SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME proves Marvel’s formula-breaking *is* their formula

You know when people say “don’t watch this one unless you’ve seen the last one”? Well, that statement may just peak with Spider-Man: Far From Home, particularly when it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The ‘one’ in particular isn’t even the previous solo Spider-Man film, 2017’s Homecoming, because the MCU has changed the game when it comes to how sequels work. Homecoming introduced the supporting characters in Peter Parker’s direct orbit but Jon Watts’ precious picture was neither Tom Holland’s first bow as the character, and Homecoming serves as an important part of the ongoing, overarching narrative in the first era of the MCU which concluded recently with the ‘one’ I am talking about – Avengers: Endgame. That’s the film you need to have seen before Far From Home as Watts’ Spider-Man film serves as an extended epilogue to the epic conclusion to the Infinity Saga, not to mention a coda to that first, decade-spanning era.

Far From Home is about the legacy of an era which reinvented exactly what the ‘superhero movie’ was. Marvel Studios, under Kevin Feige’s aegis, took the formula and tropes we had come to know and understand from the previous three decades since 1978’s seminal first Superman adaptation, through a legion of Batman movies and beyond, and subverted them pretty much from the get-go. Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man didn’t spend half a dozen films hiding his identity as Bruce Wayne did – he came out and told the world right at the end of his origin story. The MCU interweaved characters and narratives to develop the first ongoing, television-style serialised structure in cinematic history. Along the way it brewed up broad comedy, epic action, science-fiction and half a dozen other genres—often within the same films—inside which the traditional ‘superhero’ nestled.

What we have seen in previous Marvel pictures before Endgame, and which Far From Home makes abundantly clear, is that Marvel’s self-aware subversion of that formula has *become* their formula itself.

This sounds like a rebuke but that’s not how I intend for it to sound. Spider-Man: Far From Home is incredibly fun to watch. It just gives you *precisely* what you’ve come to expect now from an MCU entry.

Some are undoubtedly suggesting Marvel’s reliance on their pointedly subversive, sardonic formula will begin to signal the death knell for their box office and cultural dominance, but I don’t think that for a second. Far From Home further cements the fact that each ongoing sequel inside the MCU continues to reward the audience’s long-term investment in this world and its characters. There is no way Far From Home, in the way it was constructed, could have been made without 22 films at its back. Everything about it is beholden to the universe around it, from Peter’s arc to the central source of villainy and where it leaves many of the characters by the end. To fully appreciate Far From Home you need to have seen Homecoming, Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, ideally the Iron Man trilogy, and a passing knowledge of the Captain America films and Captain Marvel wouldn’t hurt either. To many this will be a fault. For me, it’s a strength.

This is make or break time for the MCU really. Endgame in any other circumstances would be your finale, a grand, epic conclusion to a ten season TV show, but instead it’s the end of a ten-year Season 1. Far From Home isn’t *quite* the Season 2 premiere, it feels like an additional Season 1.5 episode thrown into the mix to help us with the comedown after the huge ripple effect of Endgame. But the truth is, the MCU now has to essentially rebuild its entire universe, after imploding and exploding what had been constructed for a decade. The first shot of Far From Home after the teaser is a spoof ‘in memoriam’ piece showing the major characters who have left us following Endgame, three key centrifuges to that first era. It is a film as acutely aware as its audience as to what we have all lost following Endgame and the task ahead of us to build and create something new. Far From Home, directly through Peter Parker’s arc, is about processing not just the loss of Tony Stark but the fact an entire franchise how has to move on, change, reinvent and figure out where it goes next. It’s almost like therapy.

You’re dealing with a franchise at this stage which is playing very much to the gallery, and it works to an even greater degree with a Spider-Man movie because comedy and self-effacing humour have been a mainstay of the character since his original early 1960’s comics debut. Every Marvel film these days carefully balances a trade off between large scale spectacle, emotional resonance and comedy (tilted depending on whether you’re dealing with characters like the Guardians of the Galaxy or Captain America accordingly), but Spider-Man in his two solo appearances really exemplifies the formula and style Marvel have adopted. If the burgeoning Captain Marvel films look set to become the new Captain America trilogy, Far From Home more closely resembles an evolution of the template laid down across three Iron Man movies even more than Black Panther, with T’Challa looking for all the world like the new Tony Stark.

Far From Home doesn’t just make the search for the new Stark symbolic or allegorical, it is hardwired into the DNA here of Peter’s journey. Homecoming really cemented Tony Stark as the unlikely father figure to the young Spider-Man but this was heavily paid off in Infinity War and later Endgame and what in previous Spider-Man films would have been Peter dealing with the grief over his Uncle Ben’s death is transposed in the MCU to Tony, and it means more because his grief is jointly ours, as are his questions about what the MCU will look like, post-Tony Stark. “Are you now in charge of the Avengers?” Spider-Man is asked at one point and he runs away, with no idea how to answer the question. Peter’s entire arc is running away from his grief, with the core plot device of his class vacation to Europe an externalisation of that avoidance, but it’s particularly acute given how Peter isn’t just dealing with the death of a mentor—a father—figure, he is also grappling with the same questions we are. How does the superhero world work without Cap and Tony? Who *is* in charge? What *does* happen when the world is faced with another Thanos-sized threat? Far From Home is clever in how it poses but doesn’t answer these questions.

