Marvel’s intent is to turn this Spidey franchise into the MCU’s new central hub. As such, Far From Home is an interesting amalgam of standalone adventure and loyal franchise workhorse – and in spite of those inherent trappings, it works well as both.
The notion of “passing the torch” is the central theme of this Spidey sequel, as Peter Parker (Tom Holland) wrestles with the loss of his mentor, Tony Stark, pondering a world without an Iron Man and the prospect of who will take up that mantle. All signs point to Spider-Man, as he is receiving (and ignoring) constant calls from an increasingly testy Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and he has inherited Stark’s signature cool-guy sunglasses with a built-in A.I. assistant named EDITH (“Even in Death, I’m The Hero”). But Parker, whose identity is still a secret and who, when not assisting the Avengers in saving the universe, is navigating life as an awkward nerd at his Queens high school, isn’t sure he’s up to the task, nor is he sure it’s something he even wants. His primary desire at the moment is finding the right moment to express his feelings to MJ (Zendaya) while on their class trip across Europe.
That’s right: a class trip across Europe. If you’re like me, such an extravagant excursion requires a steeper suspension of disbelief than a costumed hero slinging webs all around New York City, but never mind: the intercontinental setting provides a sweeping backdrop for the dire conflict du jour. A series of profoundly unnatural disasters are popping up around the globe, and Fury taps Spider-Man to aid in neutralizing them. Spidey’s partner in this mission is Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), who hails from another dimension (yes, this film introduces the idea of a multi-verse) and whose family was wiped out by the elemental monsters responsible for the worldwide destruction.
Based on strict missives from the Marvel brass, that’s as much as I am permitted to divulge in this review, and rightfully so, since Far From Home so effectively plays with audience perception from one moment to the next. The screenplay, by Marvel vets Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, is a clever work of viewer bait-and-switch that bakes its illusory nature into the narrative, so we’re aware that we shouldn’t trust anything, but the movie knows exactly when to catch us off-guard. Director Jon Watts crafts a visual environment that is equally playful; the effects here are at once the most inventive and also the most obviously transparent of any recent MCU film, which would be distracting if they weren’t so clearly motivated by this mirror maze of a plot.
To that end, Peter Parker is a perfect audience proxy, since he’s not even sure how to successfully negotiate the perils of adolescence, let alone reckon with the deceptive evil swirling in the world. Holland captures that internal struggle better than any other actor to sling Spidey’s webs. Zendaya is his perfect foil, and a welcome sarcastic spin on the classic MJ character. Gyllenhaal, as the mysterious other-dimensional presence, digs into the material with zeal, willfully chewing scenery and spitting it back out…and in the context of the movie, I sort of mean that literally.
As ever, the inexorable adherence to the broader strategy of Marvel Studios – the deliberate planting of clues, the crossover character cameos, the sequences that wouldn’t exist if not for their down-the-road significance – functions as a long-term strength for the MCU and a short-term challenge for this movie as a standalone experience. But that’s the burden to bear if you’re going to be “the Next Iron Man,” the leader of the MCU’s next generation. It’s clear that leader is Spider-Man, and Far From Home is his anointing.