Friday, July 12, 2019

Europe after the rain (turns out to be mildly damp)


SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME

Man, do even I have superhero fatigue now?

2019
Directed by Jon Watts
Written by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers

Spoiler alert: high



To be fair to it, Spider-Man: Far From Home was always going to be laboring under a burden that it couldn't have been equipped to carry.  Theoretically, it's supposed to be the sequel to 2017's Spider-Man: Homecoming; and, since it has the same characters, and both films have around 71% of the same syllables in their titles, I guess it is.  Yet having been pressed into the service of its studio, in practice, Far From Home is more of a 129-minute epilogue to the 182-minute Avengers: Endgame, and to the 3000-minute MCU generally.  Which, actually?  Would be fine.  It kind of needs one.  But...

Far From Home comes closer than any of its 22 predecessors to outright collapsing under the crushing gravity of its shared universe, and it only manages to get back up (as Spider-Man himself has been known to do) with the greatest of difficulty, and at the very last possible second.  Until then—that is, until about the hour mark—it's basically just a fucking wall-crawling disaster, and even by the time you've finally gotten used to its bizarre ideas of what Spider-Man is and the way it's going to resist actually following through on them, it's almost too late.  Hell, maybe it even was too late.  I've always been a soft touch for superhero cinema, and it could be that Far From Home is just plain bad.

Not that it isn't, in its own way, disciplined.  Marvel XXIII offers up its statement of purpose just a few minutes into its existence, telling us that, first and foremost, it's going to be a feature-length memorial to Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., who is not in this film, and who will no longer be in these films, but who serves nevertheless as the structuring absence behind this one).  And, by beginning with an earnestly incompetent PowerPoint presentation, offered by a high school morning announcement team to celebrate Tony's life, Far From Home is also telling us that it will honor his memory in the mightiest of all possible Marvel manners: by mocking his sacrifice through trivializing jokes.  Shortly, it will even go on to ruin whatever hard-won satisfaction you'd taken in the arc Endgame had imposed upon Tony, by having his final act not be, as we saw there, saving half the universe, nor saying farewell to his beloved wife, but instead reverting utterly to type, in what amounts to the single stupidest fucking thing one of these movies has seized on yet.

In the meantime, it'll expand that aforementioned triviality to embrace everything that surrounded Tony's heroic end, and while I was never under any particular illusion that Far From Home was going to take Endgame's implications seriously, I didn't fully expect it to go so far out of its way to not take them seriously.  I expected it to ignore them while working within them, which means I'm the idiot.  Yet perhaps I had some right to: after all, Homecoming (which shares with Far From Home its director Jon Watts, along with two of its screenwriters, albeit clearly not the good ones) danced its own shared universe tightrope with expert poise.


That's rarely the case here, and so there's a massive disconnect between the contemptuous ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ it throws up, whenever the events of Infinity War and Endgame seem like they would impact any of its core characters—as you'd think they would, given that all of them literally died in those events (which is itself implausibly convenient)—and the film's actual plot and themes, which amount to "how can we navigate this uncertain, terrible world without the heroes who inspired us?"  Hence whenever it's not dealing directly with that plot and those themes, and often even when it is, it defaults into one more iteration of "fuck you, have fun!", which maybe could've worked as a palate-cleanser, especially if it were, in fact, more fun.

Anyway: in the pleasant post-apocalypse, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) and his classmates M.J. (Zendaya), Ned (Jacob Batalon), Flash (Tony Revolori), and Betty (Angourie Rice), amongst others, are off on a school trip to Europe, wherein the sub-franchise's G-rated teen comedy tropes play out at a level of implementation so much lower than in Homecoming it made me wonder if I actually liked them in Homecoming, though I'm sure I did, I've seen it twice.  Truth be told, it's not clear that, other than M.J., it even wants these guys around except for Pete to trip over them.  Alternatively, they were pushed aside because it was recognized the material was so weak: it makes a waste of the fun idea of Ned and Betty playing out the life cycle of a whole relationship in the background, by deciding that an idea by itself is all a joke needs to work; Zendaya is still stuck in a hollow impersonation of Daria Morgendorffer; and as far as I can tell Martin Starr, an enormous joy as a prickly chaperone in the last film, is playing a completely different character who just so happens to have the same job.  Like I said, if it's going to be "fun," it should be fun, and given that Holland is such a fantastic Peter Parker and such a fantastic Spider-Man, and the basic thrust of his movie is Saved By the Bell Meets James Bond, it's a shame it's never nearly as enjoyable as that sounds.  The only beat that totally works is, well, when Pete accidentally beats Flash into unconsciousness.  That's (honest) pretty funny.

The "James Bond" part, of course, is provided by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who stalks around Europe behind Peter's tour group trying to weaponize a child, though all Peter really wants to do is be a teenager on vacation and try to marshal all the awkward courage in his tiny body to kiss M.J., which frankly seems fair enough.  (The spy comedy is rated PG, including a bit that I'm sure everyone will love, where Fury has a stern Germanic SHIELD agent sexually assault our hero, which, anyway, was a joke that was better told when it was in the actual Eurotrip.  There's another moment where Peter says he's not ready to be a full-fledged superhero and Fury gets to swear. "Bitch, please! You went to outer space," Fury says.  Oddly, Peter does not reply, "Yes, and then I almost immediately died.")  Regardless, the other reason Fury's hanging around is to deliver to Peter Tony Stark's bequeathment of a sophisticated, fully-automated global police state called EDITH, which stands for something silly, and which—again—involves surveillance satellites, absurd hacking tools, thousands of drones, and which is handed over to a 16 year old Tony barely knew in the form of a pair of magic augmented reality sunglasses, whilst Far From Home doesn't even land a They Live reference.