What it does do, satisfyingly, is give us an in-universe explanation for how Peter can still be in school despite what has latterly been termed ‘The Blip’ – the five years in which half the universe were wiped away by Thanos, only to be returned un-aged. You almost want the film to get into the deeper existential crisis of this massive cosmic event but, of course, this is a frothy adventure first and foremost and not quite the forum, but it makes sense that the world may collectively have tried to externalise Thanos’ actions as a ‘blip’; an extra-normal event they can’t explain that disrupted but didn’t discontinue, and what more can they do but get on with their lives? To its credit, Far From Home *could* have skipped past this—much like how the X-Men saga ignores explaining how Charles Xavier can be alive in Days of Future Past after being atomised to bits—but it doesn’t. It does have the self-awareness to realise audiences care that the *characters* are asking these questions. That’s confident, clued-in storytelling, and again all part of Marvel’s formula. They are aware you’re looking beyond what’s on the screen and they provide that subtext through asides, or through comedy, or through incidental detail.

Take how Mysterio is brought to bear in this movie, for example. Jake Gyllenhaal’s master of illusion Quentin Beck is updated as a slick huckster pulling the ultimate con job – playing on the absence of a heroic saviour, a Tony Stark, to try and fool Nick Fury (or not quite, as we’ll later see…) and Peter into believing earth-shattering enemies are at the door, in the form of the fake Elementals. Beck’s entire character of Mysterio is a commentary on the traditional cosmic, theatrical superhero – indeed it’s telling that at one point Aunt May mistakes him for “Mr Strange” as she mistakenly calls him. Mysterio does have that same arch, grandstanding protector quality, replete with the cliched backstory of a family destroyed by the evil he is trying to vanquish. The fact Beck is just a two-bit corporate stooge looking for posthumous revenge against Tony’s arrogant ignorance of him makes this all the sweeter, even if it is perhaps too pointed a commentary on our global willingness to accept whatever we’re told. “People will believe anything these days” Beck declares in his final moments and he’s right. We were conned by the trailer, after all. We all went into this believing Marvel were about to unveil the legendary ‘multiverse’ on us through Mysterio, but this proves to be the franchise’s biggest slight of hand since how they presented The Mandarin in Iron Man 3. Marvel’s formula is here to see – we *will* play with your expectations, every time.

In that sense it’s almost surprising how clear and unvarnished Peter’s arc is across the movie. He may have faced astronomic odds (“Bitch please, you’ve been to space” ‘Fury’ memorably replies when Spider-Man worries about taking on the Elementals) but in the end, he just wants to be the ‘friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man’ and tell his crush, MJ (played again with sardonic grace by Zendaya), how he feels about her. Responsibility just keeps getting in the way – whether it’s Tony christening him as his replacement, or Fury making him go on superhero missions, or fielding questions about his newfound celebrity. His arc neatly parallels that of Tony’s in the first Iron Man to some extent – he starts boldly, is betrayed, must upgrade, and by the end is revealed for who he is to the world beyond, except in this case the subversion being that it isn’t his choice. Far From Home solidifies one thing – this Peter is never going to just be that friendly, neighbourhood Spider-Man. Should we get a third film, he’s likely to not just face more bad guys but the hounding of newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson. Aspects of Spider-Man original comic backstory may intersect with his role inside whatever future Avengers set up exists in a smart, knowing way.

This of course all depends on what the future holds for Spider-Man inside the MCU. He has, of course, been on loan from Sony since Captain America: Civil War, who still own the rights to the character, a fact unlikely to change any time soon given his popularity and that films featuring the character continue to be made. Peter is centralised within the framework of the MCU by the end of Far From Home even more than he was by Endgame, and JK Simmons reprising the role of Jameson here from the original Sam Raimi trilogy could well be a sign that the Sony shared-ownership will continue given the MCU’s success, but given Venom’s huge box office and the continued Sony aspirations to build out a Spider-Man universe of their own, nothing is certain. Perhaps we could do with a multiverse after all!

Far From Home far from reinvents the Marvel wheel, then; indeed it plays to its own formula with the best of them, intertwining long-existing characters and narratives alongside broad set pieces as part of the continued larger MCU tapestry, and while people dipping in might be a tad at sea, for anyone invested in this incarnation of Peter Parker and the Marvel universe, the rewards are absolutely present and correct. Marvel have this all down to a fine art now.

Just make sure you stay for the credits sequence at the *very* end, because you may end up looking back on the last two hours in a surprising new light…

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Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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