With great power comes great responsibility. Those five words have been the driving force behind Spider-Man for nearly 60 years. We get it. The comics crank out the ethos week in and week out. We’ve heard it championed by cartoon characters and two cinematic Uncle Bens. Last year’s Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse filtered the philosophy through a prism of perspectives. A Spider-Man story is not a Spider-Man story unless the character is challenging the notion, fleeing from it only to run back to its embrace. A teenager with more strength than common sense is going to be a nightmare out there in the world unless they have witnessed and absorbed the worst-case scenario of their actions.
Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) is a widow because Peter Parker (Tom Holland) failed to grasp his Uncle’s lesson. His shame is not just baked into his origin, but his DNA as a character. Now, the MCU iteration does not need to revisit Ben Parker’s murder every outing, or even once. They’re as sick of watching Bruce Wayne’s parents gunned down in a Gotham alley as the rest of us. So, while the Uncle’s initials on a case of luggage are enough to acknowledge his memory for the audience, director Jon Watts and screenwriters Chris McKenna and Eric Sommers must find new ways to represent Peter’s perpetual grapple between power and responsibility.
Spider-Man: Far From Home finds Peter in a confused state of anxiety. He’s barely recovered from his return out of the void, and he’s thrust back into the John Hughes hell of high school. A few of his friends may relate to his situation, but there are also those who never “blipped” outta existence in the first place and aged normally into their grade level. Take little Brad (Remy Hii) for example. Once Peter’s junior, he’s now a hunky threat against a serious relationship with M.J. (Zendaya). The dude is on the make, and he can find victory where villains like The Vulture never could.
High School Leftovers could easily be enough story to fill the runtime, but we’ve got a superhero adventure to join. The existential dread of the Avengers: Endgame five-year-gap is mostly manipulated for the sake of humor, acknowledging the absurdity of the cosmic horror but happily bypassing it in favor of playful jabs towards the stunted growth of Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori). These kids and the MCU audience need a break from the ilk of Thanos. A proper summer vacation fulfills the necessary respite.
Everywhere Peter turns, Tony Stark stares back. Even when he trades New York City for Venice, murals glare in judgment and regret. Peter cannot meet his gaze. He needs to stuff the costume in the closet, ignore its duty, and find normalcy. Then Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) projects a sleeping dart into roomie Ned (Jacob Batalon)’s neck, and the usual spandex theatrics kick off. Peter is introduced to Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), a hero from another dimension that’s fled his realm to protect ours from elemental monsters. With The Avengers tied-up off-world, or in God-knows-what other upcoming solo escapades, Quentin and Peter are Fury’s only hope for global salvation.
Tearing Peter from the mundane is the remarkable heart of Spider-Man: Far From Home. The kid is in deep pain. He deserves the doldrums of school trips and the awkward flutters of young romance. When Beck appears to be a new Iron Man waiting in the wings, Peter is eager to shirk off his duties, and live a life pre-radioactive spiders and snapping gauntlets. He’s earned a holiday without catastrophe. We won’t argue with his choices to spurn Fury’s admiration, but we’ll also happily anticipate the dropping of the other shoe. Remember. Great power. Great responsibility.
Holland excels in these moments of torment. As Peter sinks further into himself, cornered by S.H.I.E.L.D. and dismissed by Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) on the prowl for Aunt May, Holland communicates the anguish exceptionally through a mixture of stuttery and constipated expression. We see both the specters of Uncle Ben and Tony Stark chained to his stature. The wall-crawling enthusiasm of his first outings corrupted by the never-ending lesson. Kid, you’ll never be just a kid.
That’s not to say that Spider-Man: Far From Home is this dark treatise on the nature of what it means to be a Spider-Man. Such gloom would be an antithesis to the character. Watts is here to have fun. He ups his action-director game in the sequel, designing grand bouts with CGI elementals and delivers at least one harrowing sequence that satisfies on the visceral level as well as the emotional. The film’s villain strikes directly to the core of Peter Parker’s mental dislocation where narrative revelation is as deadly as molten lava.
You gotta tip your hat to the casting of Gyllenhaal. His gloriously handsome mug is the only one we would consider as a possible replacement for Robert Downey Jr. Sure, the fishbowl getup is a bit of stretch, and riding around on a hot cloud of green gas has got to hurt your dating life, but no one would deny a beer from this guy. Gyllenhaal is not an actor looking for a square-jaw to fill. The wild energy he pumps into Beck is of the same infectious variety that you find in Okja, Southpaw, or Jarhead. Sure, he’s Iron Man and Thor rolled into one, but Flash Thompson is still right. He’s no Spider-Man. He oozes so much charm that you miss that it’s oozing.
Avengers: Endgame is a crushing weight atop Spider-Man: Far From Home. Watts successfully continues what was concluded. Iron Man and Captain America are gone. This world will never be the same. Through Peter Parker, this film must address their loss and give us reason to keep showing up three times a year. With the return of mid-credits and post-credits stingers, the MCU does not see an end in sight, so only if they fail their characters will we cease and desist as an audience.
Spider-Man: Far From Home does not fail Spider-Man. The action is an improvement on the last entry, but it still amounts to little more than the typical light show. It delivers on that ingredient, but it’s not why we’re here. The triumph remains in Peter Parker and Tom Holland. Together they maintain the tug of war between the teenager and the mask, between the power and the responsibility. Holland wears the pain of that turmoil better here than he has before. Confidence is for Superman. Doubt belongs to Spider-Man. As long as he’s struggling, the character is thriving, and in turn, the MCU still prospers.