Occasionally, the moviegoing public-at-large can surprise you. For instance, they might pile in droves to see a heavy-handed, 3D Dances With Wolves remake and turn it into the highest-grossing film of all time. Or, more recently, they’ll give that movie a run for its money by flocking to [checks notes] a three-hour space opera about a giant, angry grape. If you somehow find yourself outside the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s ever-growing expanse, Spider-Man: Far From Home might satisfy you anyway — a superhero flick with enough charm to surpass its clunky spectacle and unnecessary MCU world-building.
After some brief, obligatory Endgame business, Far From Home reacquaints everyone with the same core crew from Spider-Man: Homecoming: Peter Parker / Spider-Man (Tom Holland), his affable best bud, Ned (Jacob Batalon), and love interest, M.J. (Zendaya). Hoping to simultaneously dodge calls from superspy Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and spark a connection with M.J., Parker signs up for a summer trip through Europe with his classmates. Once in Italy, he learns about the presence of a new threat from Fury and meets a new superhero named Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal).
It’s further proof of just how well returning director Jon Watts — as well as screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers — handles the high-school dynamic among Peter and his friends that once the standard MCU conflict began to butt in, I felt myself digging in my heels. Far From Home’s greatest strength, by a mile, is the chemistry between Holland and Zendaya. Holland’s squeaky-voiced and earnest portrayal of Parker works nicely off Zendaya’s deadpan angst, and her performance is graceful enough to reveal a vulnerability beneath her sarcastic front. Their burgeoning romance hits the same ’80s teen-comedy beats that Homecoming did without ever feeling pandering.
The same goes for just about every aspect of the high-school ensemble. Director Watts justified the existence of a new Spider-Man series by doing what previous series directors Sam Raimi (yay!) or Marc Webb (NO) never did — placing the character in what feels like an actual high school movie instead of a movie that just took place in a high school. The small moments here are frequently aces and a nice tonic to the lugubrious tone of the last two Avengers outings.
Gyllenhaal is a pleasant surprise, allowed to approach Nicolas Cage levels of goofball theatrics as the dimension-hopping Mysterio. He has long been an undervalued performer in mainstream Hollywood, while still turning in some career-best performances for filmmakers like Denis Villeneuve and Dan Gilroy, and I’m pleased to report he does not go to waste here. The actor makes the most of his likely-substantial paycheck job and rescues the otherwise dull, mandatory S.H.I.E.L.D. plotline.
Of course, it isn’t an MCU movie if we can’t sit idly through weightless computer-generated action while we wait for the story to become fun again. Per usual, the effects sequences look surprisingly shoddy, as if they were still waiting for a touch-up before a theatrical release. The first two action setpieces, involving monsters who can harness the elements to their will, are relatively brief and almost entirely incomprehensible. Oddly enough, 2003’s widely-misunderstood Hulk did something identical with their villain to gorgeous, superior effect.
The climactic battle sequence is typically tiresome but leaves enough room for character beats as to not derail the entire third act. Look, I understand we can’t expect every movie to have large-scale action on par with Mad Max: Fury Road or The Matrix. However, this is literally the most popular film series in the world, so high expectations don’t seem entirely unwarranted at this point. When I go to the theater to see Spidey, I don’t need to see him blowing up a horde of faceless robots. I want to see him trip up the Green Goblin in his web or trade blows in a sewer with Kraven the Hunter. Sam Raimi’s films understood that. All my nerdy gripes aside, I remain thankful Jon Watts can deliver us a cinematic Spider-Man no one else has done before now.