How does Marvel Films follow up “Captain Marvel” and the massive success of “Avengers: Endgame?” Well, it certainly has to come up with something, having turned its audience into Pavlovian dogs, conditioned to get in line and fork over their hard-earned cash at least three times a year. And what with all of those loose ends and frayed emotions from “Endgame,” the studio has a bit of cleaning up to do.
Its 23rd feature, “Spider-Man: Far from Home,” is a relatively low-key entry in its ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe and one that comes off as a nice palette cleanser in the wake of “Endgame’s” high-stakes cosmic throw-down. Obviously, it’s less ambitious and not nearly as wide in scope, which is a good thing, as the movie simultaneously proves to be an effective epilogue to Marvel’s third phase of films and a great jumping-on point for anyone coming late to the party.
Having survived the events of “Endgame,” Peter Parker (the always-affable Tom Holland) is doing his level best to get back to normal. This proves much harder than he anticipated, as he and his friends are doing their best to adjust to having been snapped out of existance for five years by Thanos, while Parker is still mourning the death of a friend.
All the kid wants to do is go on a school trip to Europe, see the sights and hopefully work up the courage to tell his crush, MJ (Zendaya), that he “really likes” her. Normal teenage stuff — and yet, as the old saying goes, “with great power, comes great responsibility” and as such, he’s unable to complete this trip when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) comes calling.
While he and his classmates are in Italy, they witness an attack by a massive creature made of water that’s repelled by a new-to-the-scene hero dubbed Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal). Seems he’s from a parallel Earth and he’s come to defeat what he calls an “elemental” made of fire. The monster killed his family and destroyed his planet and is intent on doing the same here. Fury, with a heavy dose of guilt, convinces Parker to help.
Superhero fatigue is certainly at play here as the action scenes come off as well-executed but unimaginative, while the script follows the expected narrative beats of these features to a T. However, a major plot twist at the beginning of the second hour provides a bit of fun, as does Holland, who continues to build a case for being the best of all the big-screen Spider-Men.
His naive charm is the actor’s secret weapon, as he uses it to perfectly bring about Parker’s sense of alienation and loneliness, trademarks of the character that have been explored more effectively since Marvel has taken a hand in producing the his adventures. Holland taps into the character’s fears and insecurities, making him instantly relatable and appealing.
As a whole, “Far from Home” is a passable entry in the Marvel pantheon that in the future will be seen as a bridge between epic storylines and nothing more. It’s fine but hardly more than that. Its most important contribution is during its closing credit sequences, which set up a premise for the next Spider-Man movie that’s far more intriguing than anything here, as well as giving us a sneak preview for what Marvel has in store for their Phase 4 storyline.
True believers of the Marvel Comics’ line will not be disappointed by the set-up presented here and will likely be just as eager to fork over their cash for this next go round as they did for “Endgame.”
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Disturbing 'Midsommar' an effective meditation on grief (★★★½ out of four). There was quite a to-do last year over Ari Aster’s “Hereditary,” a horror movie that built up a significant head of steam coming out of the film-festival circuit, which was aided by production company A24’s relentless publicity machine.
I thought it was much ado about nothing, with the feature being an overwrought collection of half-baked ideas that never came together and its reputation built on the back of two or three shock sequences. Still, there’s no question Aster’s work has a distinctive and intriguing style that deserved another look.
Thankfully, his current film, “Midsommar,” is more cohesive in its approach and has a far more captivating story to tell. Set during a “crazy nine-day festival” in Sweden that occurs every 90 years during a period in which the sun does not set, Aster’s smart script doesn’t have to rely on things that bump in the night. He has a genuinely disturbing story to tell that resonates and sticks with the viewer long after the end credits roll.
One of the most effective elements in Aster’s arsenal is his use of disarming humor, which is in full effect during the movie’s first act, which for the most part plays out like a break-up comedy punctuated by one effectively awkward moment after another.
The couple in question consists of Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor), the former a needy, emotionally unstable young woman dealing with her sister’s suicide and parents’ deaths at her hands. She’s a wreck, and as a result, Christian is reluctant to pull the trigger on ending the relationship that he’s felt has been going south for some time.
However, an invitation from a mutual friend, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), to the above-mentioned festival provides the diversion Christian needs. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the nerve to leave Dani behind, so she accompanies them, as do fellow graduate students Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (William Poulter). Pelle assures them the festival is “like theater” and his guests are welcomed with open arms. All seems well ... until it isn’t.
With a running time of nearly two-and-a-half hours, Aster is very deliberate in his approach, taking the time to establish a sense of place, underscoring the isolation as well as the inner workings and mores of this society. The film has a long fuse, but the payoff’s worth it, because we’ve become immersed in this world and come to know why they tick.
Aster doesn’t explain every odd little moment that occurs, and the movie is better for it, as this simply heightens the tension. He proves to be a master as well in using humor to lull the viewer into a false sense of security, only to deliver a bracing visual shock, often achieved by a vicious editing style that abruptly cuts from serene moments to horrific ones in an instant.
With films of this sort, so much depends on the cast being fully committed to the material. All of Aster’s actors are completely invested, particularly Pugh, one of the most exciting young actresses currently working. She puts herself through the wringer here, giving an emotionally exhausting performance that’s compelling from beginning to end. Much like “Heredity,” one of “Midsommar’s” themes is grief, the vulnerability it produces and its transformative nature. Pugh takes the challenge of showing one woman’s journey through this process with both hands and runs with it, giving us a bracing performance so authentic it’s hard to shake.
While some may want to dismiss this as a knock-off of the cult horror classic “The Wicker Man,” Aster’s confident approach to the material and Pugh’s humanistic performance make “Midsommar” a unique, memorable cinematic beast of its own.