It’s not easy to follow in the Avengers’ footsteps. Ever since 2012, when Marvel released The Avengers, the first film to unite major superheroes in one jam-packed adventure, other studios have worked to create their own cinematic universes, usually to little success. Warner Bros. spent years building up to 2017’s horrific Justice League, while Universal had to rethink its ambitious Dark Universe franchise after 2017’s The Mummy failed to excite audiences. Turns out, it isn’t easy to produce a bunch of good standalone movies that all tie into the same overarching narrative — and then to combine all those movies’ characters into jumbo-sized films that continue the storyline. And so this spring’s Avengers: Endgame proved to be not just a culmination of the heroes’ battle with Thanos but, in a larger sense, a victory lap for Marvel, which had accomplished what seemed unthinkable 11 years ago. Maybe other franchises will someday reach such commercial heights, but they’ll never be able to match the extraordinary, zeitgeist-y triumph that Marvel achieved.
But if Avengers: Endgame casts a long shadow over the rest of the industry, it’s also now a bit of a problem for Marvel, too. That movie concluded with the battle to end all battles — resulting in Iron Man’s death and Captain America’s decision to walk away from the Avengers — and seemed to be a grand finale to all the years of suspense and interconnected narratives. After Endgame, there almost wasn’t any need to watch another Marvel movie — that film satisfied all the expectations anyone could reasonably have. Best to close up shop and move on.
Of course, that is not what Marvel has chosen to do. After all, there’s still money to be made. And there’s still an audience out there that craves more superhero stories. But if it’s been hard for the competition to live up to Marvel, the first post-Endgame film suggests that Marvel may have difficulty topping itself. Pity your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man — he doesn’t just have to save the world, he has to keep a multi-billion-dollar company running smoothly.
Spider-Man: Far From Home isn’t a particularly bad movie, but it might be the first MCU film that feels inessential. That’s a strange thing to say about a super-expensive movie with blockbuster aspirations, but throughout Far From Home’s running time, I struggled to care about anything that happened. In the film, Earth is under threat from mildly ominous supernatural beings called the Elementals. The world is reeling from the fallout of Thanos’ wave of destruction. And Peter Parker has lost his beloved mentor Tony Stark. But by Marvel standards — especially after Endgame — it mostly just elicited a shrug from me. Haven’t we seen all this before?
Looking back through the history of Marvel movies, it’s interesting to see how producer Kevin Feige, the franchise’s mastermind, has decided to follow-up earlier Avengers films. (Endgame was the fourth such movie, not counting Captain America: Civil War, which featured a ton of Avengers but not all of them.) 2012’s The Avengers gave way to Iron Man 3, a movie that explicitly dealt with the aftermath of the previous movie’s massive battle and Stark’s near-death. But after 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron and 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, Feige went in a lighter direction, rolling out, respectively, Ant-Man and Ant-Man and the Wasp. Those movies were essentially comic relief after the massive dramatic stakes of those Avengers chapters — a way of readjusting audiences’ expectations to reasonable levels. It was easy to accept the tonal downshift because we knew the next epic life-or-death battle royale was just around the corner.
Similarly, Far From Home is more lighthearted than the usual Marvel fare, sending Peter (Tom Holland) to Europe on a school trip while being recruited by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who needs help defeating the Elementals. At the same time, Peter is also nervously planning how he’s going to tell classmate MJ (Zendaya) that he likes her — a bit of relatable teenage jitters that’s knowingly juxtaposed against the serious global stakes he faces elsewhere in the movie. The joke, of course, is that, as far as Peter is concerned, both situations are equally nerve-racking. Basically, Far From Home is like an ’80s teen comedy starring a Queens kid who got bit by a radioactive spider.
Ant-Man and the Wasp was a refreshing course-correction after the nerve-wracking events of Infinity War: While we all waited to find out how that cliffhanger would resolve itself, we got to kill some time with Paul Rudd’s self-deprecating Scott Lang and his endearingly small-scaled adventure. Nobody involved with Ant-Man and the Wasp was trying to top Infinity War — it was like a delightful side project from the front man in a celebrated band who wanted to clear his head before attempting his next major statement. And, on that modest scale, the film succeeded. But we also knew that Ant-Man and the Wasp was merely an intermission before the Avengers would wage war against the mighty Thanos one more time. We didn’t mind the aperitif because we were guaranteed a hearty meal in the near future.
Far From Home doesn’t come with such guarantees, and it hurts the film. A coming-of-age story of sorts, the movie explores Peter’s post-Stark life as an uncertain Avenger, but neither the character not the story is especially riveting. It feels churlish to complain — Spider-Man is one of comics’ most indelible crime-fighters — but Far From Home can’t escape Endgame’s long shadow. After that film, watching a solitary superhero engage in a pretty straightforward fight-the-bad-guys narrative just feels … dull.
There have been plenty of other straightforward standalone MCU installments — everything from Doctor Strange to Captain Marvel — but those had two things going for them that Far From Home doesn’t. First, they were introducing new characters, which gave them a little extra jolt. Second, they were paving the way for the Avengers’ ultimate battle with Thanos. Even if those installments weren’t particularly memorable, they possessed an undeniable underlying suspense: How will this play into the saga’s final showdown? For all the narrative juggling Feige orchestrated over the last decade, that might be his masterstroke, fiendishly stringing us along, movie after movie, with the promise of the massive fireworks to come.
