Samuel L. Jackson
J. B. Smoove
2 Hrs., 9 Mins.
Spider-Man: Far from Home July 26, 2019
luestone the Great, formerly a magician, was my favorite villain on Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? (1969-1970). In the episode he appeared on — 1969's “A Hassle in the Castle" — he wore something simple: a white sheet with a couple of eye holes. Because Bluestone was such a convincing antagonist, I didn’t think to question his style. In the guise of a vengeful ghost guarding the halls of the waterlogged and abandoned
Vasquez Castle, which is rumored to have treasure hidden somewhere in its catacombs, Bluestone has, for months now, been able to successfully ward off visitors thanks to special effects. He can make it look like he's walking through walls (partnering a mirror with a projector), appearing as transparent as a Ziploc bag to the naked eye (an aftereffect of the latter trick), and ominously floating (via wires) — things one might see and automatically send one running. When the central Scooby Gang winds up at the castle after a leisurely boat ride goes awry, they aren’t looking to solve a mystery. They don’t even know there’s treasure there. But they end up finding and then solving one anyway. During their unplanned sojourn, they inevitably expose Bluestone. The best part of "A Hassle in the Castle" is the moment when Bluestone reveals everything he’s been doing. The show doesn’t end with the requisite “and I would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids” line. Bluestone seems to take great delight in being caught. While walking the kids and the cops through what he’s done, he almost seems to be winking at the beginning of every sentence.
Mysterio, the big bad of sequel film Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019), reminded me of Bluestone. Unlike the majority of Marvel-movie supervillains, Mysterio is not physically imposing — though, as he’s portrayed by the muscly Jake Gyllenhaal, you still wouldn’t want to fight him — or gifted with superhuman powers. Instead he has a big brain, a thirst for vengeance, and a tendency toward theatrical displays.
He has created a technology that allows him to generate hyperrealistic, illusionistic imagery by ingeniously controlling a fleet of flying projectors. Obsessed with becoming a superhero almost as much as he is with old-fashioned showmanship, he spends most of the movie harnessing his invention to incite terrifying incidents — usually involving later-revealed-to-be-fake creatures called Elementals, which are essentially personified weather disasters — in which he appears to be the hero. There’s a reason for his ambition. He wants to get back at the now-dead Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) not just for being a terrible employer (back when Mysterio, a.k.a. Quentin Beck, worked for him, Stark named one of Beck’s technologies B.A.R.F.) but also for entrusting an emotionally frenzied 16-year-old like Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spider-Man (Tom Holland), with his legacy.
Mysterio is the best thing about Spider-Man: Far from Home. Villains, so much of the time, are campy in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But they miss a certain cartoonishness that makes hating them feel like a pastime, a hobby. Nicely, Mysterio is hammily evil, a fan of bombast. A theater kid from Hell. There’s a moment in the film set in an opera house; Mysterio might as well be among the characters that would appear there another evening. Gyllenhaal is an exuberant addition to the ensemble: the actor, though beset with the Michelangelo-esque features common for many a superhero, is already someone who’s proven himself eccentric and hard to pin down as it stands. What he does here is also in tune with other performances he’s given; and because we’ve seen many of them, we can tell Gyllenhaal is having fun rather than phoning it in. (Michael Keaton, who portrayed a memorable villain in the last Spider-Man movie, seems docile in contrast.)
Mysterio is also the most fully formed part of Spider-Man: Far from Home, which, while an entertaining-enough sequel, has the same problems of its better predecessor writ large. Spider-Man: Homecoming was so terrific as a high-school comedy that the action scenes felt like distractions; the Marvel stuff had a one-for-them-one-for-me energy. But we could forgive its superheroic obligations. In Far from Home, which takes place after the “snap” from 2018's Infinity War (anyone who disappeared has “blipped” back, which is why Spider-Man and his friends are still high-schoolers after five years), the feeling of imbalance increases.
