This is a week late, not because I was lacking enthusiasm for the film, but because I have been so busy this week, I really haven’t had a chance to sit down and put it in writing. This film is based on a video game I have never heard of, much less played. The structure does feel a bit like we are leveling up at each juncture to where we get the next amount of action and reward, and that is fine. It also feels like a puzzle film, where there is a mystery to solve at the next sequence and that also makes it feel a bit episodic. That being said, it was a totally enjoyable experience and one that gives me a little hope for the near future of movie theaters.
I would still like it if people would go to adult dramas and comedies in a theater, but for the moment I will settle for an action film with big set pieces, well known stars and fun special effects. The theater owners will be glad that this movie showed up in February, so that there was a reason for them to remain open. This is a big dumb event film that fulfills your need for fun without insulting your intelligence. If characters are a bit too standard and the quest is overdone, that doesn’t matter because the actors and the tech people seem to be putting their all into making it work for you. So maybe it does recycle “National Treasure”, “Indiana Jones” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” , those are all fun pictures and the bits of each that show up in this screenplay are supplemented by some nice work from the actors.
Tom Holland is the poster boy of the cinema world these days. After starring in the biggest blockbuster success since the pandemic started, he shows up here and does what a movie star is supposed to do, brings some charisma to the events of the story. He is joined by the older more veteran version of himself, Mark Walberg, who has past the stage of young lead to now take on the role of mentor, although still an active and well defined mentor as these stories will demand.
Director Ruben Fleiser has made some films that I enjoyed, (Zombieland and Zombieland Double Tap), some that should have worked but didn’t (Gangster Squad) and one huge financial success that is mocked by aficionados of the source material (Venom). I think the action groove is where he fits best, but it is apparent to me that the scripts he is working with and the way he is shooting things, character development is not his strong suit. The flashback sequence at the start of the film is about as close as you get to something reflecting real character arcs, but what can you expect from a movie based on a video game?
This is a perfect movie for a weekend afternoon with the family, or maybe date night, followed by pizza or burgers at a local joint that you know well. You will have a good time, a pleasant memory of the experience, but you may not remember much of the story or even the action scenes. I did like that the female lead is not simply a love interest but a character in the film who adds some drama to the proceedings and reminds us that everyone can be a little good as well as being a little bad.
This weekend, we will be doing a Lookback Episode on the Spider-Man Films, which means in the last week, I have watched nine Spider-Man movies. That’s a lot to take in, but it sure helped in watching the latest film, “No Way Home” because I was fresh on the storylines, the characters and especially the villains. We are entering a “Multiverse” here and I don’t think it is a spoiler to say that there will be crossover elements in this film. You have seen Doc Ock in the trailer, and you know that Alfred Molina was in one of the Sony, Sam Rami Spider-Man movies, so clearly, all bets are off when it comes to who might show up. I have managed to avoid any spoilers myself before seeing the movie and I certainly don’t plan on screwing it up for anyone else.
The animated “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” got to these ideas first, but it set up a groundwork that allows everything this movie does to work more efficiently than might have otherwise been possible. The basic concept is easier to understand, and the device by which characters cross universe’s is explained a little more in this movie than in the animated film, and it also fits in with the other stories that the MCU has been telling, so that’s a plus. What it ends up meaning is that several plotlines and characters get an upgrade in this movie and the film repairs some of the weaknesses in the other films. Maybe we will never get goth Toby dancing down the street out of our heads, but there is other business to attend to and this film tries to take care of that business. As far as I was concerned, it succeeds.
Tom Holland’s Spider-Man has largely been a creature nurtured by Ironman and the Avengers. This means that the villains he has faced are connected to the MCU Infinity War thread up to this point. He has had the aid of the Avengers or SHIELD remnants but this time, it looks like he is on his own, until he connects with Dr. Strange. For a bright kid, Peter Parker sometimes jumps to some weak conclusions on little more than a hunch. He turns to the magic of Dr. Strange, thinking maybe he can reverse time to the point were no one had discovered he was :Spider-Man”. An improvised plan goes unsurprisingly wrong, and Peter/Spidey has to clean it up before it gets incontrollable. That’s the set up, suffice it to say every solution has it’s unintended consequences which produce more problems to deal with. While all of this is going on, Peter, his best friend Ned and his new love MJ, are also struggling with non-super criminal difficulties, like getting into college or having a little privacy. The two teen characters help keep the movie grounded to the situation that Peter finds himself in, and it also provides for some humor. The laughs and the gasps are the things this movie has going for it the most.
