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.



Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

Cast: Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Danika Yarosh, Aldis Hodge, Patrick Heusinger, Holt McCallany, Austin Hebert, Robert Catrini, Robert Knepper

Director: Edward Zwick

Writers: Richard Wenk, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz

When the first Jack Reacher came out I remember there being some controversy over the choice to cast the 5’7” Tom Cruise as the tall, physically dominating protagonist from the Lee Child novel. As someone who had never read these books, I just went in expecting a Tom Cruise movie. By casting Cruise, the studio has made a clear decision that deems Jack Reacher’s character as irrelevant; you will instead be watching Tom Cruise play Tom Cruise. Still, whether you love his movies or hate them, one cannot deny the appeal he has. One of the things I like about Cruise is that no matter what movie he’s in, good or bad, he always gives 100%. In a career spanning almost four decades, not once has this man ever phoned it in. His energy, enthusiasm and charisma are still as palpable today as they were in the 80s and he shows no sign of slowing down. Thus, when a series like Jack Reacher comes along, a series that is so obviously nothing more than a star vehicle, I think it’s worth remembering that Cruise is a star for a reason. He was pretty much born for it.

Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) is back as he heads over to his military headquarters to meet with a new acquaintance, Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders). Upon arriving he learns from Colonel Sam Morgan (Holt McCallany) that Turner is being detained under the charge of espionage. At this same time Reacher also learns that a paternity suit has been filed against him, claiming he is the father of the 15-year-old Samantha Dayton (Danika Yarosh). Believing that Turner is being framed, Reacher infiltrates the prison where she’s being held and breaks her free. The two must go on the run and are forced to bring Samantha along when her connection to her supposed father places her in danger. Together the three of them must evade the military forces pursuing them and uncover the truth behind this conspiracy so that they may clear their names.

As is often the case with these films, the story is almost immaterial. No one really cares about the government conspiracy, it’s just a backdrop that allows Tom Cruise and Cobie Smulders to punch a few faces and run around for a bit. The only thing that really matters is that they have a teenage girl running along with them, creating a family dynamic between three characters who don’t know how to act like a family. This is the film’s strongest point, and its success is creditable more to the actors than it is to the writing. Cruise, for instance, conveys more deeply than the dialogue ever could this idea that Reacher cannot live a normal life. He beats up bad guys because it’s the only thing he’s good at and he’s constantly on the run because he has no responsibilities tying him down or holding him back. He doesn’t know the first thing about being in a relationship with either a girlfriend or a daughter. Morgan is similarly single-minded in her military professionalism whereas Samantha comes from a broken home. Their attempt to create a surrogate family with each other could have been fascinating in the hands of stronger writing and direction. Here, it offers some entertaining moments between the punching and kicking.

The action is pretty standard for the most part. It is interesting to see Tom Cruise share some of these scenes with Cobie Smulders, since he tends to be solely front and centre in these films, and that discord is brought into play. While they are hiding in New Orleans, Reacher hopes that he can assign Turner the role of ‘mother’, which would allow him to go out alone to do the ‘real’ work. Turner of course both resents and rejects that assignment because babysitting a teenager is just about the most useless thing she could possibly do in this situation. She needs to be in the field just like Reacher and he sure as hell isn’t going to stop her. What I would give for a screenplay worthy of this conflict. Yarosh is serviceable as the young, rebellious girl who may or may not be Reacher’s daughter, but sometimes it feels like her character only exists to create problems for the grown-ups to solve.

As far as Tom Cruise action movies go, Never Go Back is about what you’d expect. Smulders is a great foil to Cruise and the family dynamic is quite interesting, but these qualities are let down by the sub-par writing and generic direction they were given. A campy villain within the vein of Werner Herzog would also have been welcome (this principle applies to action films in general). There are some good action set pieces, but nothing like the extravagant, stylised scenes you’d see in a Mission: Impossible film. That’s fine if you’re looking for something more down to earth, but those movies are entertaining for a reason. The interplay between Reacher, Turner and Samantha could have allowed for a more fulfilling experience if it had been allowed to attain the dramatic heights within reach. Instead the movie offers a few entertaining scenes with a couple of good jokes thrown in. Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is by no means a failure but it could have and should have strived to be better.