Spider-Man: Far From Home arrives in multiplexes as the third entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in five months (the 23rd overall in only 11 years), as an epilogue/coda to Avengers: Infinity War/Endgame and Phase 3, and finally, as a semi-anticipated sequel to Spider-Man: Homecoming. It’s also an exercise in brute-force brand maintenance, primed to sell Avengers and Spider-Man-related merchandise, including, of course, Spider-Man action figures (Spider-Man wears four superhero suits in the new film, from the Iron Spider suit introduced in Avengers: Infinity War, his first, Tony Stark-given tech suit originally seen in Captain America: Civil War, an all-black stealth suit, and a new hybrid suit that swaps out the familiar blue with black, but otherwise keeps Steve Ditko’s design aesthetic). But branding saturation or superhero fatigue isn’t the most significant problem with the Spider-Man: Homecoming sequel: It’s both the not unexpected over-reliance on the late Tony Stark’s long shadow as a central plot driver and yet another weak, underwritten, ultimately underutilized supervillain (minus the “super” part).

After an opening scene that reintroduces a back-from-the-Snap Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his Number One, Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), investigating a Mexican village destroyed by a “cyclone with a face,” and encountering Quentin Beck / Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), a cape- and fishbowl-wearing superhero who claims he’s from an alternate universe where Elementals (earth, wind, fire, and water) have destroyed an alternate Earth (like most C- or D-list superheroes or super-villains, Beck’s motivated by simple revenge). When Beck reappears in Spider-Man: Far From Home, he’s in Venice, working with Fury and Hill while attempting to recruit a reluctant Peter Parker (Tom Holland) into helping him defeat the Elementals. Peter just wants to have fun, specifically with MJ (Zendaya), the super-smart, awkward, quick-witted girl of his dreams, Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon), his best bud and “man in the chair,” and a few stragglers who like, Peter, MJ, and Ned, all disappeared during the “Blip” (aka, the Snapture, Snapapocalypse, or the Dusting), only to return five years later completely unchanged thanks to the Avengers, meaning they’re still technically high schoolers.

As a comic book and movie character, Peter Parker’s arc has always turned on Peter’s inner conflict (“with great power comes great responsibility”), and the work-life balance familiar to teens and post-teens everywhere. After helping to save the galaxy from Thanos, Peter wants to hang back, chill with MJ and his friends, and otherwise live the life of an average American teenager with superpowers. But extinction level threats like the Elementals and a not-so-secret super-villain don’t disappear just because Peter wants to enjoy some downtime outside of his Spider-Man alter ego. Peter also has to deal with surface-deep survivor’s guilt, a mild case of PTSD (MCU edition), and a profound case of sadness due to the loss of his onetime mentor, Tony Stark. Wherever Peter goes, there’s a reminder of Stark’s sacrifice play (posters, graffiti, a comically awkward, wrong-note video tribute) and Peter’s doubts about himself and his place in the Avengers (or what’s left of them). He’s so eager, though, to set aside the burdens of becoming a worldwide celebrity superhero that he’s willing to give up Tony’s last gift, an ultra-special pair of high-tech eyeglasses.

Before Spider-Man: Homecoming, director Jon Watts (Cop Car, Clown) had little – actually no – experience with big-budget, spectacle-driven superhero fare. With the help of the best visual effects team Disney/Marvel’s considerable resources could buy, Watts acquitted himself more than well enough to get invited back for the sequel, balancing the usual demands of MCU’s brand of superhero storytelling (character, humor/drama, big action) with considerable skill and dexterity/ He suitably ups his game with Spider-Man: Far From Home, especially where the CGI-heavy set pieces are concerned. Watts’ camera follows Spider-Man not just as he swings through the air, but everything in between, swooping above and below Spider-Man as he tries to defeat the Elementals, save lives, and ultimately defeat the super-villain. A trippy, reality-upending, comic book-inspired sequence feels like a pale imitation of Doctor Strange’s memorable acid trip (because it is). Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers’ (Ant-Man and the Wasp, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle Spider-Man: Homecoming, The Lego Batman Movie) screenplay keeps the tone light and humorous, though too often they lean too heavily on gags and jokes to paper over story gaps, emotional beats, or the weak, under-motivated super-villain. (Note to filmmakers: a colorful costume or a respected, well-known actor isn’t enough to make up for a poorly rendered, Syndrome-inspired super-villain.)

Luckily, Holland continues to bring his A-game to Peter Parker / Spider-Man. He hasn’t grown visibly tired or bored with playing the character yet, an obvious, overall net positive, though Spider-Man’s inherent problem (once a teen superhero, always a teen superhero) means Holland, unlike Robert Downey Jr. or Chris Evans, will age out of the role. Zendaya brings an awkward, winning charm to her interpretation of MJ, equal to Peter Parker in everything except superpowers (that can change at any time), while the supporting cast, including Batalon, Angourie Rice as Betsy Brant and Ned’s unlikely romantic interest, MCU stalwart Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan, and Marisa Tomei as Aunt May (underused once again) deliver the kind of relaxed, polished performances that rarely get noticed or commended (because they’re straightforwardly believable). Regardless of what role Peter Parker / Spider-Man plays in the MCU proper (i.e., as a key member of a reformed Avengers), hopefully, his next standalone film will live up to the word “standalone” and not serve as an epilogue/coda or function as pure set-up for future entries in the MCU (e.g., the mid- and post-credit scenes).

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