Holland’s fresh faced enthusiasm was always a good counter part to Tony Stark’s detached cynicism. The by play between their viewpoints is extend a bit with the Dr. Strange connection, but Holland manages to inject plenty of life into the other relationships in the film, particularly with the antagonists. Spider-Man has plenty of quips and there is a good deal of millennial ignorance to fuel it. The surprises that show up are where most of the audience will get sucked into rooting for the web slinger. The collection of enemies that Peter has to wade through is ultimately matched by the allies he has, some of whom stand in his way like moral warning signs that he simply can’t see. This Sider-Man has to learn some of the lessons his predecessors learned, and it is entertaining to watch the likes of Aunt May, Happy and others, try to impart them. The plot allows this film to do some credibility repair on the sometimes maligned “Amazing Spider-Man” films, and even the widely criticized but still successful “Spider-Man 3”. Character threads get handled that had been left dangling, and the tonal quirks that plagued those earlier films are gently mocked and put into perspective.
As usual, the action scenes are top notch in the film, and the technology does a better job than in has in the past of convincing us we are not watching a cartoon, even though we most certainly are in most of those action sequences. The Lambcast Episode is full of spoilers, so if you want to delve into my thoughts on this a bit more, go there. Here we remain spoiler free so I simply can’t talk about all of the great moments in the film. When you see it, as it looks like everybody will, you will know more of what I am talking about.
The advantage of being an older adult is that I don’t feel compelled to try to know everything by searching the internet constantly. I had only a vague notion that this movie existed, and I had no idea that it was based on a YA novel series. As a result, I was mostly uncertain of where much of this was going or even what the hell was happening at times. The concept of “The Noise” gets introduced fairly early, and that is the key twist in the story. I don’t think it is a spoiler to say that the men in this world are basically displaying their thoughts out loud and visually to those around them. This makes secret keeping and lying difficult. It also sets up the main flaw in the premise which you will probably identify before I get to it below.
The two young leads might have been a tell as to the YA origins of the film if I had been paying attention. Daisy Ridley is a rising actress with the latest Star Wars films under her belt. Tom Holland is of course the current “Spider-Man” and his winsome manner and somewhat nasally voice are perfect for the kind of character he is playing in this film. This is a combination western/sci-fi/fish out of water story. Daisy’s character is Viola, a space traveler who in a scouting mission to the new world her group is traveling to, crashes into an environment that is not only unfamiliar to her but presents a communication scenario she never could have imagined. Tom is Todd, a native of the new world who’s family immigrated but died long ago. He is also out of water because in his world there are no living women.
Once the story starts rolling out, the plot line has only a few surprises. The two leads have to go on the run, they are pursued by an implacable foe, and there are complications along the way. Despite being set in the future, the setting feels like a western. Maybe because there are horses involve (and there is even an explanation of why there are horses on this new world). So Butch and Sundance have to evade the posse, and reach an objective. I suspect that the film has compacted many elements of the novels. As I listened to some of the teen girls in the audience chat with each other after the film, it seems the story has material from all three source novels and not just the first. It ends in an open enough way that sequels could be possible, but if another film is never made, the conclusion is perfectly acceptable, it does not leave us dangling.
The director Doug Liman, is a competent action director who has made a couple of films with Tom Cruise, a Bourne movie and Mr. and Mrs. Smith. He keeps enough chase scenes and fights with the influence of “The Noise” to make the movie feel like it is active, but some of the complications from the thing that distinguishes this story from all other dystopian YA, “The Noise”, gets lost in tying to keep things moving. “What Women Want” was a movie that took the same premise essentially and made it intp a comedy concept. This is a more serious story but it is still trying to avoid being too dark. All of us have had abhorrent thoughts in our heads that we are glad that no one else can know, What would the consequence be if those thoughts could not be hidden. This movie does not come close to that. “The Noise” becomes a trivial inconvenience that allows some mental magic, but that’s about all. The one character who makes it potentially dark, David Olelowo’s Aaron-the Preacher, mostly lurks in the background and arrives as a boogeyman to commit the most horrendous act of the story, but his demon’s are never really explored. That is probably the main difference between an adult sci-fi story and this YA concoction.
