The ever-increasing, migraine-inducing complexities of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are enough to make a Mastermind contestant weep and opt for a more manageable specialist subject, like the first five centuries of Catholic Popes. They’re also fast becoming a film reviewer’s nightmare.
Spider-Man: Far from Home arrives in cinemas less than three months after Avengers: Endgame, a movie still to be released to streaming services or made available on disc, and preview audiences have been urged to “avoid revealing anything that would prevent future audiences from experiencing the film the way you did.”
It even has a fun, purpose-built hashtag, #dontspoilspidey, and clearly distributors would get uppity about reviews along the lines of “Bruce Willis is a ghost!” or “Mother is actually Norman Bates in a dress!” But bearing in mind the earlier flick has yet to be seen by punters living beyond the easy reach of a big screen and its conclusion informs at least part of the premise of Spidey’s new adventure, exactly what does or does not constitute a spoiler?
Treading carefully, therefore, suffice to say Endgame didn’t end well for all concerned; some players shuffled off this mortal – albeit superhero – coil, but we rejoin the franchise’s intricate arc at a time when Peter Parker’s chief focus is getting busy with the girl of his dreams on an upcoming school trip to Europe.
Yet, while the perpetually boyish-looking Tom Holland fidgets and fumbles in the presence of cool, wise-cracking MJ (Zendaya), Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury and what’s left of SHIELD face another foe in the guise of “elementals”; shape-shifting giants that take the form of water, earth, wind or fire (insert your own Boogie Wonderland joke here).
Having initially been keen to leave the Spidey suit back home in New York, Peter is reluctantly pressed into service when one-such creature rises from the canals of Venice at the precise moment he and his high-school chums are doing a spot of sightseeing, chaperoned by a pair of bumbling teachers – splendidly comic turns from Martin Starr and JB Smoove. Enter Jake Gyllenhaal as Quentin Beck, soon to be dubbed Mysterio; a flying vanquisher of evildoers sporting what looks like a mist-filled snow globe for a helmet.
Happy that this new partner-in-crime-fighting has got things covered, Peter returns to his civvies and resumes the awkward wooing of MJ, but with another hour-plus of screen time to come, only a fool would think it’s nothing but clear waters and plain-sailing ahead. There’s more villainy afoot when the kids’ tour reaches London and a fiery face-off on Tower Bridge.
As we’ve come to expect from the MCU, it’s all rollicking fun and jaw-dropping effects, although compared to Holland’s starring bow in 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, it’s a frustratingly generic exercise. What gave that first outing an edge was its smartly observed examinations of high-school mores, as integral to the narrative as any amount of superhero shenanigans. Jacob Batalon is back as Parker’s best friend, wing man and comic foil Ned, but affording him his own gag-packed love interest subplot means the two pals share fewer (and noticeably shorter) scenes together.
It’s left to Nick Fury to take up the slack in terms of verbal jousting, resulting in a different stripe of rapport, inevitably based more on the elder man’s frowning impatience with his teenage charge than the purer comedy generated by wide-eyed adolescents of a similar age. Jackson is his usual charismatic self, although the plot requires him to essentially rehash the default grumpiness he’s exhibited in so many other instalments of the franchise.
Marisa Tomei returns as Peter’s feisty Aunt May, and there’s a beefier role for Jon Favreau as Iron Man Tony Stark’s erstwhile trusty lieutenant Happy Hogan. The blossoming romance between the two is potentially something to look forward to the next time Spidey spins his webs, which judging by Marvel’s now traditional mid- and post-credits epilogues will see Parker’s difficulties taking place much closer to home.
Ultimately, Far from Home and its excursions to tourist spots across the Atlantic has the feel of an underwhelming if well-meaning diversion, a gap year with a bit of jeopardy thrown in for good measure. Holland reasserts his claim to be the most satisfying actor to don the red-and-blue Lycra, but on this showing he’s much better suited to leaping into action nearer to his own back yard.
Spider-Man: Far from Home is released in cinemas on Tuesday 2nd July