Review: Spider-Man: Far From Home (Jon Watts, 2019)
Now that the proverbial dust has settled on Avengers: Endgame (Anthony Russo & Joe Russo, 2019), the fallout from the almost-three hour epic can well and truly begin. To immediately follow a film that is, to date, the highest-grossing film of 2019 and now the second-highest of all time (behind, of course, Avatar [James Cameron, 2009]) was always a tricky, if not borderline impossible, act. Yet coming a mere three months after Endgame and just two years (and six films) after Spider-Man: Homecoming (Jon Watts, 2017), the next instalment Spider-Man: Far From Home (Jon Watts, 2019) does a more than admirable job of taking up the reins left slack in a post-Endgame world (Fig. 1). Yes, it’s probably 20 minutes too long and its many narrative zigzags too obviously signposted, but the film largely succeeds thanks to a narrative that opts for much lower stakes than its predecessors, choosing instead to bring its action set pieces down to earth and with closer scrutiny of Spider-Man’s struggles in keeping his identity hidden (alongside his own blossoming teen romance). Spider-Man: Far From Home follows classmates Peter Parker (Tom Holland), MJ (Zendaya) and Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon) on an international summer field trip that takes in the sights of Venice, Prague and London as part of its global expanse. The plot is simple but effective - the purportedly educational journey for the high school class working to take the characters geographically out of the firing line, if only to calm things down a little for an audience perhaps still reeling from the events of Endgame. But things don’t stay calm for long, and no sooner has Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) gatecrashed the school’s international expedition to warn of the threat of the incoming Elementals (extradimensional humanoids named Sandman, Cyclone, Hydro-Man, and Molten Man), than Peter must adorn his freshly-packed spidersuit and save the world in between his class’s travels around Europe’s hottest tourist spots.
In its restful approach, Spider-Man: Far From Home functions as almost a soft ‘reboot’ of a series now twenty-one years in the making. As part of its framing of teenager Peter, it focuses on Spider-Man’s reactivity to a modern world - both inside and outside the film - now well-versed in the Avengers’ brand of superheroism, whilst achieving something of what Captain Marvel (Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, 2019) - and even Endgame - did earlier this year by playfully casting its eye back in time. Indeed, Spider-Man: Far From Home is officially the twenty-third and final feature film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) Phase 3. However, despite its position as the closing chapter on "The Infinity Saga”, it feels very much like a new beginning rather than a closing chapter. This sentiment can be largely attributed to its striking evocation of the first MCU film, Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008). A volley of playful citations directed solely at aligning the character of Peter with his own absent father figure, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), collectively gesture to the former’s role in securing the very future of the Avengers themselves. Beyond Fury’s intrusion into Peter’s hotel room (evoking Iron Man’s post-credits sequence in which the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. similarly breaks into Stark’s home to tell him that he is part of a “bigger universe” he just “doesn’t know it yet”), there are certainly plenty of moments in Spider-Man: Far From Home intended to take spectators right back to the start. Watts’ film marks the surprise return of marginal characters seemingly incidental to Iron Man, but here placed front and centre; repeats footage from the first MCU film as connective tissue between two narratives set eleven years apart; and even goes about re-purposing scenes from Captain America: Civil War (Anthony Russo & Joe Russo, 2018) showing Stark’s memorable presentation of his B.A.R.F. technology to a gleeful university audience. There are other similarities too. In one scene during Spider-Man: Far From Home’s bombastic climax set amid the smouldering wreckage of Tower Bridge in London, comic relief Happy Hogan (played by Iron Man director, Jon Favreau) catches a glimpse Peter inadvertently doing his best Stark impression on board a Stark Industries airplane. Working interactively with Stark’s holographic technology and designing his own body armour for the final battle, Peter looks a suitable candidate to takeover the quasi-family business even if he remains wrought with his own self-doubt. By taking place in a fictional world that is itself replete with characters who are openly mourning the passing of Stark (the film opens with a low budget ‘in memoriam’ montage, setting the tone for a more serene superhero offering), it is perhaps fitting that this latest Spider-Man solo vehicle offers a sustained citation of Iron Man by treading such familiar ground.
Of course, it seems old hat to identify a Marvel feature with its ability to remember its predecessors given that a cumulative cycle of references, allusions and homages has always supported the intertextual spaces traditionally occupied by the MCU. Since Stark himself appeared in the post-credits scene of The Incredible Hulk (Louis Leterrier, 2008), the series’ intertextual leanings have invited spectators to become fervent “hunters and gatherers” insofar as consumers are required to chase down “bits of the story across media channels” (Jenkins 2006: 21) as a way of fully experiencing this ever-expanding fictional world. Mid- and post-credits scenes become important intertextual realms in which characters old and new are introduced, glimpsed briefly, revisited, or simply fleshed out in more detail. The post-credit sequence to The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012), for example, depicts Captain America, Black Widow, Thor, Hawkeye, Iron Man and the Hulk doing nothing more than pausing for a bite to eat at the Shawarma Palace restaurant following the famed Battle of New York sequence (see left). We might term such spaces in the MCU as examples of “anticipatory media” (evoking Jenkins’ writing on “participatory culture” ; see also Johnston 2016) insofar as they are industry-sanctioned and carefully plotted examples of speculative media that anticipate, tease, and predict the terms of forthcoming or imminent texts.
