Friday 12 July 2019

Succession: "Spider-Man: Far from Home"

Turns out they spun themselves a safety web. Marvel's fallback plan, after the supposedly ne plus ultra activity of Avengers: Endgame, is to set out the continuing adventures of Peter Parker, whose existence had been called into question by the events of Avengers: Infinity War before being reaffirmed by its follow-up. For franchise fans, then, here is a new hope. For the rest of us, Spider-Man: Far from Home might resemble standard corporate practice: the replacement of an ageing, infirm figurehead (in this case, Robert Downey Jr.'s fallen Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, vanguard of the Marvel Cinematic Universe when it launched in 2008) with a fresher face, and - here - a performer who's logged relatively few hours in latex going through the same superhero motions, and thus has no qualms about taking on the extra responsibility. After two self-consciously "dramatic" films wrapping up the Avengers arc, Far from Home is also clearly kickback, Marvel's European Vacation: shrugging off the passing of key Avengers via a highschooler's YouTube video - on reflection, all the reflection those developments truly merited - it pitches Parker (Tom Holland) and pals towards Venice, Prague, London and a bizarre idea of the Netherlands before finally returning him to swing unburdened by baggage through the streets of New York. Tony Stark died, it transpires, so that Peter Parker could live.

The fresh air and change of locations that follow ensure Far from Home is broadly likable, if ramshackle in places (evidently the result of many script drafts) and no more essential than anything that's come before it - it is, bottom line, just another film in a series. If it's an improvement on 2017's Spider-Man: Homecoming, that's in part because it doesn't have to slog through an origin story we've already sat through twice since the turn of the millennium: it can drop us amid the action, then crack on with distracting us for two hours, before arriving at an idea that might just get us and the key creative personnel through another one yet. Returning director Jon Watts - fast-tracked into the Marvel millionaires club off the back of 2015's Cop Car - looks far more assured in his marshalling of that personnel: he's worked out what works in these movies, what might be usefully dwelt upon, and what can be dashed through. Holland is endearingly precise in those scenes that don't convert Parker into a computerised avatar, and there really is something heartening in Zendaya's reinvention of Mary Jane: not the apple-pie all-American sweetheart the character was conceived as during the LBJ administration, but a squinty, scowly 21st century beanpole some measure smarter and cooler than any of the boys around her. These kids are building a winning partnership - more winning, at least, than Stark's wooing of his own secretary, or the sketchy pairing of Stark's chauffeur Hap (Jon Favreau) with Parker's widowed Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), which at this precarious moment within the MCU seems more consolidation of power than sincere love match.

The latter subplot again flags up New Spider-Man's regrettable tendency towards thespwaste, following Homecoming's flat squandering of such talents as Donald Glover and Michael Keaton. In her four minutes of screen time, Tomei has only to present as a lovely snack for a hungry-looking Favreau (she could be replaced by almost anything on the catering table), and while the excellent Angourie Rice (The Nice Guys) ekes out a few nice moments from a secondary classmate role, Martin Starr and J.B. Smoove appear stranded as unlikely chaperones, comedians abandoned by a script full of lines that have the form of jokes, but not the content that might coax actual laughter. We're also noticeably closer to the movie centreground than the MCU has previously brought us (which presumably explains why the suits thought Far from Home a safe bet to get mourning or sceptical viewers back in the multiplex). The artful string theory and speculation of last December's placeholding Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has been abandoned for now; in its place, we're offered yet another teen coming-of-age picture, albeit one with the budget to go places, and one that has to stop occasionally for the crashes, bangs and general citysmashing that are an obligatory part of this universe. The consolation is that, wherever he finds himself within this world, Watts locates and hits most of his story beats, and thus the film hits its own target: it does the job the executives were expecting it to do, and you and I get the experience we were surely hoping for when we handed over our cash at the box office.

Far from Home even smuggles in one new-ish element, in that at least some of those crashes and bangs - those brought about by Mysterio (a bearded Jake Gyllenhaal, doing a thoroughly professional job of concealing an obvious twist) - are pure fakery, a screen set in place to conceal all manner of nefarious activity. (Nefarious corporate activity, furthermore: once again, Marvel draws a clear line between "good business" - as represented by the redeemed martyr Stark and his spider-suited young protege - and bad.) If the cash-rich escapism of Far from Home had anything remotely to do with the real world, we might read this as the MCU's comment on Trumpism: indeed, a closing-credit sequel set-up reveals the Daily Bugle has reinvented itself as an Info Wars-style online portal, with J. Jonah Jameson (a welcome return for J.K. Simmons) appointing himself as its blustering Alex Jones. Within the MCU, however, it returns us to something like the self-referentiality of 2017's Thor: Ragnarok, offering some acknowledgement of how flimsy all this make-believe really is. Far from Home is aptly fresh-faced in its admission that what we're watching is just a movie, no more, no less; it's an improvement on the wannabe gamechanger Endgame, which - with its turn-back-the-clock plotting - struck me as fundamentally dishonest. It would require a creative as singular as Taika Waititi to make that self-referentiality pop as it did in Ragnarok; Watts, still at the beginning of his career, isn't prepared to be too cheeky or self-critical just yet. And I left Far from Home with a concern that the Stark legacy is about to stick our sweet-kid hero with cumbersome gadgetry that will overwrite what made him unique in the first place. (Spidey's suit is already looking ominously ferric.) Still, I'd be happy enough if this second phase of Marvel contented to be no more than light entertainment like this - some of the best smoke and mirrors money can buy.

Spider-Man: Far from Home is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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