With that in mind, Far From Home is like the hangover after Endgame’s raucous blowout. At the film’s best, it acknowledges that letdown by illustrating how Peter has to learn that Iron Man is never coming back, which gives Far From Home a nice melancholy undercurrent. But no matter how much Fury insists that there are other dangers out there in the universe that the Avengers will have to face, it seems disingenuous and cynical for Marvel to crank up the anxiety-meter all over again so soon after Endgame. If you’re going to spend years scaring and exciting audiences about the looming threat of Thanos, a few random all-powerful amorphous blobs in Far From Home aren’t going to cut it. (Another surprise villain puts in an appearance later in the film — he’s no Thanos, either.)
As beloved as the Marvel movies have been, a consistent knock on them is that they’ve mostly had lame bad guys. Outside Loki, Killmonger and Bucky Barnes — several of whom ultimately became good (or good-ish) guys — it’s been slim pickings. But much was forgiven because of Thanos, who seemed to be Marvel’s supreme nemesis — the crème de la crème of galactic terrors. After his demise, who in the universe could be as compelling?
This is the problem Marvel will face in the next few years. I’m sure Feige has a plan, and his track record is a good argument for trusting him. But the irony of the mediocre Spider-Man: Far From Home is that it spends a lot of time lamenting the loss of Tony Stark. Truth be told, it’s not really his death that puts the future of the Avengers in question — it’s actually Thanos’.
Here are three other takeaways from Spider-Man: Far From Home.
#1. How are people gonna deal with everyone’s ages after “The Snap”?
In Avengers: Endgame, we learn that five years have passed since “The Snap,” that climactic moment from Avengers: Infinity War in which Thanos snapped his fingers and wiped out half the universe’s population. But Endgame provided audiences with a happy ending: The Avengers kill Thanos, and the disappeared returned, unharmed. So life can get back to normal, right?
Not exactly. As I mentioned at the time, that seemingly comforting resolution hardly addresses all the unforeseen repercussions that “The Snap” would have created. Thankfully, and somewhat entertainingly, Far From Home gets into these logistical difficulties, exploring what life would be like after such a horrendous occurrence. For one thing, if you’re a high-school kid with a sister who’s three years younger than you — and if you vanished in “The Snap” and she didn’t — she would now be the older sibling. (As we discover, those who “perished” in “The Snap” didn’t age a day during those five lost years.)
But it also made me wonder: How do photo IDs work in these movies’ reality? If my passport says I was born in 1975, but I disappeared during “The Snap,” would I need to have it changed to 1980 so it would be accurate? Does everyone who came back after “The Snap” need an amended ID that puts an asterisk next to their birthdate? If you got “snapped,” can you not have booze until you’re 26? All of this seems immensely complicated and a bureaucratic nightmare. I mean, yes, dealing with the emotional tumult of having loved ones you assumed were dead suddenly reappear, utterly unchanged, would be pretty hard, too. But just imagine all that paperwork.
#2. Let us now recall when Spider-Man and Mary Jane got married at a Mets game.
Stan Lee, who died in November at the age of 95, was a shameless promoter — for himself and his superhero creations. He attended to both interests with a dopey gimmick that took place on June 5th, 1987, at Shea Stadium. It was there that Lee arranged to have Spider-Man wed his longtime love Mary Jane Watson.
A Gothamist piece from 2012 brought this bizarre stunt to my attention, with writer Garth Johnston noting that the “wedding” took place long before comic books ruled the entertainment landscape. “[W]hat really struck us … is that the press [surrounding the ceremony] keeps referring to these characters as cartoons,” he notes. “Now that [superhero] movies are the ‘tent poles’ for summer blockbusters you really don’t hear that word used about them much anymore.” Indeed, these two clips, beyond being horrendously cheesy, underline just how marginalized superhero characters were back then:
It makes sense, of course, that Peter would be a Mets fan — they’re both kinda lovable screw-ups. (By the way, the new movie continues the character’s love affair with the hard-luck National League team.) But although Lee may be gone, superheroes are treated with far more reverence today than back in ’87. Show up to the ballpark now and Spidey might be randomly hanging out on the mound while someone tries to throw out the first pitch.
#3. We’ve never gotten over the original Spider-Man theme song.
In the fall of 1967, the animated Spider-Man show debuted on ABC, lasting three seasons. The program isn’t particularly well-remembered, but it has bestowed upon the culture a few lasting touchstones. One, of course, is the “Spider-Man pointing at himself” meme, which originated on the show. But another is its theme song, which boasted a jazzy flair, upbeat vocals and some incredibly dopey lyrics:
My favorite lines are probably….
Is he strong?
He’s got radioactive blood
Can he swing, from a thread?
Take a look overhead!
And like lots of other 1960s pop-culture detritus, that theme song has become a beloved artifact, often covered, parodied and snidely reimagined. L.A. Weekly did a rundown a few years ago of all the different covers, and perhaps the most famous version is Michael Bublé’s crooning rendition, which was remixed by producer Junkie XL, turning it into a swingin’ big-band riff on a weirdo James Bond theme. Meanwhile, rock bands like the Ramones and Aerosmith have done power-chord versions of the tune. And don’t forget Homer’s stab at it in The Simpsons Movie:
The song, written by Paul Francis Webster (a three-time Oscar winner) and J. Robert Harris, has a groovy silliness that makes it manna for hipsters: It’s catchy but also really goofy. Most remakes treat the lyrics earnestly, which only makes the whole thing more ridiculous. But while putting together this Spotify playlist, I realized that the original Spider-Man theme has such gusto to it that you can’t help but be charmed. The sincerity of its enthusiasm for Spidey’s awesomeness is infectious. Deep down, I guess we’re all suckers for that radioactive blood.