Such devices of cross-pollination between MCU texts are themselves framed by a contemporary Hollywood cinema built more so than ever before on cycles, series and franchises. Discussing the relationship between the industrial workings of popular cinema and the Marvel machine, Aaron Taylor has argued that “Hollywood is now able to emulate the fundamental intertextuality of comic franchises. The narrative continuity of Marvel Studios’ output from 2008 to the present is certainly not the film industry’s first attempt at instalment narratives […] but it is certainly the most ambitious (and expensive) effort” (2014: 184). The MCU’s persistent ‘to be continued…’ ethos so wonderfully demonstrated in the final scenes of Avengers: Infinity War (Anthony Russo & Joe Russo, 2018) that anticipate and cue the arrival of Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel in the next film (see above) is one that is pursued by Spider-Man: Far From Home, albeit in different ways. Technology provides the anchor to the film’s set of intertextual relationships here. The film adopts - but then subverts - the role of body-as-technology in Iron Man, thereby directly playing into the kinds of technological ambivalence that conventionally structure Marvel’s films. Spider-Man: Far From Home also gives Peter a comparable character to play off as a way of showcasing this very techno-contradiction. In more ways than one, Quentin Beck/Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) is to Peter what Obadiah Stane/Iron Monger (Jeff Bridges) was to Tony - a counterpoint to the (cautiousness of the) body-as-weapon narrative and a demonstration of the flipside of how technological power might be wielded.
It is far from surprising, then, that René Magritte’s painting The False Mirror (1928) (Fig. 2) can be glimpsed in the background during certain scenes in Spider-Man: Far From Home. This is not just because Magritte’s painting suggests how the film refracts the first Iron Man (when Peter Parker adorns a pair of tinted glasses - a posthumous present from Stark encouraging Peter to ‘step up’ into superheroism after the events of Endgame - the visual parallels between the two characters are made explicit). Rather it is also because of how Jon Watts’ film confronts the fallibility of sight, perspective and, ultimately, illusion that are equally all made visible in the complexities of Magritte’s late-1920s painting. The image of an eye in The False Mirror works to “insinuate limits to the authority of optical vision: a mirror provides a mechanical reflection, but the eye is selective and subjective. Magritte’s single eye functions on multiple enigmatic levels: the viewer both looks through it, as through a window, and is looked at by it, thus seeing and being seen simultaneously”. On the one hand, Stark’s gift of eyewear to Peter becomes an act that showcases just how much the film seeks to fill the void left by the former’s death using his familiar ocular iconography (Fig. 3). On the other, it also gestures to Peter’s own short-sightedness at what is occurring right in front of him (especially when he later rescinds the glasses in what he believes to be a generous and worthy act), thereby anticipating precisely the film’s reflexive reveal of its own VFX imagery as an illusionary art.
Indeed, where Spider-Man: Far From Home obtains its most cogent impact is in its reflexive treatment of the smoke-and-mirrors of Hollywood effects imagery, particularly in its treatment of the Elementals. More than this, the film seems entirely wary of a contemporary epistemic and political moment in which the access to truth has become increasingly obfuscated. CGI as a technology obviously hold seismic implications for the representational accuracy of images and the current cultural contestation in what we see between the real and the false. Discussing contemporary visual effects technology, Stephen Prince claims that “The fabricated visual spaces of the digital realm split images from a knowable, observable reality. Everything can now be faked. […] For Sean Cubitt, digital media pose a crisis of meaning because they seem to “sever the link between meaning and truth, meaning and reference, meaning and observation. Digital media do not refer. They communicate“” (2012: 51). These comments ring particularly true, of course, in a post-truth world of ‘fake news’ where judicious digital editing can manipulate Presidential inaugurations so that they might appear as well-attended national events. Recent media culture’s turn to so-called Deepfake technology - ostensibly artificially intelligent face swap videos that superimpose one (often celebrity) visage onto another (see above) - emerges as another form of exhilarating CG creativity. Both affirming and questioning digital representation simultaneously, Deepfakes presents both an uncanny treatment of star bodies and a possible future for how we might register ontologically deceptive and “defactualized” (Arendt 1972: 21) images in our own media landscape.
