Todd McCarthy/Hollywood Reporter
Tom Holland returns as Peter Parker and his superhero alter ego, crushing on Zendaya’s MJ and doing battle with Jake Gyllenhaal’s villain Mysterio during their European school trip in Marvel’s latest.
At its best as a look at a few awkward teenagers amusingly coming out of their shells during a summer tour through Europe, this second installment in the latest live-action Spider-Man reboot founders as it stomps through picturesque old cities in a series of ill-motivated and less-than-awesome action set-pieces. The young cast, led by Tom Holland as the bashful web-slinger and Zendaya as a shy girl slow to lose her inhibitions, is plenty appealing as well as funny. But without a proper, full-on villain, as well as an adequate substitute for Robert Downey Jr.’s late, oft-mentioned Tony Stark, this comes off as a less-than-glittering star in the Marvel firmament. It pales even more when compared to Sony’s wildly imaginative animated feature of last year, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
Still convincing as a bashful teen at 23, Holland first turned up as Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War in 2016, then again two years later in Avengers: Infinity War, and in between was front and center in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Following in the footsteps, wall-climbing and web-shooting of Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, Holland delightfully played through the discovery of his character’s powers and was clearly accepted by audiences, who made Homecoming the sixth-biggest domestic grosser of 2017.
At the outset, Peter Parker is so exhausted from his recent labors that he wants nothing but to spend part of the summer on a whirlwind tour of Europe with some school chums, one of whom, MJ (Zendaya), he would like to make something more than a pal. His ever-thoughtful Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), who looks after him, discreetly slips his Spider costume into his bag, but so intent is Peter at leaving work behind that he doesn’t want to take a call from minder Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, just going through the motions here).
It’s unfortunate but possibly true that the best scene in the film comes early on, when Peter tries to strategically arrange things on the long flight to Venice so he can sit next to MJ. The comic mix-up that prevents this is quite amusing and well-managed so as to stick the kid in the worst seat possible, and director Jon Watts proves himself rather good at this sort of thing. Matters proceed to include not only this twosome’s awkward, herky-jerky mutual advance toward modest physical affection, but also the more unlikely and yet entirely winning coupling of the geeky, plus-sized Ned (Jacob Batalon) and cute blonde Betty (Angourie Rice). Martin Starr, so memorable as the stoner programmer Gilfoyle in Silicon Valley, is on board as the far-from-expert tour manager.
Things suddenly become quite Marvelish indeed upon the group’s arrival in Venice, where everyone’s good time is intruded upon by a massively destructive storm cloud that rips through the glorious city, ruining much of it as the whirlwind gradually takes the shape of a giant watery beast. Impulsively springing into action, Spidey does what he can to prevent even further destruction, although this proves to be just the first in a series of attacks that coincide with the group’s arrivals in Prague, Berlin and London.
It’s not revealing much to disclose that the man behind these mean-spirited attacks on venerable buildings and hapless bystanders (although actual deaths are never mentioned) is one Quentin Beck, aka Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal). This latter name is quite fitting in that the man’s rationale for all the wanton destruction, when ultimately disclosed, proves not only mysterious but not terribly convincing, quite unworthy of all the trouble caused.
Similarly coming up short are the physical manifestations of Mysterio’s infernos and Spidey’s efforts to combat them. In an era of ever-more impressive and realistic special effects, those on view here seem rather hokey and ill-judged. Compared with what we’ve seen Spider-Man do in various previous outings, there is a contrived, even mechanical aspect to the storms Mysterio whips up to wreak havoc, which in the process renders him one of the least persuasive and intriguing bad boys in the annals of cinematic Marvel. He may be a trickster, but his motivations as a villain are too obscure and unconvincing to gain much traction, even as something to hate. If the appeal of a mystery or action film can be based to a considerable extent on the quality of its villain, Spider-Man: Far From Home certainly comes up short in that department.
As a result, one must be content with enjoying the passing wit of the screenplay by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, which is agreeable if hardly dazzling, and the charms of the young leading actors, about which the same is true. When in doubt, the writers as well as the director fall back on their talents for smarty-pants humor, and reasonable mileage is gotten from the talent the four main young actors display for expressing both the awkwardness of initiating intimacy and a blasé knowingness once it’s achieved.
Production companies: Columbia Pictures, Marvel, Pascal Pictures
Cast: Tom Holland, Samuel L. Jackson, Zendaya, Cobie Smulders, Jon Favreau, JB Smoove, Jacob Batalon, Martin Starr, Marisa Tomei, Jake Gyllenhaal, Angourie Rice
Director: Jon Watts
Screenwriters: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, based on the Marvel Comic book by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko
Producers: Kevin Feige, Amy Pascal
Executive producers: Louis D’Esposito, Victoria Alonso, Thomas M. Hammel, Eric Hauserman Carroll,
Rachel O’Connor, Stan Lee, Avi Arad, Matt Tolmach
Director of photography: Matthew J. Lloyd
Production designer: Claude Pare
Costume designer: Anna B. Sheppard
Music: Michael Giacchino
Editors: Dan Lebental, Leigh Folsom Boyd
Visual effects supervisor: Janek Sirrs
Casting: Sarah Finn
PG-13 rating, 129 minutes