Spiderman: Far From Home review

9 July 2019

Title:Spiderman: Far From Home
Runtime:129 min

I wasn't planning on seeing Spiderman: Far From Home in theatres at all, let alone on opening night. I thought it would be a tacked-on entry in the MCU (i.e., to the non-initiate, the "Marvel Cinematic Universe"), existing solely to provide an obligatory segue into Marvel's much-heralded "Phase 4". As luck would have it, I did end up seeing it on opening night, and as luck would have it, it subverted all my expectations and I ended up loving it.

But more than I loved it, I loved its stinger. I think that stinger alone would have been worth the price of admission. It functions as a movie in its own right and elevates the film as a whole. Without it, this film would have still gotten high marks, but perhaps not a full four stars. With it, well, all I can say is that if I could have, I would have written this review solely about that stinger and nothing else.

Instead, let me give as short a review as I possibly can for the rest of the film, in order to get to that one stinger that took my breath away.

Let us begin, perhaps, with why I had my doubts regarding this particular entry in the MCU. For the record, I don't see films just because they are a part of some franchise or another. I see films because I think they might be good. This one had the odds stacked against it.

First, with 8 standalone Spiderman films since 2002, including two reboots of the franchise and one parallel track, as well as three additional films by two separate studios set within the spider-verse, two of which featuring Spiderman, and with additional sequels and spin-offs in the works, I think it's fair to say some spider-fatigue is setting in. However, this was not my main reason.

The initial problem I had with this film has to do with the exogenous circumstances leading to its creation. Spiderman has long been Marvel Comic's leading property. The insertion of Tony Stark's Iron Man at the centre of the MCU was not a matter of Marvel's choice, but famously because it had sold the rights to Spiderman's character to Sony. Now, after over a decade of negotiations, at a time when Marvel Studios is an all-powerful powerhouse, Marvel finally managed to secure the rights to have the character appear in its films, and this precisely at a time when Robert Downey Junior's contract runs out, and he himself feels too old to continue playing Iron Man and wanting to stretch himself in other directions. It was a foregone conclusion that Marvel will somehow retcon Spidey into the heart of its now-established universe, but the problem is: Spidey no longer fits.

As has been amply discussed among comic-book lovers, comic books have long been an exercise in long-form storytelling, with storylines that continue through many volumes and repeatedly interact with each other to create a larger universe, and that while most individual stories deal with smaller, isolated conflicts, once every year or so there comes an 'event' that sees virtually all characters team up, these being the highlights that punctuate the longer tale.

The MCU was certainly the first -- and to-date, I would argue, still the only -- example of successful long-form storytelling in cinema. For the past 11 years, Marvel have been using it to tell a single, overarching, mostly-coherent tale. This is certainly an amazing feat and a giant step forward for the cinematic art as a whole, but -- as the comic-book aficionado will quickly point out -- something changed in the translation. Marvel films, attempting to rack up a billion dollar each (and for the most part succeeding) are more akin to 'event'-style issues. The huge, punctuating team-ups of the Avengers can therefore no longer be effectively compared with comic-book 'events'. They are super-events. They are, to quote the Marvel talking-point, 'Avengers-level events'. Gone are the days when a Spiderman film can be merely about an altercation with Doc Ock or with the Green Goblin, gone are the days that had room for a 'friendly, neighbourhood Spiderman'. Now (largely due to the changing global economics of the movie industry) every action film must depict the graphic destruction of major European cities and major European landmarks, or Chinese, or both, and a Marvel Spiderman cannot be left behind.

Hence, as the film's trailer quickly establishes, a tacked-on plot contrivance lures Spiderman to major European cities, where he witnesses major graphic destruction, and steps up to take Iron Man's place and lead the Avengers through Marvel's "Phase 4".

To which I said: "Really?" After all, we're talking about a sixteen year-old kid here, whose super-power is self-described as being "super sticky", whereas the Avengers, when assembled, are a military-trained militia, combat-hardened, with years-upon-years of battle experience, many of whose members (e.g., Scarlet Witch) have super-powers that make Spidey's look ridiculous, whereas others outmatch him tactically (War Machine), intellectually (Bruce Banner) and even ethically (Pepper Potts), and this remains true even given the major upgrades Peter Parker receives in this movie in all four departments.

So, I thought to myself, I'll sit this one out, let them roll out the inevitable excuses, and let's meet up again once this embarrassing segue is over.

Marvel, however, surprised me. In terms of Peter Parker's complete unsuitability to lead the Avengers, the film handled it as best is it possibly could, meaning that the main story and character arc is about Parker himself not believing him to be qualified for the job, and by the end of two hours of film in which he does much soul searching, including in witnessing the costs of him shirking this new "great responsibility", Spidey's reluctant acceptance of his new role seems earned, and the audience, to the extent that they have followed Parker's arc, must grudgingly accept it, too.

