Monday, July 15, 2024

‘Spider-Man: Far From Home’ Spins an Entertaining Web

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Spider-Man: Far From Home is just plain fun. The stakes have less to do with the end of the world and more to do with Peter Parker trying to work up the nerve to tell MJ he likes her. The special effects are good and the action is fine but for once it’s the human elements that give the film it’s giddy enthusiasm.

Jon Watts and directed Spider-Man: Homecoming, returns again for the sequel. I have to say, although I didn’t love Far From Home as much as Homecoming I do enjoy how Watts has made Peter Parker (Tom Holland) a fully rounded character. He’s always been of course but Watts allows Holland a sort of gawkish dorkiness that the other iterations lacked.

Not to mention Watts has upended the typical MJ (Zendaya). Gone is the kittenish redheaded teenaged boy fantasy. In her place is a lanky, awkward girl with a grunge style fashion sense and unabashed fascination with the macabre. By doing so he’s turned MJ from an object of desire into a character of her own right defined less by her hair color and more by her personality.

Far From Home inevitably picks up where Avengers: Endgame left off. Thanos erased half of all life in the universe in the snap heard ’round the world. We learn it is now referred to as “The Blip”. Peter attends one of those high schools which have a closed television network and allows students to broadcast a daily news show throughout the school.

One of the anchors, Betty Brant (Angourie Rice), explains the real world consequences of “The Blip”. Essentially everyone who vanished didn’t age. We learn that Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) vanished in the blip. When she returned her home was no longer hers and the new occupants were more than a little confused. The movie spends more time explaining the consequences of “The Blip” then it does exploring them or ever mentioning them again.

For if everyone who vanished is five years behind everyone else then did Peter’s whole class and MJ also vanish? Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori) is still the same brash jerkish Spider-Man superfan he’s always been. MJ seems to be exactly as she was in the last movie. “The Blip” doesn’t seem to have affected Peter or Ned’s (Jacob Batalon) friendship. What I’m getting at is the film is more concerned with how Peter feels about the death of Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) then it does showing us how these teenagers have been emotionally affected by the transformative galactic event.

So why bother explaining it at all?

I’m getting sidetracked. Because Far From Home is a big budget Hollywood movie it means Peter’s Senior class is going abroad across Europe. All Peter wants to do is relax and tell MJ how he feels. He’s even going to buy a glass figurine of a Black Dahlia, “Just like the murder,” he excitedly whispers to Ned.

Honestly, it’s the human aspects of Far From Home that I found myself enjoying the most. I loved how Ned doesn’t understand his best friend’s infatuation with the stoic MJ. He’s much too eager to trot out his own plan involving his misconception about how much European girls love American men.

Peter’s plan has a relatively simple first step, sit next to MJ on the plane. Ned accidentally foils the plan and ends up sitting next to Betty Brant. The old Parker luck rears its ugly head when by the time the plane lands in Italy Ned and Betty are a couple and MJ seems taken with the rakish class hottie Brad (Remy Hii).

While in Venice Peter meets a mysterious new hero, Mysterio, whose real name is Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal). Quentin is from another universe in the multiverse. Creatures from his world called the “Elementals”, giant beings made up of ice, fire, earth, and so on, are attacking cities around the world-our world. 

Working with S.H.I.E.L.D. and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Quentin is helping save the world. In the comics, Mysterio is part of Spider-Man’s rogue’s gallery, a bad guy. His effectiveness and characteristics vary depending on what story you read. Making him a good guy is a clever little twist. Until you realize how utterly one dimensional the Elementals are and as of halfway through the film there has been no indication of another bad guy.

We could foolishly believe that Far From Home is attempting to do something brash and daring. Lacking a villain would make for a much more interesting story. We could believe this but doing so would require ignoring the last twenty-two films. Marvel Studios has rarely shown any sign of any innovation aside from its iron-fisted control over its own properties.

If a character appears to help the hero in the first act he is undoubtedly important. But if the by the end of the second act no villains have entered the fold-then we’ve already met the villain in act one. Especially if a strong emotional bond forms over the loss of a loved one. 

It’s as old as Hollywood itself. But just because something is tried and true, and just because something is obvious and predictable, does not mean it doesn’t work. Gyllenhaal is a terrific actor and he sells the turn from Face to Heel brilliantly. It’s not even the turn itself which bothered me so much as the leap from a villain with motivations to crazed psychopath willing to kill Peter.

The problem is Erik Sommers and Chris McKenna’s script.  Many themes are introduced but few of them are resolved in any kind of satisfactory manner. The use of Tony Stark as a father figure for Peter fits. The film goes a long way to show Peter worried about how he will fill Tony’s shoes and continue his legacy. The answer, of course, is that Peter must be his own hero and carry on his own legacy. But aside from a pep talk with Happy (Jon Favreau), the film never succeeds in nailing that point home, either through action or dialogue. In fact, the film even suggests that Peter will be the new Iron Man-just not actually Iron Man.

