By Derek May:
YIN: Spider-Man: Far From Home
For those thinking that the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) might simply phone it in after the massive success of Avengers: Endgame, think again. Spider-Man: Far From Home is not only a solid and worthy follow-up to 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, not only a successful cap to the “Phase Three” group of films thus scheduled for release, but is likely to go down as one of the strongest and most enjoyable entries in the 21st century stable of superhero films.
Yeah, it’s pretty freakin’ good.
Much of that owes to the successful balance of beholding to the previous MCU films while also crafting a completely original adventure. Unless you’ve been living in a movie bubble, you likely know that Endgame snapped the missing 50% of life back into the universe—albeit 5 years later. That disparity is addressed, if not harped on, in the new film but more relevant is the impact of Tony “Iron Man” Stark’s sacrificial demise to stop Thanos. The world is in mourning, and Tony’s face is literally inescapable. But those closest to him feel his absence most, and perhaps none more keenly than Peter Parker (Tom Holland). The overarching theme of the film is Spider-Man’s ability and willingness to step up and take on a leadership role in the new Avengers. As you can imagine, that’s lot to put on a 16 year old’s shoulders, and the struggle is dealt with in a very honest and personal way.
Beyond that, the film carries on from Homecoming with Peter still very much a teenager relishing his role as a friendly neighborhood do-gooder while also dealing with school, friendship, rivalries, and most importantly, love. If Peter might only offer a moment’s hesitation to face down aliens, super-villains, and five-story monsters, he’s downright terrified to tell the girl of his dreams how he feels. It’s sweet and very much in keeping with the comics, but is really sold by Holland’s baby-faced affable relatability.
All of these issues are expertly woven into a single tableau when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) hijack’s Peter’s class trip to Europe in order to conscript him into helping stop the Elementals, enormous beings of destructive power that have come to our Earth (yes, the notion of a multiverse is suggested here—hey, that’s not a spoiler, it’s in the trailer) along with magical hero Mysterio, a.k.a Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal). Beck and Fury are shorthanded on heroes following Endgame, and so Parker is challenged to choose between his mundane concerns and the fate of the entire world.
These are obviously some huge issues for Peter to struggle through, and so it’s refreshing when Beck becomes a bent ear and ally. The relationship built between Parker and Beck is endearing, and you can feel the real-life comradery between Holland and Gyllenhaal seep through. They play off each other wonderfully, effectively countering Jackson’s harder-nosed approach. If you know the comics, you know it might not last, and there are plenty of beautifully crafted twists that feel completely organic and yet also harken back to the previous films in subtle but effective ways.
Thus, the film understands that the battles must compliment the emotional stakes, and they’ve done a masterful job at designing some revolutionary action sequences that ratchet up the tension directly because of what the characters are all going through. Peter’s journey here isn’t so trite as whether to accept his calling or understand what it means to be a hero. He knows—been there, done that. No, it’s about understanding that he’s his own kind of hero, and his fights become personal even as cities crumble around him. It may seem simple, even obvious, but it’s a tough feat to pull off, and writer/director John Watts mysteriously manages to make the magic work (see what I did there?).
One of my favorite aspects of this new Spidey incarnation is the time taken to flesh out Peter’s inner world, including his school, friends, and intelligence. Peter’s relationship with his best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon), is every bit as awesome as it was in Homecoming, if not more so. The duo aren’t just in it as hero and would-be sidekick, but as two friends navigating the rough waters of teenage relationships. Ned has an amazing little journey of his own here that perfectly encapsulates that era of life. The school trip feels authentic in how each character relates to it, and having been on a few of those myself, I could definitely relate. Actually, even more disturbingly synchronistic was watching Peter lay out his perfect plan to tell Mary Jane (Zendaya) how he feels and of course having a myriad of obstacles completely disrupt it. I recently experienced the exact same thing on our trip to London last month to propose to my girlfriend, with it ending up much the same way it does here (mini-spoiler). We even stood in all the same locales we saw on screen! Shivers!
