Spider-Man: Far From Home

Cast: Tom Holland, Samuel L. Jackson, Zendaya, Cobie Smulders, Jon Favreau, J.B. Smoove, Jacob Batalon, Martin Starr, Marisa Tomei, Jake Gyllenhaal

Director: Jon Watts

Writers: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers


Following the cataclysmic, seismic events of Avengers: Endgame, Spider-Man: Far From Home offers a similar kind of respite as Ant-Man and the Wasp did after Infinity War. In the aftermath of Thanos’ apocalyptic crusade and the critical feats and sacrifices it took to defeat him, the biggest thing worrying our friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is how to tell the girl he’s crushing on that he likes her. Once again directed by Jon Watts, this latest instalment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe follows the example of Homecoming by placing its main focus on the coming-of-age aspects of the Spider-Man story and reining things back a bit. The action is on a smaller scale than whatever Thor or Captain Marvel are wont to get up to and the tone falls more in line with a teen comedy than it does a sci-fi/fantasy epic. While there are still hard lessons about power and responsibility to be learnt, there is plenty of relief to be found in Far From Home in the form of light-hearted comedy, an upbeat soundtrack and adolescent romance. The movie is also the start of a new era for the MCU (one that Spider-Man may not even end up being a part of, but that’s another story) as it grapples with Tony Stark’s legacy and what the future holds for Peter Parker.

Following the five-year period during which half of the world’s population had been snapped out of existence, referred to in this film as ‘The Blip’, Peter Parker is back at school and things are starting to return to normal. The shadow of Tony Stark looms large in this post-Thanos world and there is a question of who will step in to fill the void his death has left, but that’s not a question Peter is ready to face just yet as he continues to mourn the loss of his mentor and father figure. For now he’s back on the streets beating up small-time thugs, Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) is taking the revelation of his double life well, and he’s about to go on a trip to Europe with his friends Ned (Jacob Batalon) and MJ (Zendaya). Having recently grown rather smitten with MJ, this is the chance he’s been waiting for to tell her how he feels and he is determined not to let anything get in his way, even opting to leave his Spider Suit behind (which Aunt May cordially packs for him anyway). All he wants for the next few days is to be a normal teenager, hang out with his friends, and take a break from being a superhero for a while. But, as the saying goes, when people make plans, Yahweh laughs.

Peter’s vacation is threatened by the sudden arrival of these monstrous forces known as the Elementals. They strike without warning and leave a great trail of destruction in their wake and the only person who knows anything about them is Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal). Beck, also known as Mysterio, is a superhero from another dimension who has followed the Elementals into this realm to stop them before they reduce it to the ruin that his own world has become. This quest has led him to Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who is now trying to enlist Spider-Man to help them save the world from total carnage. When Peter ignores his call and proceeds with his holiday, Fury relocates the entire operation to Europe, hijacks the school’s trip, and presses onto the young webslinger that ‘no’ is not an option for him. The action takes Peter from Venice to Prague to London and as he works with Beck to battle these supernatural entities, the effort to keep his two lives separate grows all the more hectic and desperate. As things come to a head and grow more and more out of his control, Peter must finally decide what really matters to him and whether he truly is ready to assume Stark’s mantle as the hero that the world needs.

In this movie Peter is a young man on the cusp of adulthood and the main focus is on his growth and the impossible expectations he must somehow live up to as defined by the example set by Tony Stark. I’ve always been a little ambivalent about how largely this latest characterisation of Spider-Man revolves around Iron Man; to me it’s just more compelling for Peter to be out there all on his own driven only by the memory of a beloved family member whose death he is partly responsible for than to be adopted by this benevolent billionaire godfather who gifts him with all of these high-tech gadgets and handy short cuts. Whether Uncle Ben exists in this universe has yet to be confirmed however so Stark is the best that Marvel’s got and the movie makes good use of the connection between them (especially considering that Robert Downey Jr. never makes an appearance save in archive footage). There is a void in Peter’s life and he is searching for someone to show him the way forward. With Nick Fury impatiently pushing him to just grow up already and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) getting uncomfortably close to May, Peter ends up confiding in the supportive and compassionate Beck, whom Gyllenhaal plays with chameleonic charm and magnetism.

While I think the jury is still out on where Holland ranks compared to Maguire and Garfield in the Spider-Man hierarchy, he remains my favourite Peter Parker, which is a strength in a film that has him undergo an identity crisis as his double life threatens to unravel around him. There’s an endearing sense of sincerity and earnestness to his take on the hapless hero, as if his compulsion to be just, decent and good was less of a choice on his part and more because he simply doesn’t know how else to be. He’s also immature enough that there’s still ample room for him to learn and grow, especially as his immaturity leads him to make mistakes that place himself and others in danger (as in one scene where he accidentally makes his rival for MJ’s affections the target of a military drone). Holland is once again on full form with the hyperactive charm he’s brought to all of his previous appearances in the MCU (while this is his second solo outing, it’s the fifth movie overall in which he has played Spidey) and continues to sell the idea of Peter as a frantic underdog who is only barely managing to keep his head above water. The text doesn’t always support that depiction (he is wearing a Stark-designed robo-spider suit after all) but the performance cannot be faulted.