Sommers and McKenna can’t seem to make up their mind. The script isn’t some unholy mess nor is it indecipherable. Which is what makes it all so maddening. We can see what the script is trying to do.

Take Peter’s Spider senses. It’s the ability he has to sense danger. In the beginning, we have a joke where Aunt May throws a banana at him and hits him. “Is your Peter Tingle not working?” I’m not going to lie the “Peter Tingle” joke is hilarious. Except it’s entirely forgotten until the end of the movie when Peter realizes he can use it to defeat Mysterio.

Mysterio, I should mention, uses holograms and illusions that seem real. He’s been creating the Elementals with the help of, what else, Stark technology. Mysterio tricks Peter into meeting him alone at S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters. What follows is some of the best use of montage I’ve seen used in a Marvel film to date.

A mixture of psychological and literal manifestations of Peter’s psyche the scene hints at what Far From Home could have been. Mysterio draws Spider-Man deeper into his web of illusions with images which feel ripped from the early work of Steve Ditko. For a brief moment Far From Home has risen to the level of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse in terms of visual ingenuity. 

Watts, along with his cinematographer, Matthew J. Lloyd, weave an effective and visceral sense of confusion. Though never in a way where we don’t understand what’s going on. It’s a thin tightrope to walk but Watts and Lloyd make the camera feel alive like it hasn’t been since the days of Sam Rami. It is an exhilarating scene which is joyously and exquisitely crafted.

The rest of the action, though, is as staid, lifeless, and just plain ho-hum as the rest of Marvel’s offerings. Drab and unimaginative the majority of the action sequences are a stark contrast to ones I just described. The camera isn’t as weighed down as in films past but there is a certain stodginess to how the action is staged. Possibly because during the action sequences the camera is in fact not an actual camera but VFX. 

A scene done entirely with CGI will require the animators to make it appear as if it’s being captured on camera. They will essentially animate camera movement. Unfortunately, they choose the safest and often laziest camera movements. This is done so as to not call attention to the fact that nothing on the screen is real. Compare Spidey swinging through New York from a Sam Rami film to Spidey swinging in any other film. Notice how in Rami’s shots he has a way of making us feel the visceral sense of swinging with him above the city streets.

The other movies, Into the Spider-Verse aside, we feel as if watching the story portion of a videogame. Though credit to Lloyd and Watts, there are a few moments in the film where they utilize drone cameras to give a sort of gravity-free effect. Scenes such as the climactic battle achieve moments which feel visceral. Or moments where Spider-Man takes MJ on a date swinging above the streets. In these moments Lloyd breaks free of the constraints of the franchise. 

Still, it is remarkable how little ingenuity or imagination the Studios have when it comes to framing or choreographing a fight scene. Movies like John Wick: Chapter 3, Mission Impossible: Fallout, or even the holy cinematic writ of Mad Max: Fury Road is the pinnacle of what is possible. Marvel Studios is a multibillion-dollar studio which seems impervious to box office failure. Yet, this monopolistic entity can rarely if ever, rise above a base level of mediocrity when it comes to filming or choreographing an action scene.

But none of that really matters. It can all take a backseat for all I care. Because while the action is rote it’s never ugly or confusing. More to the point Watts allows us to wallow in the simple pleasures of seeing MJ run and hug a limping Peter Parker, followed by Peter’s first kiss. Holland and Zendaya have a perfect stammering awkward chemistry. It’s fitting since their characters are teenagers who have no idea how to express themselves. 

Watts and his cast have managed the seemingly impossible. The teenagers behave, look, and even talk like actual teenagers. Holland, Zendaya, Batalon, and the rest of the cast are more believable as teens than most adults in the average studio film.

It’s a pity about Sommers and McKenna’s script though. It doesn’t know what to do with the characters let alone what to do with Peter. At times it feels as if they are trying to make a point about “fake news”. Or how our desperate need to believe in something or someone. Mysterio attempts to exploit both the misinformation age and our starving sentimentality. But it never feels as if Mysterio, or even if Sommers and McKenna themselves, believe it.

What is clear is Peter likes MJ and MJ likes Peter. The action is good but the human drama is sweet and charming. When done right the human drama is a special effect all its own. We find ourselves rooting for Peter and MJ hoping everything turns out all right in the end. It’s immensely refreshing to be so invested in the lives of actual characters it makes us forgive everything else. Far From Home may not be a masterpiece, but it’ll do for a nice bit of summer escapism.

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing

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