Was I kept on board, following this arc? Not always, and not entirely, but much of the way, yes. Spiderman: Far From Home has its share of cringe-worthy, eye-roll moments, and more than a few of them have to do with practically every stage of this forced arc. However, it must be said that Jon Watts has made a film that is so entirely fun to watch, that only one with a heart of stone would allow their scepticism to separate them from it and make them miss out on its wild ride.

Marvel have always made many smart choices in their films, and this one is no exception. There is fan service. There is an acknowledgement (and retro-fix) for a gaff in previous franchise entries that was pointed out by the fan base. There is a clear and undeniable connection to previous entries, to the point that one feels ridiculous accusing this film of being "tacked on". There is respect for the source material, but also an updating of it, making it more relevant and believable. There are distinct choices that have been made (which I will not list so as to keep this review spoiler-free) that make this movie very much an Iron Man film without Iron Man. And, of course, characters now talk in the language that started as Marvel-executive talking-points and are now every fan's jargon. These are the choices that speak to the hardcore follower.

But for the casual movie-goer -- or just the person who wants to enjoy a good film, regardless of fandom -- even smarter choices were made. The film (after managing to recap the events of the previous 11 years, for those who haven't been paying attention, while somehow managing to avoid becoming annoying to those who have) walks a remarkable tightrope, balancing a John Hughes-style coming-of-age, teenage angst story, complete with its adorkable nerd protagonist and the sharply-sarcastic, fiercely-individualistic love interest (played to straightfaced perfection by Zendaya) that would have been worthy of The Breakfast Club (1985), with the bombastic, comic-book monster-driven action. It is this balance, I believe, that made the Spiderman comic-book series a fan favourite to begin with, and the quality of any Spiderman film adaptation can, perhaps, be boiled down to its ability to tackle this one point.

Again: Does the balancing act always work? No. Sometimes it feels forced. Sometimes it feels tacky. Some scenes are just a tad too long and lose their footing. But on the whole it works, and does so consistently enough and often enough for us to forgive the film its failings.

And it helps that it's super fun. Spiderman: Far From Home takes Marvel's formula, in which humour has become increasingly integral, and cranks the dial up to eleven, so that, between over-the-top action scenes and awkward teen scenes (which the film shows extraordinary commitment to), the film remains consistently a laugh-out-loud comedy. What more can a film-goer ask for from a Marvel film, than that it be an emotional rollercoaster, right up to its final, climactic battle?

Which brings me to another point in which this film shows Marvel's maturing grasp on their self-invented genre. It has long been an open secret that Marvel's weakest points are their bland antagonists and their bland, fully CGI, fire-against-fire final battles. Much as I love, for example, Iron Man (2008), even the first time I saw it I felt, during that final battle, that I can safely fall asleep and will not miss a thing. But Spiderman: Far From Home has learned this lesson. Its antagonist is one of the more fleshed-out and more interesting Marvel villains ever. (I mentioned, before, that some of the film's scenes run a tad too long. One of them is a scene where the villain lays out his nefarious plan. I forgive the film this, because the source of the self-indulgence is clear: the scene is extremely 'meta', and Spiderman: Far From Home's antagonist acts in it as nothing short of a stand-in for Marvel's executives. The scene is played with equal parts glee and foreboding.)

Correspondingly, the final battle feels, too, more personal, more intimate, and at its end Peter Parker is so visibly shaken that he asks for confirmation, twice, that it is indeed all over, and after two confirmations neither he nor the viewers are convinced. It is a genuinely haunting moment.

But now, let us talk about the stinger.

The film actually has two: a mid-credits scene and a post-credits scene, but it's the mid-credits scene I want to talk about.

Over the past 11 years, Marvel has taught audiences to stick around to the end of their film's credit sequences. Starting with Iron Man (2008), where the mid-credit scene set up The Avengers (2012) and the Marvel Cinematic Universe at large, Marvel has used their in-credit sequences to set up sequels, insert last-second punch-lines, and provide codas. But as time went by and audiences learned to actively wait for them, these little vignettes began to gradually increase in their overall storytelling importance, with Captain Marvel (2019) providing in a mid-credits scene a key bridge between Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019), while the post-credits scene fills a missing plot point that ties Captain Marvel (2019) with Thor (2011). Without these scenes, even long-time viewers who never missed a Marvel film would have had their eyebrows raised by the gaps. (Indeed, I found myself explaining the beginning of Avengers: Endgame (2019) to one such viewer, who had missed the relevant scene.)

