Spider-Man: Far From Home Is Fun but Sacrifices Character to Plot Twists and Gags

This review (with spoilers) comes from Jeremiah Lawson: Spider-Man: Far From Home is an enjoyable […]

Guest Contributor / 7.17.19

This review (with spoilers) comes from Jeremiah Lawson:

Spider-Man: Far From Home is an enjoyable addition to the Marvel franchise. Tom Holland is winsome as Peter Parker and Spider-Man, and Jake Gyllenhaal is inspired casting for Quentin Beck. By now there’s hardly a need to avoid spoilers for this film, which has been out for a couple of weeks; so I’ll move directly to something that’s nagged at me since I saw the film. Far From Home is eager to check off all the elements of a John Hughes-style teen comedy; and also eager to script moments meant to have emotional weight. But narrative cohesion is sacrificed for the “moment.”

Not that this didn’t happen in earlier Spider-Man films. For instance, in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker senses a sedan hurtling through the air (thrown by Doctor Octopus). This is one of the most memorable moments in the film, but it’s never clear why, if Otto Octavius suspected that Parker was Spider-Man, he’d feel any need to throw a sedan at him; conversely, if he didn’t know Parker was Spider-Man, it would be foolish to throw a sedan at someone for whom he’d wanted to do a favor because then that someone would die. So this pattern is not exactly new. And I write this as someone who owns Spider-Man 2 and even Spider-Man 2.1 on disc.

In Far From Home, Parker is constantly torn between direct and indirect characterization. Since his adversary this time around is Quentin Beck — better known as the illusionist and con artist Mysterio — it’s fitting that Peter is torn between taking what people say to him at face-value and recognizing with his senses (and his spider-sense) that things are not what they seem. In the last act, Beck scolds Parker by saying he’s a nice kid, really, but he’s gullible. Beck tells Parker that you don’t have to work very hard to lie when people are already lying to themselves; as Beck sees himself, he’s just playing up the lies people already want to believe. As David Sims at The Atlantic put it, Far From Home can be seen as a Marvel film that satirizes its own tropes. I’m inclined to agree.

But after two dozen Marvel films, there are some simple questions about character and precedent that must be addressed. There’s a moment late in Far From Home where Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) tells Peter Parker that he knew Tony Stark for years, and Tony was always second-guessing himself. It’s clearly intended to be a powerful moment of emotional affirmation for Parker: that Tony Stark sought out Parker for the Avengers because Parker is a hero, and a worthy hero at that. It’s just that…well… I can’t forget Jeff Bridges’ line as Obadiah Stane in the first Iron Man movie, when he expresses frustration at Tony Stark’s continuous tendency to “Ready, fire, aim.”

For that matter, we find out that the late Tony Stark, who died in Endgame, has made a system called EDITH. It stands for “Even Dead, I’m the Hero,” and it consists of a web of satellites with surveillance and drone-strike capabilities. A gag early in the new film has Peter Parker accidentally calling in a lethal drone strike on a romantic rival (who, by the way, is only a romantic rival at a formulaic level on the basis of some dubious advice from his friend Ned Leeds on the one hand, and the tropes of the teen comedy on the other). The problem with this part of the script is that it is writing characters for the gags.

Even if I grant that Tony Stark was egotistical enough to create a satellite weapons array and then give it such a goofy name, this is still the Tony Stark who, back in Spider-Man: Homecoming, was skeptical enough about Peter Parker’s judgment to build a “training wheels protocol” into the Spider-Man suit he made for Peter. And Stark was furious that Peter and Ned had figured out how to hack into and shut down the training wheels protocols. When Peter protested that he wanted to be like Tony Stark, Stark immediately replied, “And I wanted you to be better.” Tony Stark knew he was not a particularly good or noble or heroic guy; he happened to be a billionaire genius playboy philanthropist who saw that Peter Parker could actually someday become the hero he knew he himself couldn’t be.

Yet for all that Stark remained shrewd enough to realize a teenage boy was not nearly as responsible with power and technology as he thought he was, so Stark designed safeguards to keep Parker from using the more lethal tech in the Spider-Man suit (which would later be used in Endgame). By now you can see what the problem with the EDITH gag is. It flies in the face of Tony Stark written (and played) as a man who believed in Peter’s will to do good but not in the soundness of his judgment. So it doesn’t make sense why Peter would get the keys to control EDITH with no check on his access to lethal force.

This gag at the expense of character coherence also applies to a certain late-act reveal. When Quentin Beck divulges that he is actually a disgraced former employee of Tony Stark who plans on using the holographic technology he developed for Stark Industries to fool the world into thinking he is a superhero, this isn’t a surprise. It makes sense that someone like Beck would build a fake superhero brand and gather as allies fellow disgraced former employees of Stark Industries. This new Spider-Man series has shown Parker doing battle against men with grudges against Tony Stark, grudges that are somewhat understandable, in spite of the men also being liars and crooks.

What doesn’t make sense, though, is why Tony Stark wouldn’t build and design EDITH so that ex-Stark Industry employees could not be granted access. If Stark had been written as an actual tech mogul, he would have designed EDITH so that someone like Quentin Beck could never gain access to EDITH to begin with. (And since it turns out that Quentin Beck designed the holographic tech that Stark has used since Civil War, there’s the unanswered question as to why Beck would think he needs access to Stark’s technology to pull off his long con job.) The EDITH device, which is made so central to the mechanics of the plot, is the most superfluous element of the story in relation to its characters. The trouble with Far From Home is that, as delightful as it often is, the script caters to the tropes of the teen comedy and the superhero action adventure at the expense of the more interesting ideas that are often latent in these characters.

This isn’t to say that I didn’t love Gyllenhaal’s turn as Quentin Beck, who is somewhat like Alfred Molina’s Otto Octavius: a self-seeking man who genuinely likes this kid Peter Parker but won’t hesitate to kill him in order to get what he believes he deserves. He’s a great combination of an almost avuncular affection for Parker, with a ruthless sense of entitlement and a chip on his shoulder. At a personal level, Beck is shown to genuinely like Peter Parker, but this is a superhero film and so Beck feels obliged to, if necessary, kill Spider-Man when the web-slinger gets in his way. This carries on the long tradition in which Parker’s greatest enemies are men who could have been, in some other world, valuable father figures and mentors who could show him where he might go in life.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy Far From Home. It was fun while I was watching but after doing so, I was struck by how much of the script relied on plot twists and gags that, if we’ve watched the preceding Marvel films, fly in the face of what we have already been shown about these characters. Whether it’s the tropes of the teen comedy or the action-adventure story, a truly fantastic cast with some compelling character motivations are sidelined by a sense of obligation to hit all the bullet points for a Save-the-Cat formula. This was a fun Spider-Man film but it could have been even more fun if Holland, Gyllenhaal, and Zendaya could have played off each others’ characters rather than artificial obstacles.