Visually, the movie works well. The effects masters have come up with an interesting way to share “the Noise” so that we don’t just hear a continuous internal monologue. There is a combination of traditional frontier living and space age colonization, but there is not a very clear explanation of why the technology process has largely been abandoned. An alien race is introduced, and I suspect it plays a much bigger part in the books than it does in this movie. The landscape that the story takes place in is shot beautifully and there are just enough f/x elements around the edges to suggest a different planet, but that is barely part of the story.
At the heart of the plot is a secret that drives the main villain, the Mayor of settlement where Viola’s craft lands, played by Mads Mikkelsen. As I said in opening paragraph, there is a flaw in the premise of this plot. If everyone knows what really happened before Todd grew up, how is it that they have kept that knowledge from him? The Mayor is the only character who seems to have the strength to hide some of his thoughts, but the settlement is populated with a variety of other men, two of whom have raised Todd. How did they keep the secret from him? The Preacher is openly antagonistic, why would he have kept this a secret? It does not make any sense and as a result, we are required to dip into out bag full of suspension of disbelief and pour a cupful on this story for it to make any sense. As the plot plays out there are a number of intriguing events that feel like they would make a better story than the one that we are following at the moment.
Overall I enjoyed the movie in spite of the flaw that I saw. The actors are engaging and well cast. There is enough action to keep us hooked on what is going on, and the movie looks great. I will end with one warning. If you are more sensitive to animal deaths on film than human deaths, this is a movie you might find to be challenging. There are at least two moments where that scenario plays out and one of them is haunting in a way that some of us might have a hard time with it.
The strength of Pixar films has always been the way they manage to take an original idea and flesh it out into something the audience can relate to. Some of the concepts have been straightforward; a family of superheros, the secret life of toys, cars as people. Other concepts have been downright strange; a rat who cooks, a lonely robot, a princess who turns her mother into a bear. Regardless of the oddity of the conceit, the Pixar crew has managed to make these movies work to a large degree. Our current example is one of the weird ones. In a fantasy world that has forgotten magic, two elves must finish a spell to bring their dead father back for just one day.
I think the reason that the films of Pixar succeed for the most part is the way the creators wholeheartedly embrace their idea and run with it. Director Dan Scanlon and his collaborators Jason Headley and Keith Bunin have grabbed their idea and run with it. They commit to the universe they are creating and try to play with it as much as possible. There may be occasional inconsistencies, but they hardly matter as we plunge quickly into the story and become familiar with the characters. The plot is a basic mash up of a high school coming of age story and a fantasy quest. The fact that these ideas are familiar to us may explain why we don’t worry too much about the characters we encounter. We will just go with the flow if we can have some characters to relate to.
“Onward” gives us two characters that we will understand immediately but also come to care for by the end of the film. Tom Holland is not really stretching much by playing an awkward teen with unforeseen powers. We’ve seen the Spider-Man movies. Here the character is animated but it continues to be Holland’s slightly nasally voice and young sounding pitch that sells the character to us. Ian Lightfoot is turning sixteen and it makes him nervous. In fact everything makes him nervous, partially because he missed ever meeting his father who died before he was born. Lack of confidence is not the weakness of his older brother “Barley” however, he dives in head first with enthusiasm to most things. The bravado of the character is also perfectly realized by the voice talents of Holland;s Avengers co-star Chris Pratt. The two of them together are a mismatched pair of brothers out on a road trip. The scenario creates plenty of opportunities for humor but you know that a Pixar film is not going to forgo the sentiment. There is an interesting switch in the purpose of their quest, which manages to make the movie more poignant at the end. It is another example of the writers taking a concept and finding ways to work it that are not obvious from the start. Maybe the quest is predictable, but the emotions are not.
