Don’t be fooled by the title, or the fact that Marvel finally shot a movie outside of Atlanta: “Spider-Man: Far From Home” is a cute but unadventurous bit of superhero housekeeping that only exists to clean up the cataclysmic mess that “Avengers: Endgame” left behind. As a piece of connective tissue in an ever-metastasizing cinematic universe, Tom Holland’s sophomore (solo) outing as Peter Parker does a clever job of closing the door on one phase and nudging it open to another; it’s funny and colorful and hinges on some MCU deep-cuts that even the most hardcore fans won’t be able to anticipate.
As a standalone story, however — another predictable call to action about the burdens of growing up and becoming the person that others believe you can be — it’s a hollow exercise in going through the motions. Fans might be appeased by a successful bunt in a long summer of disgraceful strike-outs, but this is still a maddening failure when compared to the remarkable artistry of “Into the Spider-Verse” or the raw pathos of Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man 2.”
Writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers spin a lot of web from the veneer of a story, but their script strains belief at every turn, and the jokes are the only part of it that sticks; it’s never a good sign when both of a film’s most significant plot points are buried in the closing credits. For all of its frequent charm, the most generous thing you can say about “Far From Home” is that it’s the third-best Spider-Man movie of the last seven months (if “Endgame” counts towards Holland’s contract, then it also counts against him here).
“Far From Home” begins with what people want to see in a superhero movie: A bearded Jake Gyllenhaal wearing a fishbowl on his head and fighting a giant pile of sand. But when the action cuts back to Queens, where the students of Midtown(?) High School are still trying to make sense of the “blip” that tore their world in half with a snap of Thanos’ fingers, that’s when the film really starts digging through the rubble of a mega-franchise that won the championship, lost its stars, and is readying itself for a rebuild season. This stuff is gold, as returning director Jon Watts displays the same amusing knack for adolescent crises that made 2017’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming” such a refreshing earthbound reboot.
Peter is still a simpering 16-year-old kid with a big secret (and an even bigger crush), only now he’s struggling to fill the shoes left behind by his late mentor, Tony Stark. MJ (the well-cast but under-utilized Zendaya), is still a morbid and pathologically honest girl whose cleverness doesn’t stop her from squinting through every scene, but she’s become the clear object of Peter’s affection. The romantic tension between them tries to thread the needle between teenage awkwardness and canonical belonging, and ends up tying itself into knots of prefab movie nonsense. Zendaya has more chemistry with some of the many, many drugs her character takes on HBO’s “Euphoria.”
Elsewhere, Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) still exists as a lust object for the father figures who come into Peter’s life (Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan inherits that role from Tony Stark), while the kid’s loyal friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) is enjoying his status as Spidey’s only confidant.
Of course, keeping Spider-Man’s identity a secret gets a lot harder once Peter’s class is whisked away for a school trip across some of Europe’s most iconic cities, all of which bring a much-needed sense of place to a franchise that has previously been green-screened within an inch of its life. Peter, who isn’t ready for any real adult responsibility despite the fact that he’s already defeated Michael Keaton and helped save half of all life in the universe, is eager for the chance to just be an awkward kid for a few weeks, but Aunt May packs his Spider-Man suit just in case.
She needn’t have bothered: The Midtown High students are only in Venice for about five minutes before a giant water monster shows up to flood the piazzas, but a handsome fella with a red cape flies in on a trail of green farts and saves the day. He goes by the name of Mysterio (Gyllenhaal, who brings the perfect warped energy to the part but isn’t given anywhere to put it), and he arrives just in time to fill the leadership vacuum that formed after Iron Man died and the rest of the Avengers went their separate ways.
There are inter-dimensional creatures wreaking havoc across the continent, and Mysterio can focus on stopping them without having to keep one eye on the chiseled dude who keeps moving in on MJ. So far as Peter is concerned, this is the kind of hero who should be saving the day — not a girl-crazy high school kid who sometimes like to cosplay as his alter-ego around his local neighborhood after school. Needless to say, things are not quite what they seem.
Sony has asked critics not to reveal what happens from there (and I won’t), but there really isn’t much to spoil. A villain emerges, bellowing some half-baked Trumpian garbage about how easy it is to fool people who are already fooling themselves — could this be The Superhero Movie We Need Right Now? — and using drones in a way that confirms them as the most boring technological plot device since it was decided that every modern spy thriller had to revolve around stealing ominous surveillance tools. The script engineers an excuse for why the film’s action scenes feel even more plastic than most of Marvel’s previous set pieces, but that doesn’t make them any more enjoyable to watch, or the story beats that tie them together feel any less contrived.
Quite the opposite, in fact. While no one goes to a superhero movie expecting documentary realism, “Far From Home” is hard to swallow even by the standards of a franchise in which one of the major characters is a space raccoon who sends emails to Scarlett Johansson. Most of the MCU has required people to suspend disbelief, but this installment demands that viewers expel it entirely; the amount of brain-checking labor is off-the-charts absurd, and bleeds into some of the later fight scenes in a way that strips them of their most basic visual pleasures and detracts from their narrative purpose.
As tempting as it is to applaud Marvel for scaling things down with its Spider-Man films — taking a larger-than-life saga and shrinking it to a human level before things get intergalactic again in Phase 4 — “Far from Home” has an uneasy relationship with the teen elements. Stunted as they might be, the bits between Peter and MJ are still where the movie is at its best, but their screen-time together is far too limited for their to be a real foundation between them.
MJ in particular feels like she has so much going on under the surface, but these films keep punting it further down the field. And Peter, who has to prove who he is to himself before he can be ready to reveal his identity to the world, is mostly just annoyed by the chase. There’s no anguish there, as there was when he strained to hold a severed ferry together during “Homecoming,” or as there was when Tobey Maguire stopped a subway train from launching into the sea. There’s just FOMO and uncertainty and the feeling that people will believe in anything — no matter how dangerous it might be — before they believe in themselves.
At the end of “Far From Home,” Peter Parker finally reaches the place where he feels like he can live up to the potential that Tony Stark saw in him. The journey there has been witty and winding, full of silly asides and another great Tony Revolori bit where he waxes poetic about how Spider-Man is the best in all of us, only to turn around and nonchalantly call Peter a “dickwad” straight to his face. But the Spider-Man we find at the end of the movie is no different than the one we met at the start; he’s more confident now, and ready to accept a truth of his own design, but you can’t help but feel like he could have learned all of the same things without leaving Queens or wasting our time.
Sony will release “Spider-Man: Far From Home” in theaters on Tuesday, July 2.