NOTE: Very mild spoilers ahead for Spider-Man: Far From Home.
After fighting an intergalactic genocidal maniac, being dusted into oblivion, coming back to life after five years, and losing his mentor/father figure, our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man is tired, y’all.
Spider-Man: Far From Home finds Peter Parker (Tom Holland) seeking to escape his superhero responsibilities with a summer school trip to Europe. At least in Europe, he can escape the looming specter of Tony Stark and focus on more teenager-y issues, like working up the nerve to ask his crush MJ (Zendaya) on a date. Unfortunately for Peter and his unsuspecting classmates, supervillainy doesn’t take summer vacations, and Peter’s is interrupted by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who recruits him to fight a group of gigantic world-crushers called Elementals, alongside Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), aka Mysterio, a superhero from another universe with intimate knowledge of these beasts. Homecoming Peter would’ve jumped at the chance to save the world Avengers-style, but that was back when he had Tony needling and supporting him. Obviously, Peter’s refusal of Nick Fury doesn’t last long because, one, refusing Nick Fury is not a smart life choice, and two, Peter finds a Tony surrogate in the sympathetic Quentin to give him a boost. As quickly as a passport is stamped, Peter is reluctantly back in the superhero game, haphazardly balancing his Spider-Man responsibilities with his summer goal of getting closer to MJ, even as the Elemental threat reveals itself to be more complicated than it seems.
Far From Home has the unenviable task of following Avengers: Endgame and grappling with that film’s game-changing events. Much like a teenager would, Director Jon Watts and screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers address the post-Thanos world with lots of humor and plenty of avoidance. It makes sense: having teenagers process the full scope of what Thanos did is an absurd concept, and the film smartly leans into it with a delightfully bizarre high school news report/memorial tribute set to Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”. After that, Far From Home swings past how Peter’s corner of the world is adjusting to the Snap (or the Blip, as they call it). Instead, it dispenses breathless action, teenage cringe and sight gags at a dizzying, exciting pace. Like Homecoming, the film successfully brings the superhero stakes back to Earth and Peter’s unique perspective. Far From Home improves on its predecessor by giving Peter a lot more to do and handle without losing that perspective. Michael Keaton’s Vulture was great, but he’s small potatoes compared to the water and fire titans laying waste to classic European architecture, and MJ is a more compelling love interest than Liz. Peter must also deal with protecting his friends (and all of Europe), emotional manipulation, guilt, and the incredibly weird relationship between Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). It’s a lot, but the film is better of it.
Far From Home’s biggest challenge, for Peter and the franchise, is dealing with the monumental loss of Tony Stark. Homecoming spent nearly as much time on Iron Man as it did Spider-Man, making him the source of both hero and villain motivations. Tony’s presence remains in this film, but Peter’s engagement is improved. Peter was largely reactive to Tony before: his indifference, criticism, and affirmation. Here, Peter actively struggles against the void Tony left that he thinks he must fill, and yearns for someone to guide him through the burden (cue: Quentin Beck). Peter is still a kid, so his actions are steeped in self-doubt and wrapped in the residual trauma of the last Thanos battle. The film does an excellent job setting that context, making even his most bone-headed choices easy to sympathize with. It also gives Peter a more satisfying sense of growth than Homecoming had, with some truly affecting and earned character moments. The final, third-act battle is the best Spider-Man sequence in the MCU, and maybe the best ever filmed. Far From Home does have a few hiccups: the heavy reliance on CGI for the big set pieces can be glaringly obvious, and it doesn’t develop Peter and MJ’s relationship much beyond Tom Holland and Zendaya’s obvious chemistry.
Still, it’s hard to find much fault when you have Tom Holland holding it all together. After four wildly successful film appearances, its demonstrable fact that Holland is the best film Spider-Man ever, and Far From Home only strengthens it by giving him more challenging material. Peter is still a bundle of frenetic, dorky energy, but Holland threads in the post-traumatic stress of Endgame for a wearier, sadder, more tentative Spider-Man. Holland handles the extra weight wonderfully, spinning it and his endless charisma and youthful spirit into his most confident, best performance yet. His growth also makes for excellent chemistry with his co-stars, particularly Jake Gyllenhaal and Zendaya. It’s been some time since Gyllenhaal has waded into blockbuster waters – the last was the much-maligned Prince of Persia – and he’s clearly having a blast weaving through the skies, taking bites of the scenery along the way. He and Holland have a genuinely sweet dynamic that offers a compelling counterpoint to that Holland-Downey magic, and is easy to root for. Zendaya makes the most of MJ’s expanded role, getting to run the gamut of teen emotion without losing her sarcastic edge. MJ and Peter’s fairly limited time together is frustrating considering how Zendaya and Holland sparkle in their scenes, even at their most bumbling and awkward.
If you leave before the credits, then Spider-Man: Far From Home is still the second-best Marvel entry this year, a welcome palate cleanser after Endgame and a thoroughly entertaining solo story for Peter Parker and his alter ego. But serious, stay past the credits. It’s not hyperbole to say that the mid-credits scene is a mind-blowing shocker that ranks amongst the best ever, and leaves endless possibilities for the future of the MCU. It’ll be awhile before we see these characters on our screens again; kudos to Marvel for reminding us of how painful the wait will be.