Spider-man: Far From Home, my rambling review

Image: A picture of Spider-man from the movie Spider-man: Far From Home

©2019 Marvel or Sony or somebody. Used without express permission, but please don’t sue me.

Spoilers. Lots of ’em. This isn’t a review to help you decide to see the movie, it’s more like, if you’ve seen the movie already and want to know if people out there are bitching about the same things you are.

I liked the movie, but, before anything else, just fuck off with the whole premise that Peter Parker loves Tony Stark as some kind of father figure. Gross.

I’m not going to sit here and claim that any one person’s perception of an iconic character is more valid than anyone else’s. Sure, I’ve read Spider-man all my life, but so have many others, and we all might disagree about what works and what doesn’t work about the character. Not to mention that there are so many depictions of Spider-man in so many mediums now, it might even be impossible to sift out any constants.

However, I do think you can talk objectively about how some choices have consequences to be considered. In this case, I think there are more cons than pros to deviating from how I’ve understood Spidey to be depicted in many previous incarnations. He’s not a joiner. Just as he’s an outcast at school who doesn’t fit in with the cool kids, he finds it just as hard to get along with the big flashy super heroes. Sure, one time he tried to join The Fantastic Four, but that was because he mistakenly believed they were an organization that paid, and he’s always on the verge of poverty. It’s part of what makes him a relatable character to everyone who feels like everyone else fits in more easily, which is almost everyone. I think trading in that lone wolf aspect to the character for being a sycophant to some rich asshole loses something compelling, only to gain slight upside in having guest appearances by a popular actor.

Which is really all there is to gain, because Iron Man is a boring generic template of a super hero, and it’s only Robert Downey Jr’s charisma as an actor that managed to elevate the character to a persona that anyone gave a shit about. Unless they capture lightning in a bottle with their casting in the inevitable reboot, Iron Man will be exposed for being a tedious rich douchebag with science-as-magic powers that deus ex machinas his way out of any plot entanglement, because fuck it, technology or whatever.

Anyway, reviewing Spider-Man. Pretty good movie overall, though I got robbed of a potentially impactful moment by seeing part of a trailer that for some unbelievably stupid reason included the scene where Mary Jane guesses that Peter Parker is Spider-Man. A pivotal development for both characters that would have been really great to walk into blind. Why the fuck would you put that in a trailer? My bad, I guess, because it’s not like I don’t already know trailers crush all joy of discovery. I try to never watch them, but, you know, sometimes you fuck up.

Speaking of which, there’s this guy who does a series of movie review videos called Pitch Meetings, which I think are pretty funny and you might want to check ’em out. In his review of this movie, he made a whole big point about how it was kind of ridiculous that they even attempted to pretend for a minute that most of the audience wouldn’t go into the movie already knowing that Mysterio was the bad guy. Not an unreasonable assertion, probably a lot of the audiences for this movie would be familiar with the lore.

But, just as a reminder that not everyone lives in the same bubbles, I watched the movie in Tokyo, and the Japanese couple sitting to my immediate left were blown away when the reveal came up. Marvel doesn’t have anywhere near the depth of cultural weight in Japan as America, so, for them, this movie was a brand new ride to be on. I envied them for not being burdened by cultural presets. They definitely had a better time at the movie than me, though I was still down to suspend my a priori knowledge so long as the characters were believably naive.

I buy Tom Holland as Peter Parker, he’s got the right tone. I like most of the cast. MJ is very compelling, written as a healthy update to a character that was originally created by guys who didn’t really have much plan for her other than to just be what might be described in today’s terms as an incel fantasy. Jay Smoove was under used. I kept expecting him to be funnier. In fact, most of the comedy in the movie was flat. The German spy woman insisting Peter undress, the slapstick of stopping the drone from killing a fellow classmate on the tour bus, the whole switching seats on the plane thing… so much of it was just kind of okay, typical Marvel movie light heartedness to create beat changes in the middle of the action. But that’s as far as it got. Which could be alright if that was the goal, but it felt like the writers were hoping I’d laugh.

I don’t really feel the guy they have playing Flash. Nothing against the actor, he just seems miscast to me. His vibe is too close to the others in Peter’s class, so he seems just as socially dysfunctional as anyone else. As a result, he lacks any genuine threat of being a psychological bully to create the contrast needed for Peter Parker’s life as an awkward high school student when not being a super hero. Flash’s traditional role in the world of Spider-man as a guy who adores Spider-man yet disdains Peter is so iconic and potentially impactful, I feel the void when it’s not exploited.