While the action is constructed on a slightly more restrained scale that the other MCU entries, Watts still manages to bring the thrills by making inventive use of the character and the foes he must battle. There’s one particular sequence at the end that impresses in how it employs the hero’s Spider-Sense (called the Peter Tingle in this film) when all his other powers and senses fail him. There are also some wonderfully trippy scenes throughout akin to those in Doctor Strange that add the exact touch of surrealism you would want in a film featuring a character like Mysterio. The hallucinogenic quality of these scenes work so well at tapping into Peter’s vulnerability and highlighting the fish-out-of-water nature of his arc that it feels like the story could have been told with greater emotional focus had they opted to set the movie in Peter’s native Queens. Obviously I get that the title Far From Home is supposed to apply on both a literal and metaphorical level but the European segments felt rather redundant to me in a movie that has a lot going for it at its emotional core. I have no doubt that the commercial Disney has made for European tourism will work its magic on international viewers, but I don’t see any narrative reason why the movie couldn’t have told a more focused and personal version of this story set in New York.

The best thing the movie has going for it is that it is such effortless fun to watch. Holland continues to helm the franchise as an appealing lead and the chemistry he shares with his co-stars, particularly Gyllenhaal and Zendaya, makes the film all the more watchable. By moving the action to Europe and turning the spectacle up a notch they did lose a little of that down-to-earth, John-Hughes-ish teenage spirit that made Homecoming such a delight, but since this is a film about growth that may not necessarily be a bad thing. It remains a fun light-hearted adventure, there are plenty of laughs to be had (if only from Ned’s fleeting but sweet fling with Betty Brant (Angourie Rice)) and there’s a certain warmth to the film that’s not really there in any of the other Marvel titles. The movie is hardly the equal of Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 or last year’s Into the Spider-Verse, but it’s almost unfair to make the comparison when viewing these MCU films as the simple and pleasing B-stories that they’re supposed to be. Far From Home is a pleasant and enjoyable film that’s thoroughly gratifying to watch and it really doesn’t need to be much more than that. It also has the best mid-credits scene in any MCU movie thus far, so there’s that.

★★★★

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Yesterday

Cast: Hamish Patel, Lily James, Ed Sheeran, Kate McKinnon

Director: Danny Boyle

Writer: Richard Curtis


In all of these years I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a movie that showed such little interest in such a promising concept. The premise is the actualisation of a fantasy that most of us have had at one time or another. A man wakes up one day to find that that the music of a phenomenally popular band has been erased and that he alone in the entire world remembers them. Armed with that sacred knowledge and a decent enough singing voice to make a go of it as a musician, he resolves to pass the songs off as his own and reap the benefits. It’s a terrific idea for a movie that opens itself up to countless possibilities just begging to be explored. But you see, there’s this girl; she’s the kind of girl you want so much it makes you sorry. It’s probably to be expected that Richard Curtis, the patron saint of British rom-coms, should want a quaint romance at the heart of this light-hearted fantasy. Why he felt that such a conventional and familiar story should totally supplant the endless potential of this alternate dimension he created however escapes me. Nearly every opportunity that the premise invites goes woefully unfulfilled to the point that the whole thing feels like nothing more than an afterthought. Instead of being taken away on the magical mystery tour that the movie promises, all we get in the end is a mediocre love story.

At the centre of it all is Jack Malik (Hamish Patel), a struggling musician whose career is going nowhere and who has no other direction or passion in life (he’s a bit of a nowhere man, if you will). For the last ten years since leaving his teaching job, he’s been busking on the same old streets, playing gigs in the same old pubs, and sharing his music with the same old group of friends. After one lousy gig too many, he’s ready to hang his guitar and walk away and it doesn’t look even his best friend, manager and biggest fan Ellie (Lily James) will be able talk him out of it. That is until one fateful night when a worldwide power cut ensues for twelve seconds, causing Jack to be hit by a bus. He wakes up the following morning in the hospital where the ever so winsome Ellie is waiting by his side with a brand new guitar as a get well present. Together they leave to meet their friends and Jack treats them to a rendition of an old favourite, ‘Yesterday’ by The Beatles. Only it’s the first time any of them have heard what they assume to be one of his own songs, by far his best one yet. A quick google search reveals to Jack that no such band as The Beatles exists anymore and that he appears to be the only one with any recollection of their music. Thus he finds himself faced with a singular opportunity to become the musician he’s always aspired to be.

You would be hard-pressed to find a group who have done more to influence the course and evolution of popular music in the last half century than The Beatles. They launched the British Invasion, set the template for boy bands, pioneered a movement of sonic and psychedelic experimentation, spoke to a younger, more enlightened generation on radical and taboo topics, and wrote more amazing songs than I can even begin to count. Therefore the idea that The Rolling Stones, Coldplay and Ed Sheeran could exist in a sans-Beatles world (as they all do in this film) is completely unbelievable to me. That might sound a bit pedantic but what it comes down to is the total lack of curiosity the movie has for contemplating a contemporary cultural landscape in a world where The Beatles never existed. The movie makes a couple of token gestures, the best of which is a tour around a Liverpool that never became a European Capital of Culture and the worst of which is a deeply uncomfortable scene in the third act, but for the most part the movie treats its Twilight Zone premise as little more than an obstacle in the rom-com love story it really wants to tell. The question of whether The Beatles would still be The Beatles in a modern world without their legacy is a fascinating one that I wish the movie had done more to explore.