Unsurprisingly, Peter misuses this tool.  (Actually, owing to the demands that Peter be essentially upstanding, what happens instead is that Tony's voice command software turns out to have regressed from the fully-functional AI that once served as his electrobutler Jarvis and Karen, the helpful lady who inhabited Pete's old spider-suit, and so what we have instead is Peter accidentally almost killing all his friends because EDITH is idiotic.)

What this leads into, however, is the other overarching plot that's been following poor Peter across Europe: Earth, it turns out, is under attack from the "Elementals," a quartet of mystical, boring monsters that live only to destroy, and the only man standing in their way seems to be a certain Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), dubbed "Mysterio" by Ned and Pete.  Like Iron Man, Dr. Strange, and Thor rolled into one powerful hero, Beck comes to Fury with a tragic backstory and seeking aid against the ravagers who destroyed his home, an alternate Earth.  This is also where Far From Home wants us to pretend we don't know that Mysterio, while decidedly B-tier, is still a rather famous Spider-Man villain, or maybe it thinks it's using our awareness of this as a source of suspense.  Either way, the second act (of, I think, four) drags on as Beck ingratiates himself to Peter and fills the void he's had since Iron Man died, which is somehow predictable both in terms of the MCU formula and the Spider-Man movie formula—this makes the fifth time in seven live-action films that Peter has sought a replacement for his lost Uncle Ben, and the fourth where that replacement has betrayed him, and the only wrinkle this time is that the mentor was planning betrayal all along.  Then the film can finally begin.


Now, it's contrived to the point of being distracting, but it at least gets us to where we need to go, and, with Mysterio reinvented as the poisonous waste of Tony Stark's legacy—frankly, I'd have probably been happier with his plan just being to rob a bunch of European museums—it finally starts managing to make this Spider-Man movie work as the seventh or eighth Iron Man movie it would prefer to be.  Of course, that's sort of a bad thing in itself.  The best you can say about Marvel's desire to turn Spider-Man into Iron Man is that it's never been done.  This isn't the most compelling reason, and the precise forms it takes are unsupportably fucking dumb, but I'll admit: it's been set-up about as well as anything has in the MCU.  Which is why it's such a chore to watch Far From Home execute it so badly, still beholden to all the "Spider-Man" things that now make no sense (and lose all meaning) in the context of a story that makes Peter the heir apparent to the world's richest man, granted what amounts the keys to Tony's unofficial kingdom of Earth.  It's not the only way Far From Home sees the MCU trying to have its cake and smear it all over its face too; we also have Gyllenhaal being remarkably good as the leader of a gang of Tony's bitter ex-employees, whose villain speech is so convincing you almost side with the dude for a minute.  Like, yeah, Mysterio: Tony Stark was an asshole, and who made him our techno-God?  Then he starts acting megalomaniacal again, and he authorizes another false flag attack, and the movie jerks off to Tony Stark for a fifth or sixth time, and you start to wonder if it's starting to feel as chafed as you are.

But I said there's good in it, and while it mostly begins and ends with Mysterio, Mysterio's a big part of the film, from the faithful retro-cool of his design to his amped-up power set—the original's gimmick being the casting of illusions using special effects, this Mysterio is almost certainly the baddest-ass he's ever been.  Best of all, Mysterio lets the themes of the film actually get playful.  Sure, there's the "fake news" stuff that people have noticed (most forcefully in a long-awaited cameo from a returning actor that, honestly, I don't think does his character right).  But the desperation that comes from trying to make a 23rd movie that can still entertain like the first comes through as Mysterio takes on, simultaneously, the role of the frazzled director, whose best idea is, hilariously, still just another battle with villainous NPCs in the sky, and the role of the frustrated critic, who bemoans that this really is the kind of shit people like now.  Plus the freakout he gives Spider-Man is, if not my absolute favorite sequence in any live-action Spider-Man film (or maybe any of the MCU films), still awfully damned close.  In fact, if anything, I wish they'd leaned harder on the illusions and Mysterio's tricksy nature.  Yet I can't say they didn't do a good job: from the moment he's revealed to the moment halfway through the end credits where they really fuck Spider-Man up, Mysterio's one of the MCU's best villains (the funniest joke in this movie is that Mysterio is by far the best Iron Man villain).  And that's gotta mean something.

On the other hand, that mid-credits mindblower comes with a whiff of smugness, Kevin Feige's bullying way of telling Sony, "You wanna take Spider-Man back?  You're welcome to try."  It's an intriguing idea, but it retrospectively makes the thematic hemming and hawing over what the concept of "Spider-Man" should mean seem like a big waste of time.  Ultimately, and sadly, what we have is the worst Marvel movie since whenever you think the last bad one was.  I still liked it.  But I like everything in this genre, and I cannot be trusted.  Take that score, then, with a big grain of salt.

Score: 6/10

2 comments:

  1. I love that you basically suggested that Mysterio's plot be the same as Constantine in Muppets Most Wanted.

    I feel you on alllll the particulars of this one, and for once our scores almost entirely match. I have a soft spot for Angourie Rice at least since The Nice Guys, so I'm happy she got an expanded role in this one. But you're right that they do almost nothing with her or anybody else.

    And yeah that Illusion sequence was Doctor Strange levels of trippy. Great work.

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    1. I really liked Rice in The Nice Guys too, which is why I thought it was a shame that her expanded role didn't, you know, do that much.

      If anything, I thought Mysterio's illusions were more trippy than Dr. Strange, which never really tacked toward horror despite being overseen by a horror guy. And I guess it's not "actually scary" (it's an MCU movie, right?), but it was, let's say, thrilling?

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