In his latest adventure, Spider-Man may be Far From Home, but generally speaking, he’s never far from theatres. Since making his blockbuster debut 17 years ago, the beloved webslinger has logged more onscreen hours than any other Marvel superhero, surviving multiple reboots and even temporarily unknotting copyright entanglements to make splashy appearances in epic crossover entries with similar titles like Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. Yes, for a friendly, neighbourhood kind of guy, he sure gets around.
Therein lies the problem, though. How much mileage can filmmakers get out of one character when the core conceit of a wise-cracking do-gooder forced to juggle his everyday responsibilities with world-saving theatrics never ages? Latest Spider-Man player Tom Holland’s first headlining effort, the 2017 hit Homecoming, was more of a teen comedy than any previous Spidey movie and that trend continues here, only with more effort and less charm.
Director Jon Watts returns, but the enhanced scope and time-consuming emotional fallout from the recent events of Avengers: Endgame sets him off balance. The movie still tries for comedy at nearly every turn, while also engaging in ooey-gooey dramatics that swing wildly between mourning Spidey’s fallen mentor Iron Man and pining for Peter Parker’s sardonic love interest MJ (Zendaya).
It’s cute that Far From Home tries to cover such wide-ranging ground so that saving a series of European cities from total destruction is positioned on the same level of importance as telling your crush that she’s your crush, but the pieces don’t connect this time around. The constant jokes constantly fall flat, if it’s Peter accidentally ordering a drone strike on a romantic rival or his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) unexpectedly starting a cuddly relationship with previously uninterested classmate Betty (Angourie Rice).
Each of those comic bits is driven into the ground long after the ideas lose what little novelty they had and they’re far from alone. All other avenues of humorous potential are explored with a clunky lack of efficiency and the cast chemistry fizzles more often than not. Watts busies himself with trying to carve out a space for every character to be funny, which is certainly admirable in terms of supporting his actors, but the attempt feels forced and eventually exhausting. There are only so many gags that can be wrung from the bumbling antics of the science teacher (Martin Starr) or the misplaced arrogance of always-Instagramming foil Flash (Tony Revolori).
Of course, Peter’s high school hijinks are just one part of the plot here, which involves a class trip to lavish locales like Venice and Prague, with the former being the place that Peter finally meets Avengers mastermind Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), last seen de-aged by a couple decades in Captain Marvel. Fury introduces Peter to mysterious flying superhero Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), known to Spidey fans as the fishbowl-helmeted Mysterio.
Beck has been battling a group of monsters that each represent an element, be it water or earth, and he’d like Spider-Man’s help in fighting the fire villain that’s about to threaten the Czech capital. Try as he might, Peter cannot avoid his world-saving responsibilities, a common Spider-Man refrain. In fact, it’s the franchise’s only refrain and it’s growing stale after so many years of hammering home the point that juggling a social life with superheroism is a tough gig.
The message was most clearly and effectively communicated in Sam Raimi’s solid sequel Spider-Man 2, but Watts’ own Homecoming also did a decent job of spinning the comedic and dramatic threads into a cohesive adventure. Far From Home’s issue is that neither tonal half is particularly successful, with the humour lacking any natural wit and the heroic action appearing blandly familiar.
One need only look to last year’s adoringly animated, elastically energized Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse to be reminded how much fun a Spidey movie can still be after all this time. The inspired page-to-screen visual concepts and metafictional approach to the story provided a fresh perspective on an iconic superhero with an already busy big screen resume.
After that soaring success, Far From Home sends the character crashing back to Earth, once again stuck to a stringent formula (how many more “evil mentor” storylines can Marvel possibly peddle?) and relegated to set pieces that feel increasingly derivative as the wide swath of CGI commits to digital destruction of [insert city here].
Holland remains a success in the title role, at least. He’s always captured the hero’s duality well, from Peter’s awkwardness to Spider-Man’s sarcasm, and that continues here in spite of the meandering script. But the ubiquity of these Marvel franchises threatens boredom at every turn nowadays, since the movies play it safe so often, and Far From Home is an especially rudimentary rehash of the numerous bits and pieces that have come before it. There’s clearly still room for the series to grow, if only this Spidey would aim his webshooters a little higher.