Directed by: Jon Watts
Written by: Chris McKenna (Based on the characters by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko), with screenplay by Erik Sommers
Synopsis: Peter Parker returns in Spider-Man: Far From Home, the next chapter of the Spider-Man: Homecoming series! Our friendly neighborhood Super Hero decides to join his best friends Ned, MJ, and the rest of the gang on a European vacation. However, Peter’s plan to leave super heroics behind for a few weeks are quickly scrapped when he begrudgingly agrees to help Nick Fury uncover the mystery of several elemental creature attacks, creating havoc across the continent! (from Rotten Tomatoes)
Starring: Tom Holland, Zendaya, Samuel L. Jackson, Jake Gyllenaal, Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, Tony Revolori, Angourie Rice, Remy Hii, Martin Starr, J.B. Smoove
My review: Spider-Man: Far From Home is supposedly the last film in the Phase 3 portion of the MCU’s epic story. But personally, I see it less as a denouement and more as the beginning of Phase 4. And as such, I think it’s a great start to the next phase of Marvel’s storytelling.
The film takes place a couple months after the people killed in the Snap are brought back. The event, which now goes by the less-grandiose name “the Blip,” is now a part of everyone’s psyche, especially Peter Parker (Holland), who is still grieving the loss of Iron Man/Tony Stark after his universe-saving sacrifice. In fact, the entire thrust of the film revolves around Peter coping without his mentor. That journey leads him into some big trouble, since he befriends Mysterio (Gyllenhaal), a man who claims to have come from Earth from a different timeline who is fighting threats called the Elementals. It’s this friendship that has Peter wondering if Tony Stark’s trust in him was truly warranted.
Keep in mind, all of this is happening with the backdrop of a class vacation to Europe. So not only does Peter have to contemplate superheroism, he’s also faced with horrors of another kind—trying to tell MJ (Zendaya) that he likes her.
Here’s why I think this film is an awesome step for Marvel. First of all, we have a superhero who cries. When things get too tough for Peter, he has a meltdown in front of Happy (Jon Favreau) first yelling at him, then apologizing for his outburst, then openly crying because of how he misses Tony and wishes he could tell him what to do.
Why is that important? Because rarely do we ever see any superhero, particularly male superhero, cry or otherwise show emotion in a healthy way. Usually, emotion is often shown through murder, fighting, bottling up or stuffing down emotions (Captain America’s go-to maladaptive coping mechanism, in my view), or otherwise utilizing unhealthy methods of dealing with the emotionally debilitating stuff they deal with on a daily basis. With so much junk going on, you’d think we’d see more of how they cope with their huge responsibilities. But the only time we’ve seen that is when the Avengers had to endure The Snap and the five years after that. But it shouldn’t take a universe-altering thing for it to be okay for Marvel’s screenwriters to finally allow us to see our superheroes breaking down. Captain America, for instance, should have had a nervous breakdown the moment he woke up in the 2000s.
In fact, the few times we see superheroes showing emotions, we don’t get much in the way of proper emotional development. For instance, Thor, or as some have come to call him, Fat Thor. Aside from the Hulk, Thor is one of the few of the original Avengers that actually showcases his emotions. We saw during Infinity War how much emotional turmoil everyone was dealing with, but whereas most of the Avengers bottled up everything to focus on the task at hand, Thor continued forward while openly coming to grips with the fact that most of his people were gone on his watch. We even see him get teary-eyed about the weight of his grief, something most of the Avengers won’t do.
His emotions get the better of him in Endgame, when we see he’s put on weight because of his depression and guilt. Making light of depression can be done, if done tactfully and done with the awareness that some funny things can happen during a bout of depression (I should know). But finding the humor in depression—taking the sting out of it, which is what comedy is supposed to do—is different than making fun of depression. Endgame does the latter by having superheroes berate Thor because he’s bigger than he used to be, knowing full well that he’s gained weight because he’s depressed. That’s not cool at all, especially when it comes to writing veterans like War Machine saying these hurtful things to a fellow vet. Y’all are all dealing with PTSD, War Machine! It’s just his PTSD manifested into an eating disorder!
To contrast that, the Hulk might be one of the few superheroes in the MCU that seem to have better access toward his emotions, which include dealing with intense depression. Even though parts of the Hulk/Bruce Banner’s journey is played up for laughs (particularly when Bruce is in his Hulk form), we do see him go on a journey towards self-acceptance, to the point where he merges his two selves together to become an integrated Professor Hulk.