As always with these computer generated dreams (or nightmares if you remember Cars 2), there is a fantastic look to the production. The characters are realized in ways that give us shorthand on their archetypes, but they still look original. The two brothers are Elfish but in very distinctive ways. Their Mom’s boyfriend is the nice guy cop, who maybe is a little bit of a nebbish despite being a centaur. The path that the kids take is fraught with adventure, but the biggest fright is simply being a new driver trying to merge onto the freeway. I loved the way they played with unicorns in the story, they are essentially the scavengers of this world, and like our own scavengers, they can look benign like a raccoon, but they can be pretty nasty as well. Spites turn into bikers and dragons are made of rubble, and it works because the creatives found ways for us to relate to those images.
The secondary characters fill in some space and provide a little more opportunity to play with the fantasy world, but the focus is correctly placed on the two brothers. As usual, the music cues us in on emotional moments, but like many contemporary films, it relies on our knowledge to find the right feeling. You will hear some passages that sound like they are out of a spaghetti western, and some motifs that belong in a fantasy film. There are clear action beats as the Indiana Jones moments are playing out as well. I don’t know how well the Disney team has marketed the film. I did not have a high degree of anticipation for it, but having seen it, I now know they have a solid film. I hope it lands with audiences the way it did with me.
In the post Avengers, “Infinity War” world, the superheros are going to be faced with threats that will have to be inventive, compelling and for the moment, short term. I don’t really know how you build a long term storyline without the universal destruction suggested by Thanos and that story is now history. The approach that the caretakers of the Marvel Universe are taking, seems to be the right one. They are taking time building stories around the remaining heroes and allowing them to be at the center of their own tales. Here and there will be connections to the large universe of super heroes, but for the moment they will bask in the spotlight alone. “Spider Man: Far From Home” does exactly this. Peter Parker and his complicated relationships are the main thrust of the story.
The after effects of the “snap” are briefly discussed as the plot unfolds, but there is virtually no impact of the five year gap between the Earth’s non blipped residents and those who blipped back. Two or three visual jokes that also make no sense but are fun anyway, help set a more light hearted tone for the film. Moving the action to Europe helps the movie feel fresher than had it remained in the States and there are some more opportunities for cross cultural humor as well. Even with the shadow of the Infinity War hanging over the planet, life seems to go on. With just a few tips of the hat to Iron Man, Spider Man takes the lead and reluctantly seems to be the lynch pin character for future interwoven multi-universe situations.
The enigmatic “Mysterio”, shows up to battle elemental monsters that have supposedly destroyed the Earth of his dimension and now threaten our own home world. Nick Fury wants Spider Man to step up and lead when it comes to handling new threats and Tony Stark has left a mini version of Ultron, with the acronym E.D.I.T.H., to help out. Once again, Stark’s ingenious is the source of conflict in the MCU. Peter has to choose what kind of life or leadership role he is going to follow, and of course it will not be an easy choice or one without complications. “Mysterio” is portrayed by the always enjoyable Jake Gyllenhaal, himself a one-time candidate for the Spider Man role. Frankly, you will be aware that a twist is coming from the start of the story, how could you not expect it after so many previous experiences. When it arrives, there is a three minute or so narrative sequence that tries to make sense of it all. There are a dozen dangling strings from other MCU films that are tied together to create the new threat. I think the retcon that happened in “Spider Man: Homecoming” was a lot clearer and made more sense. If you look at this one too closely, it may not hold up as well. Especially since the villain acknowledges that Nick Fury is the most paranoid man on the planet.
The narrative here reminds me of the Happy Potter film “The Half Blood Prince”. So much of the background is taken up by the romantic lives of our protagonists that it may sometimes feel like a different movie. There are however a sufficient number of tie ins to the technology and plot to make those “romance” points still relevant to the main story. MJ and Ned are both at risk down the line and it works to make the threat to them more meaningful when the ominous agenda of the villain reveals itself. I do think that the bifurcated nature of the antagonist is a bit problematic, and the self awareness of his own delusional role in the Stark legacy means that he needs to be a pretty good actor. The film is a little meta when it is disclosed how we are all being fooled. maybe all the technicians who create these movies need to have a bit of glory but this was a weird way of showing us behind the curtain.