In the film, Peter goes on a country-hopping Europe trip as part of a study-abroad program. In tow are his goofy best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) and the darkly funny MJ (Zendaya), whom he hopes to reveal his romantic feelings to, eventually, at the top of the Eiffel Tower. But this promising premise is squeezed, almost to death, by action sequences and Marvel-y developments. They engender not excitement but a feeling of routine from which we want to escape.
This is, in some ways, by design. Peter really wants this vacation, but the responsibilities that come with not only being Spider-Man but the second coming of Iron Man frustratingly interrupt the desire. The movie probes how frustrating a thing duty can be, especially when you’re a teenager thrust into a superheroic role you didn’t altogether ask for. It’s not unprecedented for a Marvel movie to ruminate not a protagonist’s investment in their role. So much of the fabric of the cinematic Captain America, for example, is contingent on what he’s lost, what he wishes he had. It’s easy to feel for him. But Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, the writers of Spider-Man: Far from Home, don’t assuredly paint Peter’s troubles, thwarting the movie’s chances of being both emotionally clear and a smooth transition into the post-Endgame (2019) era.
Peter, to be certain, is going through a lot. He’s reeling from the death of his mentor, the fact that he and many of his loved ones have been missing for half a decade, and the realization that he’s inching closer to a life in which he will not be given the option to both live normally and super-heroically. But Peter’s mourning over Stark’s demise is characterized only superficially; it accidentally often conflates his grief with Peter feeling like he’s being unfairly burdened. It’s plot-pointy more than it is a tangible difficulty for the character.
Endgame didn’t do that efficient a job detailing how the world has reacted to the “snap,” either, which was one of the things that frustrated me most about the unnecessarily three-hour-long movie. But it tried. Mechanical scenes revolving around therapy sessions were prominent during the first act; there was a brief but intense reunion between Scott Lang, a.k.a. Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), and his daughter. But in Far from Home, the event becomes mostly a footnote. If it is dealt with, it’s dealt with comedically, like during a school-news TV broadcast that was also fodder for laughs in the first film, or through a character like Brad (Remy Hii), who was scrawny and awkward before the snap but now looks like a chiseled 21-year-old. (He also is threatening to steal the affections of MJ, to Peter's chagrin.) The movie moves along as though nothing dramatic happened. Its denial allows it to function as the witty high-school comedy that it can be, but it also feels improbable. In no way can we imagine teenagers adjusting to something so traumatic so easily.
Peter’s ambivalence about being a superhero is a major plot point — especially after Mysterio, initially on the side of S.H.I.E.L.D., takes a father-figure-like interest in him, and after a newly returned Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson, Jr.) condescends to Peter’s understandable wanting to be as carefree as one of his classmates. But it is only invested in for the first part of the movie. After world-saving becomes a top priority, there is time, it seems, to confer with very little else. Spectacle takes precedence. Naturally, the middle and last acts are glutted with action sequences; director Jon Watts fashions them without visual risk. The only ones which affect are ones where Mysterio uses his technology to toy with Peter’s head, mostly because they have a graphic zip. They throw him into the center of what appear to be marathonic hallucinations, and they function effectively.
Holland is as endearing as you’d anticipate him to be in Far from Home, but his performance is often betrayed by the confused writing, which is never consistent about how tortured it would like Peter to appear. The actor, still best-suited to this part in comparison to his forebears, is best during the moments when he’s among his classmates: thrown into a tizzy by how to keep his big-deal secret a secret, both hide and make subtly obvious his love for MJ, how he interacts with his peers. Every scene involving MJ has a discernible crackle, a testament both to the otherworldly charisma of the actress playing her and the appeal of the funny, gawky romance between her character and Peter. Most in Far from Home, though, is underfed and unfocused; scenes have a rushed quality, like they were being shot on roller skates. We have to subsist on its flashes of greatness. The backhanded compliment one could give to Homecoming was that it was a better high-school comedy than it was a superhero movie. Far from Home, in contrast, struggles to find its footing on either terrain. At least it has a great villain. B-