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[Herald Review] ‘Spider-Man: Far From Home’ may not be epic, but it’s a delightful teen flick

How do you follow up after “Avengers: Endgame,” the pinnacle of a multibillion-dollar movie franchise built up over 11 years and 22 films that was epic, flamboyant, dramatic and even nostalgic? You don’t try to top it -- you build on the new world with a charming and relatable hero.

Jon Watt’s “Spider-Man: Far From Home” is a delightful teenage coming-of-age tale with great characters, good humor and an upgrade in action, serving both as a wistful epilogue to the “Infinity Saga” and as a prologue to the chaotic new world awaiting the audience in phase four of Marvel Cinematic Universe.

(Sony Pictures Korea)
(Sony Pictures Korea)

The beginning of the film is actually pretty cute and clever. It starts with a tribute to the fallen heroes that almost feels like overkill, before you become aware of the quality of the video and realize that it was made by students at the school that Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man (Tom Holland), attends.

With his mentor gone and people expecting him to fill the enormous shoes of “Iron Man” Tony Stark, Peter is unsure of himself and is torn between wanting a normal life as a high school kid and wanting to shoulder his responsibilities as a superhero. Deciding to work on his personal life a bit -- vowing he “won’t be saving the world this summer” -- Peter decides to use the school field trip to Europe to get close to Michelle “MJ” Jones (Zendaya), for whom he has developed affection.

But the trip takes an unexpected turn when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) shows up mid-trip and alerts Peter of the threats presented by the Elementals, giant beings made up of basic elements that can wreak havoc on their path. Under pressure from Fury to step up, Peter develops a friendship with “Mysterio” Quentin Beck, an individual with superpowers who claims to be from an alternate universe, and works to stop the evil.

One of the biggest strengths and a definite upgrade from “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is the film’s characters. While the first one set up a lot of characters -- none of whom left much of an impression besides Peter, his best friend Ned, Aunt May and of course the main villain -- this one does a much better job of developing each character and keeping their roles distinct.

May’s absence throughout the majority of the film was a bit disappointing, as was Ned’s reduced role, but “Far From Home” managed to add color to the supporting characters to build a “Spider-Man” world that was charming and felt legitimate, not just an extension of the bigger MCU. This was the opposite of the first two “Thor” films, in which everything from the world to the people in it felt bland; and “Captain Marvel,” which had some interesting characters but mostly characters who were utterly uninspiring.

Peter’s struggles to find his place in the world is reflected in his interaction with three near-father figures. Jackson as Fury -- described by Watts as “the mean new stepdad” -- is overbearing and pressures Peter to make what Fury believes to be the right choice. Gyllenhaal’s Beck gives Peter what he seeks most after Stark’s departure, an adult who understands him and gets what the superhero business is all about. Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) has a relatively small role, but his friendship with Stark allows him to give Peter the strength he needs to find himself.

This all goes back to Holland and yet another fantastic portrayal in the role he was -- in my opinion -- born to play, coupling boyish innocence with an innate sense of justice and an unconquerable spirit.   

(Sony Pictures Korea)
(Sony Pictures Korea)

“The inner conflict (of Peter) is what drives him to find where he fits in: Is he a teenager on a school trip or a superhero? He has to decide,” Holland said during a promotional press conference for the film in Seoul on Monday. The youthful actor added that this is why the film is so relatable for teens around the world.

“He (Peter) isn’t’ finished and he is not the superhero. That’s what makes him more lovable, because nobody is perfect. Tony stark is a billionaire, Thor is a god, Captain America is a super-soldier. Peter Parker’s just a kid, and everyone can relate to being a teenager,” he said.

The lead actor mentioned that his off-camera friendship with veteran actor Gyllenhaal had actually changed the script so that Spider-Man and Mysterio developed a friendship on screen as well.

“In the comics, he (Mysterio) was an antagonist and villain. But I liked the fact that they teamed up, have a relationship and share history with Peter Parker,” Gyllenhaal said.

The relationship between Peter and Gyllenhaal is what adds drama to the film and the personal growth of Peter Parker, which pans out in the third act.

The surprise villain, on the other hand, was also a good character and the actor did a spot-on job of depicting how he or she came to be that way. I just wasn’t a fan of how the film used the villain, in the sense that the events surrounding him or her are a bit rushed and the narrative is not very strong after the big reveal.

The action was a definite upgrade, and the humor works for the most part. I did notice a pattern in a lot of the MCU films, that they try too hard to be funny all the time. This happened during very enjoyable films like “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” where jokes were crammed in even in the middle of heavy scenes.

One other character I have to comment on is Peter’s love interest, MJ. I wasn’t a fan of her in the first one, as old-time Spider-Man fans have always pictured MJ as a flaming redhead with a fiery edge. Seeing her with a completely different look and personality, even a different name, was just ... odd, like seeing an evil Captain America, or a shy Tony Stark, or a scrawny Thor.

But this was actually done really well here. MJ was funny, charming and had a flicker of teenage innocence, plus great chemistry with Peter. On top of that she is also quirky and smart, has an attitude, and always takes charge.

While I’ve always loved MJ and she was always smart and charming, she was bit of a traditional damsel in distress. The change they made could very well have turned her into just another token character, but she ended up being very charming and relatable.

In fact, the charm of the teenage flick was what gave this movie its unique place in the MCU. While they are all superhero flicks, the “Captain America” films had the gritty espionage look; the “Thor” franchise had fantasy and myth; “Guardians of the Galaxy” was like a space opera; and now we have this -- a teenage coming-of-age tale, packaged in superhero action.

Although not as epic or action-packed as some of MCU’s recent works, this film was a strong setup for both phase four of the MCU and Spider-Man’s world in the MCU -- one that was just very enjoyable to watch.

A final note to the viewers: The MCU tends to leave important clues midway through the credits and a throwaway joke in the post-credits scene. I recommend staying in the theaters for both, particularly the first one.

“Spider-Man: Far From Home” opens in local theaters July 2.

By Yoon Min-sik (