Of all the possible villains from all the possible comic books that a big-screen Spider-Man could end up fighting, never did I imagine that he'd end up battling…fake news. (Warning, minor spoilers ahead.)
I am mostly kidding, but only mostly. In the web-slinger's latest feature length outing, Far From Home, he travels to Europe on a school trip, teams up with the interdimensional weirdo Mysterio, irritates Nick Fury, and tries to get the girl, all while battling the forces of misdirection. This isn't exactly a movie built around trenchant social criticism, but every once in a while you almost get a sense—rare in a Marvel movie—that it might have something to say.
"I control the truth!" the villain shouts during a moment that might best be headlined, "The Villain's Motivations, Explained." One of the teenage heroes quotes George Orwell warning that the "very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world." The movie opens with an intentionally cheesy segment of high school morning news produced by students. Later, one of the young heroes suggests that the news media isn't always trustworthy. And in the end, one of Spider-Man's old quasi-nemeses returns in the guise of an Alex Jones-like YouTube barker, spreading a mix of decontextualized truth and strategic disinformation. At times I had to remind myself that I was watching a Spider-Man movie, not paging through the new issue of the Columbia Journalism Review.
But ultimately this is a superhero picture—fun, frivolous, and forgettable—not a lecture on media ethics. That's probably for the best, at least for those who don't really know what the word "ombudsman" means, though it still made me wonder if Marvel, the studio behind this and the many other interlinked superhero films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), could ever make a movie that dared to offer an argument about the real world, the one totally outside its imaginary bounds. It's not an accident that the high school news segment that opens the film is not really about high school, but about superheroes. In the MCU, super-news is all that matters.
Far From Home never lets you forget that it's a follow-up to Avengers: Endgame, the biggest superhero movie—which is to say, the biggest movie—of the year. The events of Endgame loom large over the proceedings; the first 15 minutes or so serve as a recap of the last two Avengers movies, in which half of everyone died, then returned, even as several major heroes expired (or at least their contracts did). The Marvel universe, it seems, has sufficiently recovered from the apocalyptic death and strange reappearance of trillions of sentient beings that it is ready to return to the comfort and normalcy of a bright and cheery romantic comedy about vacationing teenagers. It's like a superhero coda to The Leftovers, as directed by John Hughes.
The romantic pair at the movie's heart are Spider-Man's alter ego Peter Parker, the nerdy kid from Queens played by Tom Holland, and M.J., who is played by former Disney star Zendaya. Holland remains a charming and relatable presence, a kid who, perhaps like some movie goers, is simply exhausted by endless superhero world-saving.
But it's Zendaya who, once again, is the movie's standout performer: M.J.'s gently frazzled, low-key cool is not only a perfect contrast to Parker's uptight, activity-kid anxiety, it's a kind of superpower of its own. I am not sure I have ever seen a human being be more casual and laid-back, about anything, in my life. Her nonchalance is practically transcendent.
The movie's obligatory new super-person, Mysterio, is played by a bearded, twitchy Jake Gyllenhaal, whose, ah, deceptively simple performance grounds many of the movie's bigger moments. He wears a cape, a suit of gleaming green armor, and a computer-generated fishbowl of a helmet that somehow never breaks in battle or needs to be Windexed.
Mysterio's powers are initially somewhat unclear, though they appear to involve BGE, or Big Green Energy, which helps him defeat various elemental monsters as they pummel various European cities, all of which Parker, and thus Spider-Man, happens to be in. His summer trip itinerary thus becomes a tour of vast and monstrous urban destruction, often in historic districts that will probably require complex zoning board approval to rebuild. These monsters destroy bridges and town squares and churches, where the people in the pews are surely praying that a superhero never again vacations in their hometown.
The action and the twists are all rather predictable and formulaic, especially if you've seen other Marvel movies. It's not quite as light on its feet as Spider-Man's last solo outing, Homecoming, nor as fantastically inventive as last year's animated Spidey feature, Into the Spider-Verse. There are times, especially during the first hour, when Far From Home feels like it's merely going through the motions, juggling jokes and spectacle and don't-you-feel-clever comic-book references according to the dictates of some joyless studio template. For a movie titled Far From Home, it stays in rather familiar territory.
Still, like most Marvel movies, it's handled with competence and humor.
And, like most Marvel movies, it does double duty an extended advertisement for what the MCU brings next.
Studio boss Kevin Feige has been so far vague about the franchise's long-range plans, but whatever is to come, it's sure to revolve heavily around Spider-Man. The movie positions Spidey as the next Iron Man, the central figure who shall inherit the mantle—and, hopefully, the blockbuster billions—of his predecessor. Early in the film, Spider-Man answers questions at a press conference; the reporters will only ask whether he's become the head Avenger, taking over for Tony Stark. Are the assumptions behind these questions fake news? Probably not.
It's a lot of pressure for a 16-year-old kid. But as the old adage goes, with great box office returns come great responsibility, or at least a lot of sequels. In the end, that's Marvel's biggest idea.