Thankfully, we can add Peter to that list. He’s a young man that knows it’s not shameful to cry, and I feel like seeing a superhero actually release emotion on screen is healthy for audiences, especially young, impressionable children and teens, to see. Maybe it’s safe to say that within the MCU, the days of the stoic hero might be over. We might be finally getting heroes that are actually modern human beings who are opening themselves back up to the wells of their own emotions. That’s my hope, anyway.
Another reason this film is a great step forward is that MJ isn’t your usual “girlfriend” character. She’s treated as a unique person, not as a typical damsel in distress or even as a stereotypical “strong female” character. She is, instead, a rather realistic depiction of an awkward, “weird” teenage girl who is cool and funny in her own way. As someone who fit that bill growing up, it’s fun to see that other girls who are like me will finally see themselves represented as the girl who can be desirable and is desired. Probably even better than that is that MJ seems like a real human being instead of a caricature.
As Karen Han wrote for Polygon:
“…She…doesn’t have to sacrifice any stereotypical markers of femininity (a night out sees her wearing a floral-patterned dress) or give up her deadpan sarcasm in order to get Peter Parker’s (Tom Holland) attention. MJ feels real in that respect; she’s not just one thing in the way that so many movies seem to demand of their female characters, nor does she have to be…MJ may not have superpowers, but she’s strong in her own right, and her particular brand of ‘quirkiness’—her refusal to go into the Washington Monument because there’s a good chance it was built by slaves; her love for the Black Dhalia flower because of its association with the infamous murder—balanced with her varied styles, which range from fairly punk to traditionally feminine (so often incompatible in film), feels almost tangible.”
Is it too much to hope that MJ ushers in a new group of female characters who aren’t hilariously portraying ridiculous versions of feminist thought? Is it too much to hope that we finally get to see women act like complex people in films? I don’t know. But I sincerely hope that at least for Marvel, MJ is the start of better characterization for women.
What’s also great about this movie is that the film, as well as the original Homecoming, go against the grain of what we’ve seen racially in the MCU. While there is still an argument that could be made that Ned (Batalon) is playing yet another ethnic sidekick, at the very least we can see how close in friendship he is to Peter. He’s not Peter’s racial plus-one in the same way War Machine or Falcon can sometimes be to Iron Man and Captain America. Unlike those two characters, who were adapted for the MCU’s earlier stages during a different time for comic book movies, Ned isn’t there to prove to the audience that our white hero isn’t racist. Instead, we have plenty of evidence Peter is a multiculturally-minded person.
For example: Aside from Ned being his friend, Peter has been romantically linked to Liz (Laura Harrier) in Homecomingand now MJ. Now, I’m sure there could be a negative argument made about why he’s only with biracial Black girls. I’m not going to make that argument. But I’m glad that we finally have interracial relationship representation that doesn’t devolve down to a taboo subject. It’s just a guy who likes a girl.
Secondly, Peter’s school is multiculturally-rich, leading to characterizations we don’t normally see in film. We have characters like Flash (Tony Revolori) and Brad (Remy Hii), who are characters who could be cast color-blind. The casting the Spider-Man team have done has let Flash and Brad be represented by actors of color who can play characters that don’t boil down to race. Flash, as we learned in Homecoming is a bully who is obsessed with Spider-Man. This time around, we learned that he also has a broken home life, seemingly made worse because of the Blip. Brad, on the other hand, is the newly-minted hunk of the class who likes MJ and wants to block her from Peter.
We don’t judge these characters on racial stereotypes; instead, we’re judging them on how they behave as human beings. In fact, everyone in the Spider-Man films are characters who don’t boil down to race, allowing us to do what Martin Luther King Jr. wanted—judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. Now, I ask, why can’t all casting be this way?
Maybe that’s why the Spider-Man series has become my favorite Marvel franchise. It feels fresh and new. It truly injects life into a franchise that had been bogged down by the old ways of doing things and portraying characters. Also, to use a millennial word, the Spider-Man franchise is mostly unproblematic because of its knowledge of how multicultural life, especially life in Queens, really is. [The only place where the film lets me down isn’t even regarding race, but regarding characterization; I’m not sure if Nick Fury would tell a 16-year-old “Bitch, please.”] Even better: the villain uses a mo-cap suit, a direct commentary on how integral CG technology has become in films, especially Marvel films. So not only is the franchise unproblematic, but it’s also keenly self-aware of itself within the movie industry. The Easter eggs, which I won’t spoil, take the film over the top in terms of personal satisfaction.
I think you can tell by now that I love this film. It was a light hors d’oeuvre for the rest of Phase 4. If the rest of Phase 4 stacks up to Far From Home, I’d be happy.