This is less a review than it is a cultural commentary.
Spider-Man: Far From Home is the latest (23rd by my count) movie put out by Marvel Studios. Its plot is at once facile, incomprehensible, and full of holes I don’t care to explore. Its character development is meandering and far from compelling. It has all the bells and whistles CGI can ring and blow, but that is hollow now when all movies have mastered the art of putting lip stick on the proverbial pig. To its credit, the usual Marvel humor is in evidence, and Spider-Man manages some yucks, but overall it’s not very good even though it will likely be the summer blockbuster to attend.
And this is what’s noteworthy. What Marvel has done is both genius and insidious.
By all accounts, mainstream Hollywood film, just a few years ago, was lagging. Though Atlas isn’t a Marvel character, Stan Lee’s creations held up Hollywood on its back. The Marvel film preceding Spider-Man: Far From Home was Avengers: Endgame. It is on track to be the highest grossing movie ever, and a look at the list for top grossing movies of all time is littered with Marvel entries (not adjusted for inflation).
With competition from television, streaming, and other forms of visual entertainment fierce, theatrical film was perhaps beginning to look like a relic. You can provide reclining seats all you want, but you need more than gimmicks to get people to watch a movie.
Marvel has done that, and even its less successful entries have not slowed the juggernaut. Viewers feel they are not just watching a movie, independent of other films. They are in on something. They belong to something. The movies are all interconnected and self-referential, and if you are not up to speed on the characters and the jokes you might was well sit at the clichéd table for outcasts in the school cafeteria.
Marvel has made movie-going an event or a spectacle—the way it has not been in a while for Hollywood.
But here’s the rub. Most of the movies are not that good. They make a lot of money and fan boys cheer them on wildly, but unlike blockbusters of the past, Marvel films, at least from where I sit, are generally devoid of ideas or dramatic purpose. They are almost nihilistic: they take up space, but you don’t feel moved or changed after having seen them.
Books could be written as to why this is, but in this limited space I’ll provide one example. One of the great blockbusters of the 1980s was of course Raiders of the Lost Ark. In it, Dr. “Indiana” Jones hunts down archeological artifacts, usually trying to wrest them from evil men who would use them for ill purpose. It’s a movie about high adventure and the action is unrelenting. In many ways, you could say it’s just like a Marvel film. Except it’s not.
In the beginning of Raiders, Jones is chasing down a gold statue of an ancient god. It’s something he can’t take his eyes off of and that he must possess. But by the conclusion of the film, when the object he prizes is the Israelites ark (in which the original ten commandments were held), he learns he cannot look upon the face of divinity. He keeps his eyes shut, and those around him, who do not appreciate the difference between sacred and profane, perish.
Raiders of the Lost Ark fused plot, character, and visual style with a strong dramatic purpose. And it was done subtlety. You were given something to think about, something that you might not otherwise have considered. And this was accomplished not via a brooding drama up for Best Picture, but a frolicking, fighting and fun action film.
I’ll grant that a few of the Marvel movies have touched upon some themes and ideas. Captain America: Civil War did at least pose the question: for all the supposed good superheroes do to save the world, is the collateral damage worth it? You might say it’s the same question many have asked about the atomic bomb strikes on Japan in World War II: was it worth it to irradiate 200,000 people to save 2 million an invasion would likely have killed?
But as soon as some introspection is offered we are back to Spider-Man: Far From Home, where cities are laid waste and no one seems to care. It seems a strong box office return is more valuable than anything, even good ideas. Yet the audiences still come and applaud.
I confess to being one of the uncool kids, having not seen the entire Marvel catalogue. Perhaps that dimmed my enthusiasm for Far From Home. You had to have some familiarity with Avengers: Endgame (and other Marvel films) to understand what was happening in Spider-Man, though the filmmakers were deft enough to move on quickly, so you could feel you were watching a stand alone film.
The experience wasn’t quite like having to see the first Austin Powers movie to understand the other two, but it wasn’t as simple as seeing Rocky I and II, skipping Mr. T in Rocky III, and feeling you could jab and cross you way into Drago and Rocky IV without much disorientation.
This is what Marvel has wrought. If you really want to be in on the universe you have to know it pretty well, and that means seeing most –if not all—of the films. Again, genius and insidious.
One interesting thing Marvel has done as it has gone along is to shift the codes and conventions of super-heroism. In the past, a super hero’s true identity was everything. To know the man or woman behind the mask was unthinkable. In fact, it kept much of the plot and tension going in a film.
Marvel has succeeded in shifting that dynamic. Everyone knows Tony Stark is Iron Man, and in Spider Man: Far From Home, the web of people who know Peter Parker and Spider-Man are one in the same widens as the film goes on.
The movie also plays with the notion of his spider sense, or, as they jokingly refer to it: his “tingle.” At his weakest moment he loses his sense of threats, but when he is strong and swinging again, the sense is in full force and he is able to triumph.
To me, these touches were cold comfort as I was eagerly awaiting the credits. By this time my thoughts rested less on the story and more the audience—the camaraderie, the fraternity that people seemed to have built up about the Marvel Universe. It’s one of the chief reasons this series of films seems to keep going, and I don’t see an end in sight.
I only wish the movies had more depth, were more impactful. It’s fun to watch good guys and bad guys duke it out once in a while, but eventually you want there to be a reason for it all. You want to feel your intellect is being stimulated as well as your passion. It’s the difference between love and sex, and I’m not sure Marvel knows what that is.
Blast Rating: 2 of 4 stars
Running Time: 129 minutes
Opening Date: July 2, 2019
Directed by: Jon Watts
Cast: Tom Holland, Samuel L. Jackson, Zendaya, Cobie Smulders, Jon Favreau, JB Smoove, Jacob Batalon, Martin Starr with Marisa Tomei and Jake Gyllenhaal
Written by: Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers
Produced by: Kevin Feige and Amy Pascal