Meet the film that’s a sequel in a way to two different films – here’s our review of Spider-Man: Far From Home (without spoilers).
When the On The Buses team were whisked away from their usual surroundings and sent to a Pontins camp in North Wales, it had a destabilising effect on the ensuing film. 1973’s Holiday On The Buses removed characters such as Stan and Blakey from their natural habitat, and by taking away the foundations on which their success has been built, the film suffered.
Spider-Man isn’t an exact parallel for On The Buses, if I’m being realistic, not least because none of the latter’s characters had been to space in their previous outing (1972’s Mutiny On The Buses was very earthbound, if memory serves). But still: Peter Parker and alter-ego Spider-Man are characters with feet firmly in New York. Furthermore, the really very good Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) had in large part succeeded because it was as much a grounded coming of age film as it was a superhero story. In fact, it distanced itself in large parts from the broader Marvel world, right down to its more down to earth foe.
Spider-Man: Far From Home takes the geographical base away. This time, Peter Parker and his classmates are heading off on a European adventure, in what looks like a phenomenally expensive school trip for an everyday high school. It’s also fertile ground to a point for the kind of coming of age comedy that the first film sort of was. And to the credit of writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, and director Jon Watts, they work hard to keep the film grounded in its young ensemble, and resist where they can the bigger louder sequel path.
Yet against the requirements of what the film has to go though, there’s only so much they can do.
After all, and rightly, there’s hero stuff to do here. As such, upping the special effects budget is Jake Gyllenhaal as Mysterio, and some whirly cloud things as Elementals. Deep in the comic books does the mining for new and interesting characters go. In the case of Mysterio, Gyllenhaal is effortlessly good, even if the character himself feels a little less than the sum of its acting parts. I sense some of us may differ on this point, but I didn’t ultimately find Mysterio a raging success. That said, to the film’s credit, Far From Home works hard to migrate Peter Parker/Spider-Man from a character in the background of the adventure to the fore of it gradually, and it feels natural the way he’s drawn to Mysterio’s antics.
The broader film, though – and lord, here we go into deep vague spoiler-avoiding territory – is also weighed down a little by having two jobs to do. It’s no secret that it’s a sequel to two different films. On the one hand, it picks up the aftermath of Avengers: Endgame. On the other, it reconnects Peter Parker to his roots, and offers a relatively direct follow-up to Homecoming.
In the case of the former, what I can say is you get a reasonable amount of Samuel L Jackson’s always good value Nick Fury for your money, along with a pretty much direct to camera speech about phases if you’re not up to date with how all this stuff works. Furthermore, and this is another highlight, a lot more time with Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan, who is one of the flat-out delights of the film. You also get some other stuff, that I’ll say no more about.
On the Spider-Man front, where the film is mostly at its best is with that aforementioned ensemble of young characters. Zendaya’s MJ, for instance, gets a lot more to do here and she’s on strong form, whilst Jacob Batalon as Ned continues to be a flat-out delight. In fact, there’s space built into the story for a fun subplot involving him and Angourie Rice that’s played quite wonderfully. It goes too to how adept a comedy director Jon Watts is. Bonus points as well for giving Marisa Tomei slightly more to do as well – and boy, what fun she gets to have.
Still, there’s little avoiding there’s a lot more than humour to pack in, and some areas of the film feel squeezed as a consequence. What’s more, it also feels that Peter Parker/Spider-Man has less to really push against, and when the third act inevitably ramps things up, the film starts to feel a lot more homogeneous. It already feels a little looser and less grounded than Homecoming to that point, and it sorely misses an antagonist of the weight of the first film when it does need to ramp up its stakes.
That said, in a summer where many blockbusters have misfired, Spider-Man: Far From Home is reliable fun, and I can’t imagine too many people feeling short-changed. What’s more, Tom Holland in the lead role, is excellent, human and believable, and clearly a terrific casting decision. But not particularly like On The Buses before it, the challenge ahead is to find ways to keep everyone’s feet grounded, as the world around the characters here – and the scale of what they face – develops. Far From Home – for its many qualities – offers a glimpse as to just what a challenge that will be.