In its presentation of the Fab Four’s songs, all of which are performed as closely to their original forms as a single tenor with an electric guitar can get, the movie is inviting us to listen to them as if for the first time and there are some moments when it works. What bothers me though is how uninterested the film really is in trying to understand what makes the music as great as it is and why it resonates with listeners as strongly as it does. The assumption seems to more or less be that the songs are great because they’re by The Beatles, whom we all love. It appears the film believes (wrongly) that the greatness of any work of art has little bearing on the time and place in which it was made or to its creator. A tune like ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’, with its Buddy-Holly-style rhythm and Everly-Brothers-inspired harmonies, doesn’t really work as a new song in 2019 without a modern update of some kind because its electrifying pop sound is no longer as fresh and dynamic as it was in 1963. Yesterday also seems just as unconcerned with what kind of personal connection Jack himself has with these songs. In a scene where he plays ‘In My Life’ on a talk show, Ellie is moved because she thinks the song is about her. Jack in contrast seems to have put almost no thought in what these songs are supposed to mean coming from him (that he doesn’t even stop to think about how weird it is for a man in his late twenties to sing “Well, she was just seventeen, you know what I mean” should at least be worth a raised eyebrow).

But enough about the film I wish they’d made, what about the film I actually saw? Well, aside from its sci-fi concept that it only occasionally addresses, Yesterday is at its core a love story and a pretty weak one at that. The two leads are charming enough that they are able to generate some little spark between them, he as the sensitive but self-centred artist and she as his kind-hearted and infinitely giving supporter. She carries a torch for him but not only is he entirely clueless about her affections, he doesn’t seem to have the slightest interest in sex or romance in general. It’s not until Ellie confronts him about her unrequited crush at the most awkward moment possible that it even occurs to him to look at this beautiful woman who continuously beckons to his call and worships the ground he walks on with in any kind of romantic light. When Jack makes it big, she falls out of his life partly out of her justified frustration for having been taken for granted for so long and partly because of her commitments as a schoolteacher. When the two reunite and Jack reveals that he does fancy her after all, the most conflict Curtis can conjure to prolong their will-they-won’t-they rapport is the fact that neither one did anything about their feelings before. The lack of any convincing obstacle to keep them apart gets so tiresome and the constant miserable state Jack is in is so off-putting that it didn’t take me long to wonder what it was she even saw in him and to conclude that she’s better off without him anyway.

On the comedy side of things, the movie fares a little better. The premise allows for some humorous moments as when Jack tries to play ‘Let It Be’ for his parents, expecting them to be wowed by one of the most moving songs in the Beatles canon, only for them to keep interrupting him with one distraction after another. There’s also a running joke throughout about Jack discovering that some other facet of modern culture has disappeared including Coca Cola (which presumably required him to reword ‘Come Together’ slightly) and Harry Potter. Ed Sheeran has an unexpectedly amusing role as an exaggerated version of himself who lifts Jack to fame only to be eclipsed by him. I’d have liked to see more of Sheeran as the self-described Salieri to Jack’s Mozart, but he would have had to play a much less affable version of himself to really sell it. I also enjoyed Kate McKinnon’s role as the greedy, soulless music executive intent on signing Jack to her record label, moulding him into the most generic singer/songwriter brand they can possibly market and milking the Beatles’ music for every cent it’s worth. Their satirical take of the music industry is pretty broad (not least because it has to make room for the love story) but McKinnon’s over-the-top expressions and comical line deliveries are always good for some reliable laughs.

It’s a shame to see a film take on such a surreal and inspired concept only to end up with something that feels so sadly generic. The movie leans so heavily on a crutch of clichés that by the time we get to the end and see the romantic payoff it’s all been leading to, Curtis cannot even summon a fraction of the tenderness and feel-good warmth that might have made the hackneyed journey feel worth it. Even with a crap film like Love Actually, he can normally add enough charm and sentimentality that you can go along with the ride and enjoy it for the piece of schmaltz that it is. Whatever vision or style Danny Boyle might have brought as a director is so passive or absent that there is no doubt about Yesterday being a Richard Curtis movie. The movie doesn’t even work as a tribute to The Beatles since, apparently, the world as we know it would have remained virtually the same as it is today, if ever so slightly more melancholic, had they not existed. There are so many more questions I want to ask of this Beatles-less world (Who sang the theme song to Live and Let Die? What stage name did Reginald Dwight end up adopting? Did Eric Clapton ever write ‘Layla’?), but the movie has no interest in so much as entertaining such queries. I could go on but, in the end, I think The Beatles said it best so, to paraphrase: “Doesn’t have a point of view, knows not where it’s going to, making all it’s nowhere plans for nobody”.

★★