In our year-end Best of 2018 list — an infallible writ if ever there was one — we awarded the animated romp Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse the #10 slot, along with the following explainer:
Someone recently said of the late Marvel Comics giant: “When Stan Lee made better comics, he made comics better.” Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the latest superhero movie in an industry landscape that sometimes feels like it’s traded originality for IP. But Spider-Verse is gleefully, genuinely, finally a better comic book movie — and it might make comic book movies better.
Spider-Verse pushed a boundary that superhero films haven’t been able to push in a long, long time. It was fresh in the way only a non-franchise movie can be, and it was about as original as possible for a story based on existing characters. The goal with most modern superflicks, conversely, is to tie it all together, linking an ever-expanding franchise by deepening character relationships, furthering multi-film arcs, and reviving heroes and villains in such a way that prompts either “oh shit, it’s him!” or “wait…who’s that?”
But the new one, Far From Home, is exactly that: a new beast (spoilers follow). Yes, it relies heavily on other Marvel movies, tying to Avengers: Endgame and Captain Marvel and explicitly flashing back to 2016’s Civil War and 2008’s Iron Man. You might be able to enjoy it as a standalone film, having never seen a Marvel movie before, but that aforementioned “wait…who’s that?” would certainly crop up. Marvel head honcho Kevin Feige wasn’t kidding when he lumped Far From Home in with Phase Three of their cinematic universe, rather than the start of Phase Four, and when the words “Tony Stark” are uttered for the ninety-sixth time you’d think the weight of the entire MCU would start to bog down the actual story at hand.
It never does. Far From Home is every bit as nimble as Homecoming and vastly more ambitious, and at times it approaches the high-water mark set by Spider-Verse late last year. In some ways The Dark Knight — one of the last truly original superhero movies before Verse came along — was the worst thing to happen to the genre. Nearly every ensuing venture tried to replicate the success of that film by going for broke on gritty, realistic, street-level gravitas. DC’s entire cinematic universe essentially imploded when that didn’t work, leading them to pivot to Aquaman and Shazam! and fare that ostensibly mirrors Marvel’s carefree sheen. But even the MCU has that sense of self-importance behind the relentless jokes. Spider-Verse reminded us that the filmmaking doesn’t need to take a backseat to IP, and Far From Home seems to have received that message loud and clear.
Director Jon Watts deserves all the kudos in the world for creating a heartfelt adventure that takes the fun of the first film and amplifies it across a continent. By suddenly reversing Peter Parker’s own mentality from previous MCU outings, Watts instills a sense of doubt within him that’s hardly ever characteristic of a superpowered protagonist. In an interview with CBR, Watts joked about director Joe Russo breathing a sigh of relief in saying that Endgame was the first movie where they didn’t have to worry about the future of the MCU. But Watts’s response — “I do” — hardly ever shows in Far From Home. Visually, Far From Home easily joins Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok as the most stunning Marvel films; emotionally, Far From Home feels honest, real, and relevant.
The inclusion of Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) as the villain is also an inspired choice. Mysterio’s illusions could have remained simple plot point, providing a complicated and timely twist on a baddie who uses press and public perception for his own gains. But Watts and Co. recognize the visual opportunity Mysterio’s “powers” provide, and in taking advantage of them Far From Home puts forth a few sequences that recall the verve and confidence of Into the Spider-Verse. Back in 2015, Avengers: Age of Ultron director Joss Whedon said he included the characters Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver because their powers would be visually engaging. But red lights and speed lines aren’t all that interesting, really, and they’re flat-out boring next to what Watts accomplishes through Mysterio.
What’s more important, perhaps, is that Peter’s relationships with his friends are always asserted over the excitement of the action. Far From Home is a part of the MCU, and it will be considered as such: a fun installment, a great follow-up to Endgame, a bombastic sequel to Homecoming, a worthy successor in the interesting lineage of Spider-movies. But the originality in the filmmaking sets it apart, finally starting to break that Marvel mold despite the heavy familiarity at play. The title is apt in a number of ways, and I hope that Watts and Spider-Man keep going farther and farther.