But with Spiderman: Far From Home, Marvel has upped the ante on mid-credit sequences. Does it provide a coda to the film you just saw, making you reassess some of what you've just viewed? Yes. Does it provide one last reversal that pokes fun at a long-running superhero trope that goes back all the way to at least Superman (1978)? Yes. Does it feature a surprising and delightful cameo? Yes. Does it connect with previously untapped Spidey lore? Yes. Does it update and modernise an old premise, to the point that it seems fresh and new? Yes. Does it set up conflicts for future movies? Yes. (Even more so, if you go back and re-watch a certain other Marvel mid-credits scene. In order to keep this spoiler-free I won't divulge which.) Does it provide emotional highs and lows? Absolutely. Does it bring in heart and verisimilitude? Checking 'yes to all'. Does it raise the stakes? Breathtakingly so. And, lastly, does it give Spiderman his "Iron Man moment" that fans have been clamouring for? Oh yeah. In spades.

In short: yes, yes and yes. This scene does everything any Marvel stinger ever aspired for. But I would argue that it does much more.

To explain what I mean, let me begin by recommending the YouTube videos of Patrick H. Willems. I don't always agree with what Mr Willems has to say, but he's very much worth listening to, as he provides a highly knowledgeable, highly film-educated analysis of modern films and film trends, with Marvel being on his sights quite often. He has much to say about Marvel films, but the bottom line is this: he compares them with McDonald's, in that he will frequent both more than he cares to admit, will enjoy what they serve, but will, after a while, start feeling empty. As many calories as McDonald's food has, he argues, it ends up being nutritionally empty, and so do Marvel films. At some point, long after you've exited the film, it sinks on you that there was no substance.

He acknowledges that this is mostly a criticism about Marvel's phase two and three. He acknowledges that even so, reaching the consistent popularity of McDonald's isn't easy, and many who have tried copying Marvel's formula have failed. But still, he says, he wants more. He wants to feel that there is more there.

Marvel pays attention to what is said about it. This film, itself, makes that abundantly clear: it fixes apparent plot-holes in previous instalments that fans pointed out on Internet fora, it caters for specific scenes and moments they have been asking for, etc.. And I'm pretty sure they pay attention to Willems' popular YouTube channel, too. (Though, clearly, not everything he wants, they want to deliver on.)

As I was sitting in the dark movie theatre, the long credits rolling, I found my mind drifting back to Willems' comments about Marvel, McDonald's and substance, and I, too, had that sinking feeling. There was a lot of razzle dazzle in this movie -- enough to convince me to turn a blind eye to some obvious faults, obvious indulgences, glaring plot-holes and plain old WTF moments -- but once the dust began to settle, I began asking myself the age-old question "What was this movie about?" and started getting that empty feeling.

And then the mid-credit scene came on, and Marvel did the last thing I expected this company -- this company that lives and dies over mass appeal -- to do: Marvel became political.

I realise that it's become quite popular these days to say that this or that in popular culture is about Trump, and that people will do it even when the evidence if far fetched. I try to avoid assigning too much meaning to tenuous symbolism in films, but this struck me as being too much to be coincidental.

In the film's stinger -- and this is the closest I'm going to come to a spoiler in this review, so if you're squeamish about this sort of thing, please stop reading here -- in the film's stinger we, the viewers, are faced with a question.

Let us take a swindler, the film asks, a liar, and let us expose all his lies. What if he simply chooses to still not admit his lies, no matter the mountains of evidence? What if he simply repeats? Returns to his old games? Throws on his exposers all that they say about him? That this liar can never be caught is well known. That his followers will continue believing in his lies, and the more they are repeated the merrier, is also well known. But, the film asks, if done consistently enough, brazenly enough, viciously enough, does the lie become the truth?

And if that is not enough, without wasting a frame, the film goes on to ask a follow-up question: What is the role of the free press? Should it merely report, or does it have an ethical obligation in choosing what to report and what not to report? And in putting the swindler on air and giving air-time to his lies, is the press not part of the problem? Is it not providing a megaphone for these lies?

It is difficult, reading today's news, not to see how pertinent these questions are, how political, how loaded.

Marvel took this otherwise nutritionally-empty film and, in a scene that lasts only a few seconds, turned it into one that means something, that stands for something, that forces us to dig deep, think hard, and does not let us look away.

And all that, in under a minute of film. Jon Watts, I salute the courage of what you've done here, and the cunning it must have taken to get this scene (which is not even the only subversive scene in this film though it certainly takes the cake) approved by all of Marvel's brass. What you've done cannot be undone. It elevates this film to no end, and has earned it, in my mind, the full marks score that I gave it, which without this stinger it would not have received in full, but it also makes it thought-provoking and controversial, and I'm dying to find out how that bit of symbolism is going to be taken by the Marvel fan base. This will be interesting to watch.

And now, for the first time, I'm excited about Marvel's upcoming "Phase four".