Probably the biggest success of the movie was elevating Mysterio to an A-List villain. In the comics, he always came across a little lame to me. He has been variously portrayed as a stunt man or special effects expert, and in some cases had powers of hypnosis, all of which don’t really sound like plausible origins for anyone intimidating. For me, Spider-Man defeating him never seemed to be much more impactful than when the Scooby gang would unmask another fake ghost and discover it was just some old man running around rattling chains. In this movie, using a combination of near future technologies like military drones and holograms, Mysterio is genuinely a mortal threat on a large scale, and I was invested in how Spidey was going to beat this guy.

The only trouble was with Mysterio’s motivation. Apparently, he wanted everyone to take him seriously as an Avengers level hero, because… uh, something about, people need to believe things, and these days people believe anything…? What? I just couldn’t get a handle on what he was trying to do. I mean, it was clear that he had hubris and wanted to be important, and that is understandable, but the exact shape of that pursuit was really blurry.

I like villains who are ideologues motivated by something other than just money. Would have been a boring movie if Mysterio just wanted to sell his lethal tech to some rogue state, like every second villain in James Bond movies, no matter how much more sensible a plan that would be. But, as much as I was on board for this guy to pursue his megalomaniacal dreams, I just couldn’t parse how he got any return on his investments. It seemed like maybe he wanted to join the Avengers…? Maybe, I’m not sure. But, if that was the case, then that’s just dumb. If he faked his way into the Avengers, the second they asked him to face a genuine global threat, at best his actual abilities would be exposed and at worst he’d be quickly pummeled into fine dust by some god like space conquistador. Maybe he wanted something else, though. Who knows.

The other awkwardly unclear aspect of the movie was with Spider-man’s spider sense. Spider sense is both a silly and awesome power. Silly because no spider I’ve ever encountered seems to have any special ability to anticipate me putting a glass over them. On the other hand, spider sense, to me, over all his other powers, is the one that really gives Spider-man an interesting narrative edge over all other heroes. It’s incredibly powerful, if you consider it’s a form of predicting the future. He can sense genuine danger with some concept of the direction it will come from, and the scale of it’s impact. How that works in any objective terms is nearly impossible to define. If you were to try to outline exactly what spider sense is sensing, how could you possibly give parameters to what physical circumstances around him were threats or not? Somehow you’d have to discern intent even when the threat wasn’t driven by a sentient actor, because not only can Spider-man can tell when a person wants to kill him, he is equally alerted to entirely random circumstance, like if a lightning bolt might strike too close. It’s basically illogical magic in how it operates, but, in terms of story telling, the rules of how it works are simple and intuitive. Even though he is not the physically strongest or fastest hero, the slight advantage of always feeling where his next problem is coming from makes him a challenger against enemies vastly stronger than him.

I could go on and on about how Spider sense is a great narrative device. But, in this movie, they kind of fumble it. Not in how it works, but in conveying that it’s there. The aforementioned Pitch Meetings guy points out that the powers seem to come and go without explanation. For me, as a fan of Spider-man, I felt I had some sense of what was going on. When Aunt May threw a banana at Peter, that didn’t trigger his spider sense because Aunt May isn’t a genuine threat. Later, when Mysterio attempts to shoot Pete in the head with a gun, Pete’s spider sense kicks in full power because that’s for real. In terms of how spider sense works, at least as I understand it, those two situations are consistent with each other.

That’s me reading into it, though. It’s entirely possible the writers had a different concept, because it was all very vague. In one part of the movie, Mysterio puts Spidey through a whole confusing world of illusion, and Spidey seems barely able to survive. His spider sense doesn’t seem to help him at all. I’m not even sure how he did survive when he got hit by a real train that he didn’t see coming because of all the confusion. The next time around, in the big finale fight, Spidey seems better able to cope, anticipating what’s real and what’s not. But… why, though? No one said much about it, so it’s not clear what changed between the two fights.

Which is a bummer, because, Mysterio’s powers are perfectly suited to testing Parker’s spider sense. The whole way to defeat Mysterio is to discern what’s real and what isn’t, and spider sense counters that on a level that is the right amount of imperfect. You could write a great fight by playing with Mysterio trying exploit the limits of Spidey’s sense. For example, imagine Mysterio made an illusion that Aunt May was being thrown off a building. Peter’s spider sense might not be triggered because it’s not technically a threat to him, but, can he risk that it’s fake? Might distract him enough to then throw something actually dangerous. That kind of thing would make for a real battle of wits.

(Small update: I watched the movie again, and realized they actually did have a scene where Mysterio makes an illusion of throwing MJ off a ledge, and Peter jumps to save her, which is kind of like what I was talking about above. However, I’m sticking to my essential point that they didn’t really make it clear how Peter’s spider sense had any impact on that, especially since that particular moment was kind of thrown away so fast that I didn’t even remember it when I first wrote this.)