That curtain however is still pretty dazzling as the action sequences and special effects continue to show that people are working at the top levels to make these movies as believable as they can. I also loved the attempt to divert attention from Spider Man by inventing a pseudonym for the character and then referring back to it in several spots, hilarious. The idea of Happy and May makes me giggle a bit and hope for the best for both of them. Happy gets more to do in this film than any of the previous MCU films his character has appeared in, and May, re-imagined as a younger but still mature woman, finally pays off. Good for Jon Favreau and Marissa Tomei. If you stick around for the credit sequences that have become a hallmark of these movies, you will get a long awaited cameo that is a great surprise. There is also a reveal that makes the meta theme of illusion even more meta. I’m not sure it was necessary, but it does tie in to some other MCU plotlines and its is a lot of fun. More than half the audience at out screening had already left when these two bits came up, and I don’t understand how people can do that, knowing that there are some punch lines or gut punches coming.
Saying that “Spider Man: Far From Home ” is not top self MCU in no way is meant to diminish the entertainment value of the film. You should enjoy yourself immensely. It is simply a fact that with so many variations of these characters and the number of movies they have appeared in, we inevitably will make comparisons. Tom Holland continues to work as a youthful Peter Parker even as he grows older playing the character, maybe he was in a real blip event. The other high school kids provide some humorous diversions, and I thought the teachers were quite funny but I can see some slap stick that may put others off. The first half of the film feels like it is exactly what it turns out to be, but the second half makes that pay off.
Everybody knows that Sony Pictures botched their re-boot of the Spider-man movies with the last two outings. “The Amazing Spider-man” in 2012 was a satisfactory start to a new series but seemed to be covering a lot of familiar territory. The sequel, “The Amazing Spider-man 2” was a complete mess which screwed up the storyline, wiped out an important character prematurely, and basically repeated every mistake made in the third film in the original Spider-Man trilogy. When Marvel and Sony worked out a deal to get Spider-Man into the MCU, they took a huge step in fixing the things that were wrong with the films. The arrival on the scene of Spider-Man in the terrific “Captain America: Civil War” showed the promise of a young new actor in the part. The story can be about a teenager.
I think that Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield were well cast but played the role much more maturely than the character was originally supposed to be. Since Peter/Spidey show up in Civil War without having another version of the origin story, we get to skip that as well and get right to the fun stuff. Here, young Tom Holland (21) can pass for a fifteen year old. He has a baby face and a voice that certainly will not intimidate anyone, so it works. What also works is his desire to be an Avenger. Even though he has incredible powers and a history with the Avenger team, he still feels like a wannabee and that motivates him to act in a manner contrary to the advise of his “mentor” Tony Stark. Holland is completely believable as a nearly ADHD genius who wants to rush home from school and do some good. His desire to be one of the big guys reminds you of a puppy, anxious to please it’s owner but so clumsy in doing so that it upturns the furniture and cocks up the works. The first trilogy and the reboot, all focus on romance, but this film focuses on Spider-Man himself and his struggle to find a place in an era of super-heroes. There is a romance with a surprising turn, but it is not the main point of Peter Parker’s life in this film.
The side characters in this story all add to the freshness of the film. They are not merely cutouts to be plugged in for narrative purpose but real flesh and blood people who matter to the story. Jacob Batalon plays Peter’s friend Ned, another nerdy kid who accidentally discovers that his friend is the neighborhood hero that he has seen on YouTube. Ned is nearly irrepressible in his enthusiasm for sharing in Peter’s secret. He wants to share it but even more than that, he wants to be a part of it. He offers advice, asks annoying questions and genereally plays Jiminy Cricket to Holland’s Pinocchio. Since they both attend a school for gifted students, Ned is certainly as bright as Peter, but he and Peter are still young and they make social mistakes and act on impulse sometimes. Marisa Tomei, plays the youngest version of Aunt May yet. She is just in her late forties or early fifties and even the committed Tony Stark has sexist things to say about her. Tomei has been an excellent actress in films for almost three decades. Anyone who thinks her Academy award for “My Cousin Vinnie” was a fluke, did not see that movie. Her May is not to far a stretch from Mona Lisa Vito. She is more streetwise, flirty and sharp than any of the actresses who have played this character before. I won’t spoil the quote but I will say she has the final line of the story and it will bring a big laugh. Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan has appeared in three of the “Iron Man” films but has barely registered because there was not much to his part [even though he directed the first two]. Happy is a happy addition to the Spider-Man story. As the contact for Peter Parker to the Avengers, he is the perfect balance between exasperated and impatient. He gets a laugh on screen every time from simple facial expressions.
