The visually ravishing animated feature Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse won an Oscar this year – a far cry from the first Spider-Man movies, released in the UK in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which weren’t movies at all, but episodes of a live-action TV series stitched together and dumped into cinemas. Climbing the walls in those days was Nicholas Hammond, one of the von Trapp children from The Sound of Music (“I’m Friedrich, I’m 14 and I’m impossible!”), liberated from his lederhosen and all grown up.
This was part of the problem. The actor playing Peter Parker and his alter-ego should be of high-school age to make sense of his defining dilemma: how to grapple with extraordinary powers when he should be battling zits. Hammond and Tobey Maguire (who first played the part in 2002) were both 27 when they donned the bodysuit. Andrew Garfield, Maguire’s replacement in the 2012 reboot and its sequel, was nearly 30 and no spring spider.
There was no such issue with Tom Holland, who made his debut as Parker in Captain America: Civil War in 2016, before getting a whole film to himself in the zesty Spider-Man: Homecoming. He was 21 by then but it still seemed possible that he might need ID to get into his own movie. Holland is just as delightful in Spider-Man: Far From Home, though the picture gives little indication of knowing what to do with the character. This time, the focus is on whether Peter can step up to the plate now that Iron Man has departed to the great scrap metal yard in the sky.
The film packs Peter and his classmates, including his sparky girlfriend-in-waiting MJ (Zendaya) and the buffoonish Ned (Jacob Batalon), off on a school trip to Europe: Venice, Prague, London (well, Tower Bridge). Putting old characters in unfamiliar locales is what filmmakers once did to spruce up cinematic versions of ailing sitcoms: Holiday on the Buses was confined to a Pontins in Prestatyn, Are You Being Served? to the resort of Costa Plonka. It remains as reliable a sign as ever that inspiration is flagging.
Into Peter’s holiday swoops Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose planet has just been annihilated by the Elementals, which may sound like a 1960s R&B outfit but are in fact a legion of rampaging monsters. Now they’re heading this way and it’s up to Peter to stop them in his sleek new all-black costume, which is guaranteed to make older viewers think of the Milk Tray Man.
Mysterio himself is an odd duck. Take his outfit: gold and red armour interspersed with glowing blue panels. The impression is of a man who couldn’t make up his mind whether to dress as the hero of Gladiator or Tron, and decided to combine the two. The glass globe that completes the ensemble suggests he got his head stuck in a goldfish bowl and resolved to style it out in the hope that it might start a craze.
The picture does a fair bit of narrative slaloming, each new twist revealing an ever-more exasperating switcheroo, and there is topicality galore in the form of virtual reality and deep-fake videos.
When Peter summons drones to attack a romantic rival, his petulance can’t help but bring thoughts of the current US president, though it is the villain of the piece (whose identity I am forbidden from revealing – but take a wild guess) who grows more Trump-like by the second: “In a few hours, I could literally be shaking hands with the Queen!” he crows.
As Spider-Man plunges head-first into a treacherous digital dreamscape, while reassuring himself that “it’s not real, it’s not real”, the possibility arises that we are watching a satire of the generation who have known only CGI and fake news. But a climax in which London is threatened with destruction falls rather flat. The threat doesn’t seem so terrible if it means decluttering the skyline, which resembles the trophy shelf of an overachieving junior gymnast, or the contents of a cutlery drawer emptied on to the horizon.
“Spider-Man: Far From Home” is in cinemas from 2 July
Spider-Man: Far From Home (12A)
dir: Jon Watts
This article appears in the 03 Jul 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn delusion