At any rate, the movie understands that we need to keep the audiences interested in the characters more than the action and does so through the various themes of relationship. Everyone has their pair, from Fury and Hill to Happy and May. And had this been any typical film, we might have been forced into more than one cringe-worthy damsel or lad in distress scenario, but instead just about everyone faces danger very much on their own terms. In fact, this is another surprising strength of the film, its ability to understand and acknowledge an audience’s expectations and immediately subvert them. Several times a character will literally say what the audience is thinking, such as how Spider-Man can be in Europe without immediately having his identity revealed (because people aren’t really that stupid). It’s refreshing and shows a respect to the viewer that keeps them invested and eager to see where the story takes us if not toward the obvious.
This also keeps the tone light and fresh, as there’s something of a wink to the camera without ever breaking the reality of the situation. The movie is funny and heartwarming, but still able to bring a tear to the eye when called upon. It’s every bit the roller-coaster that a summer blockbuster should be, and that’s not by accident. Aside from the splendid work by Watts, co-writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, and guru Kevin Feige, the cast does such an impressive job to effortlessly capture the mood and ingratiate themselves to the audience.
That starts from the top, and Holland seems perfectly at ease in the role after four previous turns. He’s far less awkward than Maguire and more self-assured than Garfield. He’s the first to look believably like a teenager and express more of those angst-ridden emotions. He’s got the physical skills, and you totally buy in that he could be the brainy nerd and the badass hero. But his ability to play through the gamut of emotions is simply breathtaking, as no one aspect ever feels labored or unnatural, unlike some of his predecessors.
Similarly, Mary Jane Watson continues her complete departure from everyone before her, as Zendaya injects her with an individuality and confidence that certainly masks some teenage insecurity while never suggesting that she’s anything but capable. She’s never dependent on a hero, but has a healthy respect for them and uses her smarts at will for both offense and defense. This time round we get a little better view under the armor, and her awkward reciprocation of Parker’s affections is true to the character and to the general issues young lovers often face. While there is a suggestion of a love triangle, she’s never treated as an object to be won, as she’s fully capable of making her own choices. And given Zendaya and Holland’s real-life romance, the tension between them is all the more powerful and sweetly discombobulated.
The rest of the cast is, of course, on par, delivering spot-on performances across the board. MCU newcomer Gyllenhaal manages to elevate a role that, per the comics, is as ridiculous as he is formidable. Making Beck anything other than a punchline is a task Gyllenhaal accomplishes with a smoothness that makes him a memorable addition to the pantheon, and his ultimate motivations are unique. As a man of power and illusion, he keeps you guessing how much is really a façade and how much is truth, and that’s a testament to the crafting of the character by both writer and actor.
Sam Jackson, of course, can play Fury in his sleep by now, and returns post-Snap with a bit of a vengeance. On the one hand, it’s possible that we’re seeing in him and his compatriot Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) something of a chip on their shoulders after what happened and feeling the pressure of keeping Earth safe in a shorthanded new world. I like that idea, and I like seeing the pair in a bit more of a partnership. However, that being said there is something of a twist that threatens that notion, and I’m not sure the wow factor is worth the loss of that development.
All in all, Spider-Man: Far From Home not only builds upon the foundations laid by its predecessor and the rest of the MCU to date but excels in its own right. With rich, deeply explored themes of loss and heroism, of love and trust, and of identity and responsibility, the film is an enjoyable and emotional ride that brings the best of comedy, drama, and action to the forefront in a deceptively accessible way. The tone and spectacle are all dead on point, and the performances are masterfully charming. If I had any quibbles it would not be with the main film, but with its two post-credit scenes that have major impacts on the overall story. The first sets up what will surely be the third film in the Spidey-franchise and is a clever homage to the Iron Man theme throughout; the other I refer to above. We’ll see how it all plays out in Phase Four, about which we know little outside of rumor. But regardless, this is another knock out for the MCU and proof that Spider-Man has never been more at home than he is with Marvel, and we’re all the better for it.
