'Spider-Man: Far From Home' gives fans what they want — but asks some tough questions, too

Tom Holland is one of the most appealing Marvel leads, and his chemistry with Zendaya is so charming you almost wish Spider-Man didn’t have to constantly rush off to be a hero.
Image: Tom Holland as Spider-Man in "Spider-Man: Far From Home"
Tom Holland is far from home in the latest MCU blockbuster.Marvel Studios
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By Noah Berlatsky

“Avengers: Endgame” was a sweeping, tragic epic. The next film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) franchise, “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” couldn't be more different. The movie is a light-hearted action rom-com, filled with adorably awkward banter, spectacular special effects and an inspiring storyline. Off to the side of all that good cheer, though, “Far From Home” also raises more pointed questions about the superhero genre than its immediate predecessor. Sometimes a smile can be more unsettling than tears.

(Spoilers below.)

“Far from Home” also raises more pointed questions about the superhero genre than its immediate predecessor. Sometimes a smile can be more unsettling than tears.

The newest “Spider-Man” opens with an overly bombastic, intentionally farcical montage to the characters who died in “Endgame” — Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow. It maintains that light tone throughout; what was presented as a crushing loss in “Endgame” is treated as cheerful entertainment. The fact that half the earth's population disintegrated and then reappeared five years later is mined for slapstick comedy, but doesn't cause much lasting trauma.

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High school goes on pretty much as usual, though the kids all had to restart the year. Peter Parker/Spidey (Tom Holland) heads to Europe on a summer school trip, hoping to ask out classmate MJ (Zendaya). While he's there he runs into giant, world-destroying monsters and the superhero Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), who says he's from an alternate earth.

Holland is one of the most appealing MCU leads, and his chemistry with Zendaya is so charming you almost wish Spider-Man didn’t have to constantly rush off to do superheroics. Still, those heroics are very entertaining too, as towering monsters made of water or fire or whatever stampede through various European cities, destroying historic skylines with Godzilla-like glee.

“Infinity War” and “Endgame” swathed their fight scenes in doom and dread as fans waited for the next beloved character to die. “Far From Home,” though, knows that the battles are all in good fun; it compares them at many points to fantasy spectacle and entertainment. In one scene, the villains walk through a fight before it happens, figuring out how much damage to do here and which moves to make there; it intentionally evokes a crew working on a special effects sequence. When you go to a superhero movie, you want to see awesome stunts, and that's exactly what “Far From Home” is going to give you.

Besides the frothy water and fire monsters, though, “Far From Home” grapples with more down to earth antagonists: drones. Billionaire industrialist and inventor Tony Stark/Iron Man left Peter Parker a pair of glasses which control a global intelligence network. This gives Peter the ability to spy on his friend's texts. It also means he can launch thousands of killer drones.

After Peter almost accidentally targets a classmate and romantic rival for murder by drone, he starts to wonder whether he actually deserves such lethal power. Peter is only 16; his main qualification for controlling a satellite defense network is that he dresses up in spandex, punches giant monsters and was the protégé of an arms manufacturer. You can see Nick Fury's point when the hard-bitten spy (played by Samuel L. Jackson) suggests that the kid isn't ready for the job.

America produces both Marvel blockbusters and a military-industrial juggernaut that rains down death on individuals halfway across the world via robot.

Nor is it just Peter who may not be ready. The movie connects the giant monster battles and the drone strikes in ways that suggest viewer fascination with the first may create an unfortunate investment in the second. After all, America produces both Marvel blockbusters and a military-industrial juggernaut that rains down death on individuals halfway across the world via robot. Should a country which thrills to scenes of gratuitous destruction also have the power to inflict such carnage on people halfway around the world?

Supposedly, we all know that the superheroes like Mysterio blasting away with green energy are a fantasy. They're just a conglomeration of special effects and acting; they're not real. But is our visceral joy in these displays of power completely harmless? Can you cheer as whole cities are destroyed for giggles without their being any consequences? When we tell ourselves stories about our own righteous destructive power over and over and over, that's bound to have some effect on how we feel about actual superweapons.

Of course, it's not even a spoiler to reveal that the movie validates Peter and his righteous control of drones. This is a superhero movie and he's the hero! The whole point is for him to self-actualize and prove himself worthy. He has great power; he takes great responsibility for it. Superheroes go to war with all the power at their disposal. They're supposed to intervene and blow things up, just as the U.S. is supposed to intervene and blow things up. That's the right thing to do. That's how the narrative works. And at least in Hollywood, that narrative is fun.

And “Far From Home” really is fun, all the way through to the Easter eggs and plot reversals in the multiple after-credits sequences. It is a movie that is fully aware of the joys of illusion, of fantasy and of its audience. It gives fans everything they want, including the knowing wink that none of it is real. But it's also smart enough to know that reality and fantasy aren’t always so easy to separate. What you see affects what you believe. The right director with the right script, the right effects and the right team can even have you cheering for drones.