As with most action stories, whether they are set in a comic book universe, the spy world, or everyday dramas, the villain is a tipping point for the direction of the story. Since Iron Man is the template they are following somewhat with this approach, let’s use those films as examples. The Iron Monger in the original film had a great actor and a well developed part, the film is stronger as a result. Whiplash is a cipher in Iron Man 2 and The Mandarin is a red herring in 3, both films are less successful from a narrative position. “Spider-Man Homecoming” does not have those weaknesses, instead it has the strength of the first Iron Man, a great actor in a well developed part. Michael Keaton plays a third winged character, after two turns as Batman and a self referential role as Birdman in the recent Academy Award winner. Adrian Toomes is a character that we can feel empathy for early on. He is pushed in the direction of crime by circumstances that are outlined at the start of the film, but his actions are not driven by revenge but rather the need for financial security for himself and his crew. While it is not clear how he expects to keep a low key presence, given the nature of his new enterprise, the so called “Vulture” is not really malevolent. His threats to Spider-Man are dire, but in the context in which they are issued they are really negotiation points. There is no spite or lust for revenge, this is a character who is taking advantage of the skills he has and the opportunities that are presented to him. The main caper at the climax of the film is something he enters into very reluctantly. He is not a monster, and Keaton is a great choice to play this working class villain who aspires for so much but also chooses to fly under the radar. Frankly there is a twist in the film that I did not see coming, but looking back it might make sense to those who have closely followed the Spider-Man Franchise. That twist gives Keaton a chance to strut some of his best stuff. He has those great facial ticks and a range in his voice that can go from jocular to threatening in an instant. I thought he added immeasurably to the success of this film.
The screenplay balances the intimate story of Peter Parker and his family and friends, with the two parallel plotlines of the Vulture and The Avengers. Peter is an effective hero occasionally but he also makes the kinds of brash mistakes that any headstrong kid might make. Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, knows all to well the trouble he can be getting himself into by aiding in Peter’s development as a hero, but he lacks the requisite supervisory capacity to guide Parker correctly. Happy and Tony together are the indifferent parents that need to put their foot down but also need to listen empathetically. Stark is too narcissistic to realize this and happy is too busy. There is great humor throughout the story and it comes naturally in the incidents that crop up and the characters that have been developed. There are the usual story patches that allow Spider-Man to be around when it is necessary, but they do not show too much and with all stories in a comic book universe, they need to be forgiven a little.
I have heard talk of a potential backlash on comic based films. There is a danger of burnout in the audience. That will certainly be true if every film in the genre has to invent or resurrect an alien threat, a maniacal genius bent on revenge, or a scientific accident that creates some kind of chaos. When you have a film like this or the recent “Wonder Woman” where the settings are fresh and the characters compelling, you don’t have to have burnout. The creators of the MCU have found compelling stories about half the time. The hope for the immediate future is that “Thor Raganok” will be closer to “Ant-Man”, “Guardians of the Galaxy” and this film rather than Iron Man 2 and 3 or “The Age of Ultron”. WW holds out the hope that DC is on the brink of making the same discovery. What entertains us is not emptyspectacle but stories that are involving with characters we can like or identify with. If you get some well deserved humor in there without shoehorning it in, all the better. “Spider-Man Homecoming” was not a film that I was particularly desperate to see or hopeful for. It turns out to be a wonderful re-invigoration of not just that character, but of our whole desire for comic book films. There are little details in the movie that add to the experience and I don’t want to spoil them for you, but from the moment the Marvel Logo streams on to the screen, if you listen, you will know that the film makers want you to be entertained, and they find some good ways to do that.