Unfortunately, we don’t get anything in this movie that clearly puts these two guys against each other in any way that highlights how their powers balance. In the end, Spidey seems to defeat Mysterio by just having faster reflexes, or determination, or something. Or maybe it was spider sense. I don’t know. I would have liked it if the film makers let me in more on what was happening.

It also could have helped to know for sure if spider sense was a factor when Spidey was jumping around between drones. Without knowing he’s using his spider sense, it seems somewhat impossible for even a hero with super speed and agility and strength to dodge the rain of bullets going in all directions. But if you add spider sense, so you know that Spider-man is able to weave a path through all the bullets because he’s guided by a supernatural force designed to do exactly that, then it becomes a lot more acceptable. It’s kind of like the Force in Star Wars. When used right, it just gives the audience freedom from questions about the action that might otherwise get in the way.

As much as I find the whole Spider-Man as Iron Man’s sidekick thing totally unwelcome, the movie did use the relationship between Parker and Happy, the chubby guy who is head of security for Stark Enterprises, to find kind of a nice way to handle Peter’s relationship to Shield. That Peter now has this massive high tech corporation backing him in such a way that Fury can’t simply bark orders at Parker makes for a nice dynamic, and it frees up Spider-Man to go his own way. Spider-Man occupies a precious space where he is believable as both a hero who can get caught up in intergalactic conflicts, but also take on a mugger in the streets. For contrast, Daredevil’s level of powers are too low to take seriously in an Avengers level fight (same for Black Widow and Hawkeye, neither of whom I think could defeat Daredevil, but that’s a discussion for another time). And on the other end, someone like Thor is too over powered for any dramatic tension in a street fight. The way they have it set up in this movie universe, Fury can be sidelined when the story calls for Spider-Man to get involved in smaller scale, more emotionally driven challenges, but the option is still there for Spidey to get called up when the world needs saving.

There were two post credit scenes, one of which was a great set up for the next Spider Man movie, which may never happen because of disputes over which soulless mega-corporation trying to monopolize modern culture has the rights to make those movies.

Anyway, the set up for the next movie was fine, and I hope the movie they hinted at gets made. The other post credit scene, though, was a sign that the current zeitgeist of super hero cinematic universes will eat themselves into nonsensical oblivion the way the comics do.

I’m referring to the revelation in the second post credit scene, that Nick Fury in this movie wasn’t actually Nick Fury, but a shape shifting Skrull with an Australian accent who was taking care of Nick’s business while Nick was on some space vacation or something.


Okay, first, that does nothing to help this movie be any better. I’m guessing it’s just intended to be a cute little gimmicky reference to stuff that happens in other movies. But, it leaves you with questions about how much Nick Fury would have had to brief this alien on all the details about interpersonal relations between him and Parker, or secret codes between him and the chubby security guy, and everything else Fury has to deal with.

On a higher level though, it’s symptomatic of the kind of problem that comic books have long suffered from, which is constantly compounding complexity that comes as a result of years and years of different writers and artists adding new ideas on top of old. The universe these stories take place in strains to have any kind of continuity that makes sense. Especially when that continuity is already strained by the fact that Peter Parker has never aged beyond his mid twenties since the nineteen sixties.

They’ve got this big connected universe and all this shit constantly happening, and a fan base that is excited to see “Easter eggs” and references from one thing to another. What you end up with is a mess of details that just sort exist to constantly excite people with details and references and pointers to other things to know about. And often it comes at the expense of real emotional impact.

For example, in this movie, finding out that Nick Fury wasn’t really Nick Fury means that all the scenes with him in it didn’t really mean anything for any of the characters. Chubby guy stood up to Nick Fury? Meh, wasn’t really Fury, so whatever. Nick Fury wasn’t changed by that interaction, it doesn’t matter much for the Skrull, and chubby guy’s emotional development into a character with authority seems less impressive now that we wonder if the real Fury would have challenged him harder. Ditto for all the interaction between Parker and Fury. All that potentially meaningful interaction and character growth are squandered just for a “hey, neat,” moment.

Comic book series eventually just devolve into a mess of retconning past events, layering detail over detail, resurrecting the dead because of an inability to let go of anything, and more. And that’s what we can see happening in the Marvel cinematic universe as it bloats with details and cross references, with this one post credit scene as a symptom. Eventually, instead of characters having clean story arcs, it all just gets unwieldy and they just scrap everything, reboot, and walk us through the same comfortable origin stories again.

Except next time, the spider that bites Peter Parker will be special because of nanotechnology, to match the sensibilities of an audience that has come to realize that genetic modification is just as silly a source of super powers as radioactivity was.