YANG: Jessica Jones (Season 3)
Endings are always a tough pill to swallow, and this one is certainly bittersweet. With the release of the third and final season of Jessica Jones, the partnership between Netflix and the Marvel universe is officially dissolved. I myself have conflicting emotions about that. On the one hand, Netflix managed to breathe life into several heroes who might never have otherwise gotten their due, and for the most part managed to cast them to perfection and deliver a fair number of high-quality episodes, stories, and character arcs. On the other, they’ve seriously botched some of those same stories and arcs, sometimes to such an extent as to alienate their fan base and evaporate the majority of goodwill earned. So while I will mourn the loss of opportunity to continue the positive aspects, I am also somewhat relieved to put the worst out of its misery.
Given all that, fans have been naturally divisive over what constitutes the best and worst of the four series—well, hell, I think everyone agrees Iron Fist was worst. For my money, the two consistent standouts of quality were far and away Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Sure, both have stumbled here and there at times, but both were also the only ones strong enough to make it to three full seasons, and Daredevil’s final run was absolutely phenomenal. So the bar was set high for the last gasp, and knowing the ability of Jones cast and showrunners to mine the depths of meaningful character development and gritty, emotional storytelling, I had high hopes they’d cross the finish line head held high.
Well, they gave it a run.
Season 3 finds Jones (Krysten Ritter) struggling with what it means to be a hero, a role she’s begrudgingly found herself dragged into over the course of the series. Having isolated herself from her friends, family, and allies—with some justification—she’s once again thrust into confronting them all. But the two most notable challenges this time round are an all-too-human psychopathic serial killer named Sallinger (Jeremy Bobb) and her newly empowered adoptive sister, Trish (Rachel Taylor).
Following in the show’s footsteps, I’m going to arbitrarily set aside Sallinger for a while and focus on Trish.
Oh, Trish . . . For the past two seasons, she’s had a single desire: to have superpowers. Without them, she’s defaulted to acting as Jessica’s conscience, spurring her to use her gifts for righteousness. But the end of last season saw two big changes. First, Trish killed Jessica’s homicidal super-powered mother. And second, Trish got her wish and her own set of powers. Both of these have major consequences throughout the new season, with Jessica struggling to reconcile her love for her sister with the choices Trish has made—and continues to make. I won’t spoil too much, but given Trish’s longstanding desire for abilities and inexhaustible drive to be seen as a hero, you can see where this might be going. Trish is a whirlwind of good intentions and piss-poor decisions. For some, that makes her a rich, human character full of flaws and struggles. For others, it makes her an annoying hot mess. I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. While Trish’s journey is ultimately interesting and her relationship with Jessica dramatic and a key driving force, it also gets highly repetitive and predictable. There’s really no question where the journey will end, and so it feels like both the audience and the showrunners are simply filling time until we get there.
And that leads us to the overarching problem with this season. There’s a significant amount of fascinating story in here, but much of it is mired in muddy repetition and predictability, with an inordinate number of characters simply spinning their wheels again and again without moving forward. In fact, this is played out literally in not one but two episodes which cover the exact same ground but from a different character’s perspective. Did we really NEED to see those details? The audience is savvy enough to fill in a few blanks, but instead we’re force-fed aspects that don’t really end up adding that much to the overall narrative. Is this progress or simply filler? I tend to believe the latter, as by the end of the season I couldn’t help but think that it would have fared far better with a run of 6–8 episodes rather than a full 13. Because while there is a worthy story to be told here, it and the characters feel stretched beyond their capacities, to their detriment.