At the same time as Spider-Man: Far From Home’s contemporaneous gestures to the manipulative possibilities of digital imagery are endemic to a post-truth era, the film again also ‘looks back’ in its long hard stare at CGI. More precisely, and through its treatment of the Elementals and Mysterio, it directs its gaze onto digital visual effects’ first wave, and the arrival of a “technofuturist” cinema that would come to define early effects imagery in a Hollywood context. Appreciated under the spectatorial conditions of visual exhibition, the first run of digital effects functioned as a “technoscientific tour de force,” presenting an unduly obvious glossiness and heavily computerised aesthetic (often representing cyberspace itself) that celebrated the fantasies of the hyperreal (Pierson 2002: 123). This “technofuturist” aesthetic was developed largely within early-1990s science-fiction films (Fig. 4), and represented but one possibility for CGI (that would quickly evolve into a more realistic or “simulationist” treatment of the computer-generated image as the decade progressed). Following the template established by Tron (Steven Lisberger, 1982), The Lawnmower Man (Brett Leonard, 1992), Mindwarp (Steve Barnett, 1992) and, later, Brainscan (John Flynn, 1994) all took on the pixellated peril of cyberspaces. Even erotic thriller Disclosure (Barry Levinson, 1994) included a short sequence that marvelled at the beauty of VR plasticity. These exemplar films were quickly followed by a cluster of science-fiction features all released the same year that each took as their theme the dangers of cyberspace and particularly the as-then unknowable world of the internet. Hackers (Iain Softley, 1995), Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow, 1995), Virtuosity (Brett Leonard, 1995), The Net (Irwin Winkler, 1995) and Johnny Mnemonic (Roberto Longo, 1995) - as well as sequel Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace (Farhad Mann, 1996) that arrived the following year - comprised an internet-paranoia cycle of cybercinema that predicted an industrial futurism that perhaps would never fully come to pass, all the while deploying in various ways an electronic “technofuturist” aesthetic not commensurate with “the phenomenological simulation of photographic or cinematographic image” (Pierson 2002: 101). These same films would, retrospectively at least, come to anticipate more recent speculations on digital anthropology that support the posthuman-oriented narratives of Her (Spike Jonze, 2013) and Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2014), if not evoking today’s cultural and critical anxieties around the political implications of Deepfakes as a form of digitally-mediated representation.
Programmed from something of the same code, Spider-Man: Far From Home offers a twist on these kinds of early-to-mid-nineties reflections, and its technological discourse becomes a central dimension of its summative qualities reflecting back on a CGI-heavy era of superheroism. The revelation during the film’s climax that the attack upon imperial cities waged by the Elementals is nothing more than a convincing VFX show (conducted by chief manipulator Mysterio) provides Spider-Man: Far From Home with its commentary on the role of humanity within the credibility of images. The Elementals are, both inside and outside the film’s fictional world, simply convincing holographic VFX, hyperreal electronic images that allow Spider-Man to enter into the illusion and begin to dismantle the phantom images from the inside out. Recalling both the multiplicity of Peter Parkers in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey & Rodney Rothman, 2018), if not the famous ‘Spider-Man pointing at Spider-Man’ meme (Fig. 5), Spider-Man: Far From Home uses digital illusion as its central premise to ‘falsely mirror’, double and refract our hero again and again (Fig. 6). It is CGI’s believability and power to convince that ultimately becomes its most threatening property in these moments, as Mysterio creates intricate and immersive real-time VR experiences through which Spider-Man must navigate. This means Peter is never sure whether he is occupying a material space or a conjured illusion. Amid such big-screen fantasy, the film thus plays on a cultural imaginary of what digital representation and its creative trickery looks like, but also how it is controlled and manipulated. What Spider-Man: Far From Home achieves, then, is a relatively refreshing treatment of the nuts-and-bolts of the CG-heavy superhero genre itself, whilst at the same time - and similar to the “technofuturist” cinema to which it owes a debt - unashamedly celebrating the digital animation’s own hyperreal fantasies.
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Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1992).
Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York and London: New York University Press, 2006).
Johnston, Keith. Anticipatory Media and Fan Produced Anticipation.” In Media Res (April 12, 2016), available at: http://mediacommons.org/imr/2016/04/05/anticipatory-media-and-fan-produced-anticipation.
Pierson, Michele. Special Effects: Still in Search of Wonder (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).
Prince, Stephen. Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012).
Taylor, Aaron. “Avengers dissemble! Transmedia superhero franchises and cultic management.” Journal of Adaptation in Film & Performance 7, no. 2 (2014): 181-194.
Christopher Holliday teaches Film Studies and Liberal Arts at King’s College London specializing in film genre, animation history and contemporary digital media. He has published several book chapters and articles on digital technology and computer animation, including work in Animation Practice, Process & Production and animation: an interdisciplinary journal (where he is also Associate Editor). He is the author of The Computer-Animated Film: Industry, Style and Genre (Edinburgh University Press, 2018), co-editor of Fantasy/Animation: Connections Between Media, Mediums and Genres (Routledge, 2018), and co-founder of the Fantasy/Animation Research Network (fantasy-animation.org.).