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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Spider-Man: Homecoming

Cast: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jon Favreau, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Tyne Daly, Marisa Tomei, Robert Downey Jr.

Director: Jon Watts

Writers: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers


This movie is a big deal for Marvel. For decades Spider-Man has been the comic book company’s flagship character; he is to Marvel what Superman is to DC. After two movie franchises in a little over a decade, one that became too silly for its own good and one that crashed under the weight of all the characters and stories it was trying to juggle, Sony has finally made a deal with Marvel to bring Spider-Man into the MCU. After a wonderfully received debut by Tom Holland in Civil War, Homecoming now marks the character’s third cinematic introduction a mere fifteen years after his first. It’s a bit different this time because Peter Parker is now a part of a larger world, one where the idea of the superhero has already been well established and where the world has already been threatened by gods, aliens, an artificial intelligence, sorcerers, and a guy with energy whips. Thus, to focus more on the themes of growing up and taking responsibility, Homecoming scales back on the epic fantasy and instead gives us a high school movie with superheroes.

After being drafted by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to fight for the Avengers, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is told that he’s not ready yet to join the superhero team and is sent back to school to focus on his studies. In the meantime Stark encourages Peter to be more of “a friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man” and assigns Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) to look after him. Peter however struggles to balance his school life with his crime-fighting life. His best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) keeps pestering him about his ‘Stark Internship’, his decathlon team, led by Peter’s crush Liz (Laura Harrier), is getting frustrated with his inability to commit to the upcoming championship, and even his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) must be kept in the dark about his alter-ego. Meanwhile Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a salvager who was driven out of business years ago by Stark Industries, has gone into the arms trafficking business, dealing weapons based on Chitauri technology recovered from the Battle of New York in The Avengers. When he learns of Toomes’ activities, it falls onto Spider-Man to stop whatever it is he has planned.

Holland plays a much younger Peter Parker than either Maguire of Garfield ever played and his youth plays a prominent role. Spider-Man’s arc as a character has always been that he’s a young man learning to grow up and take responsibility, which is exactly what makes him so identifiable and relatable, especially to teenagers. In Homecoming his youth is emphasised in order to set him apart from the Avengers, most notably Tony Stark, who are pros at being superheroes and who understand the dangers and responsibilities of the job far better than Peter does. Although Peter is smart, talented and well intentioned, he’s also just a kid and he possesses all of the liabilities of youth. He is cocky, naïve and is in way over his head. Spider-Man has never just been a superhero fantasy, it is at its core a coming of age story and this movie embraces that by drawing inspiration from the filmography of John Hughes (which is good, but a little on the nose in one scene referencing Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). Angst, awkwardness and adolescence all come in abundance and the movie does a great job of showcasing those sides of Peter Parker.

The superhero side is also very good, but there is a slight disconnection there. The one thing I never really got from this incarnation of Spider-Man was a sense of what was driving him, a motivation. It’s hinted at in his first scene in Civil War but in this movie it is never elaborated in any meaningful way. Now, I’ve seen the other movies, I’ve read the comics, and I’ve watched some of the cartoon. I know full well what Spider-Man’s motivation is. The problem is that this movie throws us straight in without giving us some kind of foundation on which we can plant our feet. Uncle Ben, the lessons he taught Peter, and the role Peter may or may not have played in his death, we have no idea how relevant these are to this version of Spider-Man because they are never addressed. There is something of a stigma these days against superhero origin stories and not for no reason (we have after all seen two Spider-Man origin movies within ten years of each). I’m not saying that Homecoming had to be origin movie, but the crucial details of the backstory that fundamentally make Peter who he is do have to be addressed, even if it’s only in a couple of sentences. Leaving that out is bad storytelling.

Homecoming however is far from a bad movie. It is engaging, funny, thrilling and just delightful. Not only is Holland terrific as Spider-Man, he is hands down the best Peter Parker in any of the movies. His Peter is nerdy and awkward enough to make him a believable social outcast but also charming and eccentric enough to be likeable. Keaton as the Vulture is spot on and for me is easily the second best villain in the whole MCU after Loki. He is menacing, but also entertaining; villainous, but understandable. In addition, there is a twist with the villain (because there always are these days) that works incredibly well, bringing the conflict between him and Spider-Man to an entirely higher level. There are a couple of action scenes that don’t quite work, such as the climatic fight that takes place almost completely in the dark, but the ones that do work really well. As well as being his usual acrobatic self, this Spider-Man also makes effective use of the gadgets at his disposal such as his iconic web-slingers and a ton of other goodies provided by Stark’s suit. It’s not the best Spider-Man movie ever made but there is a lot to enjoy and a lot to be excited about going forward.