While Trish perpetually hones her newfound skills, rushes headlong time after time into the fray without ever learning any sense of control or composure, and begins to rack up a significant trail of consequences behind her, the rest of the cast is spinning in place alongside her. Jessica’s alienated protégé, Malcolm (Eka Darville), is now working for legal shark Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss) and spends an inordinate amount of time grappling with the morally questionable—if not reprehensible—tasks he’s set to by his employer. Hogarth, in turn, uses that power and influence to her own selfish ends under the delusional guise of support, which is certainly in keeping with the character but doesn’t ultimately grow her any further. Thus, Malcolm and Hogarth both end up at best a few inches to the left of where they started, and I’m not sure are any better for it. And unfortunately, the same could be said for the majority of characters.
Which brings us back round to newest addition, serial murderer Gregory Sallinger. The idea of pitting super-human Jones against a technically human monster has a measure of appeal. But ultimately, we know there’s just no contest here. Jones’s struggle isn’t with the man, but with her own self-imposed limitations on how to deal with him. Jessica’s learned the hard way that using her powers isn’t always the best way to solve her problems, and she continues to bear the cost of taking human life. So Sallinger ends up at large because Jones allows it more than anything. This dilutes some of the tension between them, which the creators try to replace by having him attack her sense of morality, code of honor, and humanity.
Sure, these are fascinating philosophical conundrums and certainly do lead to additional stakes where others are put at risk and Jessica is pitted against Trish’s skewed sense of justice. But like most other things, it goes on too long and fails to have the impact it should. Sallinger isn’t as smart as he thinks he is, or as the writer’s purport him to be, and thus Jessica gives as good as she gets for the most part, making his downfall all the more predictably inevitable. So then what’s the point of it all? It seems to be in order to lead to the ultimate confrontation between Jessica and Trish, but by the time it happens, has the bubble already burst?
Surprisingly, one of the better characters ends up being newcomer Erik (Benjamin Walker), a hard-drinking, bad-gambling dirtbag with the power to sense the evil in others. The writers do an impressive job of keeping the character on the fence between good and evil, making him a legitimate love interest for Jones given their baseline similarities. And over the course, he actually does grow to a healthy degree without sacrificing his core being. His power, too, sets the stage for much of the various conflicts and gives the audience a concrete gauge of where everyone stands.
But ultimately, Jessica herself is the one who grows the most from her past, and while that might seem a given, trust me, it isn’t (see Luke Cage). One of the strengths of this show has been that unlike far too many others, it never dropped a storyline or progression in favor of something new and shiny. There are real, honest consequences to actions, and we see them play out. And thus, Jessica is the culmination of everything that has come before. If her journey is to be a true hero, we’ve seen that play out in its entirety across these three seasons. Not the simple dictionary definition of “hero,” but the true emotional toll of being such—the loss, the pain, the sacrifice. The final shot of the show is a bit enigmatic, and people are taking it in various ways. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it myself except that wherever Jessica was meant to go beyond here, she is likely well prepared for it.
Unfortunately, it’s likely we’ll never see that come to fruition. While there has been talk about reviving some of these shows on other platforms, the contracts prohibit it for at least the next few years. When cleared, it’s far more likely we’ll see them all rebooted. In the case of Iron Fist, a total refit is completely justified. For the others, I think Mike Coulter is a great Luke Cage but could use fresh handlers that know what to do with the character. I’d love to see Charlie Cox and Krysten Ritter continue in their respective roles, and their caretakers might not need to be tossed as much as simply better guided at the hands of someone like Marvel guru Kevin Feige.
Regardless what the future holds, this is definitely the end for these series as we know it. Jessica Jones didn’t go out in the blaze of glory that Daredevil managed, but it didn’t completely fizzle either. With some tightening up, this season might have achieved what it set out to, but as is it does fall short. We can’t blame the actors, who from top to bottom gave their all, reveling in the wounds of these heavily flawed characters wallowing in the grey of moral complexity. And if the heart of the show lies in the conflict between Jessica and Trish, we can’t say they didn’t go the distance. I will miss Jessica and her dour world that wasn’t afraid to live in the dark, but for now, we must bid adieu and be thankful for the good times we had. I know Jessica would be pleased if we raised a glass (or a bottle) in her honor.