True to its title, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” opens with that web-slinging wunderkind Peter Parker shivering in an arctic cave on a planet several light years from Earth. It is the year 2054, which may explain why Tom Holland has been replaced in the role of Peter by Tom Hollander. The decades haven’t been kind to Spidey, who retreated into his icy exile not long after MJ ran off with Thor and Aunt May turned out to be a back-from-the-dead Thanos in disguise.
If I had you going for a moment there, my apologies. The studios have been so spoiler-sensitive lately that I have often wondered if it might be helpful to summarize a nonexistent plot rather than risk giving away the actual one. In any case, it seemed in keeping with this movie’s relentless “gotcha!” spirit. Your enjoyment of “Spider-Man: Far From Home” — and in this grim summer of blockbuster discontent, I found it all too easy to enjoy — may depend on your tolerance for whiplash-inducing narrative fake-outs, the kind that send you tumbling through one carefully rigged trapdoor after another.
This is a picture in which someone actually bothers to point out that “appearances can be deceiving.” Deception has of course always been a crucial survival tactic for Peter Parker (Holland), a teenager from Queens and the blessed/cursed recipient of extraordinary arachnoid superpowers. He wears a mask to shield his identity and his loved ones, including his wise Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and his loyal best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon), who are among the few who know his secret.
And it is only natural that deception will beget more deception. The plot of “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” scripted by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, concerns a high school trip to Europe that is repeatedly interrupted and endangered by various crises that call Spider-Man into the line of duty, forcing him to make up all manner of lame excuses to keep his friends in the dark.
The amusingly low stakes and the abundance of teen melodramatics are part of the movie’s stealthy charm. All Peter wants to do is take his beloved MJ (a tetchy, luminous Zendaya) to the top of the Eiffel Tower, give her some awesomely morbid jewelry and tell her how much he likes her before she falls for the class hunk (Remy Hii). Surely a vacation without having to bring along his Spidey suit, let alone save the planet, isn’t too much to ask.
But the climactic events of the recent “Avengers: Endgame” — specifically the death of Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, who mentored Peter over the years and left him one hell of a parting gift — cannot help but cast a bittersweet pall over the otherwise goofy proceedings. The world is still recovering from what has become known as “the blip,” that terrible five-year period during which half the population suddenly vanished, only to be miraculously brought back. Under the circumstances, Peter’s desire for some degree of normalcy is entirely, well, normal.
That comfort may elude Spider-Man, but “Far From Home” tries its best to provide the viewer with an equivalent level of reassurance. It doesn’t have quite the freshness and buoyancy of 2017’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” a redundant but successful franchise reboot whose director, Jon Watts, returns for duty here. Nor can it hope to match the sheer ingenuity and artistry of “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” an animated wonderment that exploded our concept of what a Spider-Man movie or indeed any superhero-themed fiction could be.
“Far From Home,” for all its dazzle and speed, has simpler, humbler aspirations and fulfills them well enough. Among other things, it’s an opportunity to spend more time with the excellent Holland, who, like his appealing predecessors Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, reminds you that without Peter Parker’s wide eyes and awkward stammer, Spider-Man is just a faceless acrobat swinging across a green-screen New York. His latest adventure presents itself as a welcome blast of irreverent comic energy, something to clear away the smell of death and provide an upbeat postscript to this now-concluded phase of the overarching Marvel saga.
Still, given how apocalyptic the stakes were in “Avengers: Endgame,” you might roll your eyes at the curiously perfunctory new threat that surfaces here. Enormous monsters called Elementals, constructed of earth, wind, water or fire, are wreaking havoc in major European cities. Agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) manages to intercept Peter in Venice, shortly before a water monster lays waste to the city’s canals, and recruits him for a team that includes Fury’s no-nonsense No. 2, Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), and Quentin Beck (a well-cast Jake Gyllenhaal), a caped fighter who goes by the apt nom de plume of Mysterio.
What’s going on here, and who’s behind it? Devotees of the Spider-Man comic books will be a step or two ahead of the rest of us in answering those questions, and more’s the pity, since being hoodwinked is part of the fun. I’ll tread cautiously in describing the specifics, but also appreciatively. In its strangest, most arresting moments, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” doesn’t just pull the rug out from under you; it tumbles down its own rabbit hole, winding up somewhere in the vicinity of Pixar’s “The Incredibles” (whose composer, Michael Giacchino, also wrote this movie’s bustling score) and Chuck Jones’ classic animated short “Duck Amuck.”
In other words, the movie becomes a clever commentary on the illusory power of the moving image, the myriad ways in which cutting-edge technology can fool the eye and mind. If that sounds like a metaphor for Hollywood cinema, it’s not a particularly subtle one. Nor does it really complicate what turns out to be — despite its precisely detonated twists and turns, and an unusually elaborate mid-credits coda — a fairly straightforward Marvel narrative of attack and rescue, punctuated by moments of chaotic and overblown spectacle.
What offsets all that damage isn’t the novelty of seeing Spider-Man soar across the rooftops of Prague or weave webs around a London bridge. Nor is it the mild comic relief supplied by Martin Starr, J.B. Smoove and Jon Favreau, all of whom take turns chaperoning the young-adult cast. It’s the movie’s lingering sweetness, a depth of feeling that tugs gently but insistently at your heartstrings. You feel it when Peter finally comes to understand what Tony Stark always saw in him, and what MJ sees him in now. These emotional moments sneak up on you, which doesn’t mean they aren’t telling you the truth.
‘Spider-Man: Far From Home’
Rating: PG-13, for sci-fi action violence, some language and brief suggestive comments
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Playing: Opens July 2 in general release