★★★★

The Jungle Book

Cast: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken

Director: Jon Favreau

Writer: Justin Marks


Of all the Disney movies to be treated to a live-action remake, The Jungle Book is perhaps the most beloved of all. It boasts of unforgettable characters, enjoyable music and a timeless charm, traits which leave little room for improvement. Although I can understand why Disney might want to update some of these tales and introduce them to a new audience, I so far haven’t been sold by any of their attempts. On one end of the spectrum is Cinderella which contains some aspects that were better than the original but also just as many that were worse. On the other end was Alice in Wonderland which completely and fundamentally misunderstood what it was that made the original cartoon (and the books for that matter) good in the first place. The Jungle Book has posed a curious dilemma for me because while there are very few aspects of the film that I’ve found to be worse than the original, there are just as few that I’ve found to be better. I enjoyed the film, there’s no question about that. The trouble is that I’m not sure whether this film should actually exist.

Like the 1967 cartoon The Jungle Book tells the story of Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a “man cub”. As an infant Mowgli was found alone in the jungle by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and was taken to the wolf pack led by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) where he was raised by Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o). Years later Mowgli is discovered by Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a ferocious tiger with a bitter hatred of men, who swears he will kill the boy. Mowgli agrees to leave for the sake of the pack and runs away with Bagheera. The two are separated when Shere Khan makes his attack, leaving Mowgli stranded in the middle of the jungle. After an encounter with Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), an enormous python with hypnotic powers, Mowgli falls into the company of the bear Baloo (Bill Murray). The two form a friendship as Mowgli agrees to help him make preparations for the winter. Mowgli however remains in great danger as Shere Khan relentlessly continues the hunt for him.

Although the same characters, songs and basic plot as the original cartoon are all present in this movie, it should be noted that it is by no means an exact copy. The Jungle Book offers a slightly different take on the story by drawing inspiration from Rudyard Kipling’s original works. Thus the film includes such additions as the Law of the Jungle, details of Mowgli’s backstory and the red flower. There is certainly a degree of weight and significance to the characters’ actions that isn’t present in its predecessor but it doesn’t always work to the film’s advantage. Shere Khan for example is an attempt by the film to combine his literary counterpart, a manipulative brute who wants to rule the jungle, with that of the cartoon, a charming but menacing beast who simply does as he pleases, and the result is a confused character with an inconsistent motivation. I was never sure whether Shere Khan’s ultimate plan was to assert his dominance in the jungle or to simply kill Mowgli. In either case the plan he concocts just doesn’t make sense to me.

I think the confusion with Shere Khan is symptomatic of a certain disharmony in terms of story and tone. The original books, on one hand, are serious in their approach as they tell tightly-structured stories with clear morals while the Disney cartoon, in contrast, is much more light-hearted and is more interested in simply portraying comedic highlights and character interactions than in focusing on its narrative. Both of these stories had clear ideas of what they were. It seems to me this film wants to be the best of both worlds: an enjoyable, daring and adventurous family movie with a serious story complete with comedy, music and darkness. While I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to say that the film fails to blend these two different styles together, there were still moments when I felt it struggled. For example in the scene where Mowgli meets King Louie (played magnificently by Christopher Walken), the character comes across as brutally intimidating and for a moment I was afraid for the little boy. The tone in that scene was then shattered when Louie suddenly burst out with ‘I Wanna Be Like You’, a song that has no business being sung by a ruthless, terrifying giant.

However I’m getting too caught up in the negatives and want to talk about the positives, of which there are a lot. For one thing The Jungle Book could very well be the most visually stunning film of the year with its breathtaking landscapes and astonishingly lifelike animals. The animals may not have the advantage of being as expressive as those in the cartoon but that’s when the voice acting comes in. Whatever my issues with Shere Khan I definitely cannot dispute the menacing charm in Elba’s voice. Murray is also perfectly cast as the lovable Baloo and provides the film with plenty of heart and laughs. The bond he forms with Mowgli is a truly affectionate one and when they sang ‘The Bare Necessities’ together I was grinning from ear to ear. Mowgli himself is played splendidly by newcomer Neel Stehi whose performance is especially praiseworthy considering that he was the only living breathing person actually in front of the camera. That the jungle and the animals in it were able to come to life in this movie is a remarkable achievement in both visual effects and direction.

The one issue that continues to nag at me however is that, as much as I enjoyed this movie, the visuals were the only aspect that I found to be substantially better than the cartoon while the characterisation of Shere Khan was the only part that I found to be worse. The rest of the film, while certainly different in terms of content, still felt more or less the same in terms of the impression it left on me despite its attempts to distinguish itself. The film draws so heavily from the cartoon that I don’t think it’s possible to assess it in isolation and, as enjoyable as this movie could be, there were moments when I felt my enjoyment was inspired more by my nostalgia than by the movie itself. And yet, for children who may not have grown up with the cartoon the way I have, I can absolutely imagine their imaginations being awestruck by the visual spectacle and their hearts being captured by the delightful characters. I’ve tried for so long to reconcile my feelings for this film that I’m not sure I could ever choose a star rating that can truly encompass them. However, in the words of the great Roger Ebert, “your intellect may be confused, but your emotions will never lie to you”. On that basis I have to give The Jungle Book credit for the enjoyment that I got from watching it, however ambivalently.

★★★★