This review contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame.
Spider-Man: Far From Home serves as the Irish wake of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s grand arc, an upbeat chaser to Avengers: Endgame’s traumatic finale. Where Endgame went big, Far From Home starts small, registering the effect of the “blip”—the five years that passed between the day half of humanity vanished and the one they just as suddenly reappeared—via a kitschy, lachrymose “In Memoriam” video assembled by the students of Queens’ Midtown High. (What stage of grief is Comic Sans?) One of those students, as habitués of the MCU already know, is Peter Parker (Tom Holland), who’s dealing with his own kind of loss. While others suffered temporary displacement, Peter watched his surrogate father Tony Stark sacrifice himself to restore the universe, and though mourning Iron Man has become a public pastime, there’s no one Spider-Man can talk to about witnessing Tony’s death firsthand.
Peter’s solution is to go back to being what he was before: an ordinary teenager, albeit one who, according to his driver’s license, ought to be finishing up college by now. For convenience’s sake, all the significant members of Peter’s class from Spider-Man: Homecoming blipped along with him: his sidekick Ned (Jacob Batalon), his hoped-for girlfriend MJ (Zendaya), even the wealthy bully Flash (Tony Revolori), who’s both Peter’s civilian nemesis and Spider-Man’s biggest fan. All Peter wants is to tag along on his class trip to Europe and find the right moment to tell MJ he’s got feelings for her, but supervillains don’t care about teenage rites of passage, and neither does Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who turns up in Peter’s hotel to inform him that the world needs saving, again.
This time the threat comes from the Elementals, four creatures made of earth, water, air, and fire whose apparent goal is to consume the world whole. Peter learns about them from Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), who explains that he has arrived from another dimension where the Elementals have already achieved their goal and is now determined to make sure our Earth doesn’t suffer the same fate as his. In the comics, Mysterio (as he’s dubbed after the Italian press reports on an attack in Venice) is a villain, a special effects artist who only appears to have superpowers, but here he’s apparently the real deal, soaring through the air and blasting watery golems with shafts of green light until they return to the canals whence they came. Although Peter’s Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) confuses Quentin with the superhero she calls “Mr. Strange,” he’s clearly designed as a Tony Stark proxy, right down to the scruffy facial hair and sardonic witticisms. In Iron Man’s absence, Nick Fury and others want Spider-Man to fill the void the hero left behind, but Peter’s not willing to take on that mantle, or even ready. Bequeathed the posthumous gift of a pair of high-tech sunglasses that give him control of Stark Industries’ worldwide surveillance network, Peter nearly kills a classmate with a drone before getting it under control.
Blockbusters usually function as a delivery service for action sequences, but Spider-Man movies live and die by what happens to Peter Parker. Modern comic-book movies don’t much care about the dichotomy between the costumed hero and their secret identity anymore; the MCU set its course at the end of its first movie, when Tony Stark offhandedly decided to blow his own cover in the middle of a press conference. But Peter Parker is different and has been since Steve Ditko and Stan Lee created him in 1962. The vagaries of licensing account for why it’s taken so long for Spidey to join the MCU, but it’s fitting that he’s been reborn in a world where heroes far more powerful and impressive than he is are already commonplace. He’s a friendly neighborhood hero, designed to save communities and cities, not the world—let alone worlds. Far From Home, which brings back Homecoming director Jon Watts and screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, sometimes strains to match the intensity of the all-out battles in its dialogue scenes, and there are too many exchanges where characters reel off a dozen overlapping half-jokes in the hopes that you’ll come away with the feeling something funny was said. But there’s more suspense in Peter and MJ’s awkward flirtation than there is in whether Spider-Man will emerge victorious, and that’s exactly as it should be. (One key twist to the Spidey mythos: This MJ, rather than being a gorgeous creature Peter moons over from afar, is just as odd and uncomfortable as he is, and he’s just too absorbed in his own anxiety to notice it.)
Spider-Man: Far From Home offers few if any clues to the nature of Marvel’s forthcoming Phase 4, although there’s a winking under-construction sign outside Grand Central Terminal that reads, “We are so excited to show you what comes next!” After so many Easter eggs and end-credits teasers, it’s almost disorienting to be confronted with an MCU entry that just … ends. (There are, fear not, still two additional scenes in the credits, but they don’t add up to more than a vague hint of what’s to come.) For the first time since 2008, we’re allowed to take a breath and ponder how far these movies have taken us, and how we feel about where we’ve ended up. Toward the end of Far From Home, a character tells Peter that people need heroes so badly they’ll manufacture them if they have to. Tony Stark’s death has left a void, and if Peter doesn’t fill it, someone else—possibly someone who wants it more and is therefore less fit to do so—will. It’s a weirdly off-key argument for a franchise so hellbent on global domination to make. Marvel, a part of one of the largest conglomerates in the world, isn’t Peter Parker. It’s Tony Stark, whose friendly personality is meant to distract us from the massive, unchecked power he wields. Far From Home is built around the question of who will be the next Iron Man, but it can’t reckon with the idea that the world might be better off without him.