Part of me wonders if Kevin Feige is really just sticking it to Amy Pascal for the sake of it. The whole thing about Spider-Man in movies since 2016 is a bit tedious and wrapped up with corporate nonsense, but the basic thing to keep in mind is that Columbia Pictures, a subsidiary of a subsidiary of Sony Corporation, still owns the theatrical distribution rights to the character, and they get the money from movies with his name in them. But the production rights are now split between Marvel Studios and Pascal Pictures, and Marvel Studios is wholly-owned by The Walt Disney Company, as are the intellectual property rights to Spider-Man, and as are - far and away most crucially, by an entire order of magnitude - the merchandising rights. That is, a successful Spider-Man movie gives some money to Pascal and Pascal Pictures, less to Feige and Marvel Studios, way the hell more to Sony, and none at all to Disney (directly), while a successful Spider-Man toy line that is given some extra juice by a successful Spider-Man movie gives enormous, obscene quantities of money to Disney and nobody else.

This is all to say: Pascal and Feige have to work together, but they're not obliged to like it. And I'm pretty sure Feige doesn't, since he's the final shot-caller for anything and everything "artistic" within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and he's two-for-two now on forcing Columbia to do some really shitty, tedious things with the character. These films are all increasingly connected in increasingly tiring ways, but at least, for the most part, the MCU films without the word "Avengers" in the title do make a good-faith effort to primarily be about the hero who's the nominal protagonist of that particular entry. Not so the MCU Spider-Man pictures! They are stuck doing all the awful, grinding house-cleaning work of the franchise, and rather than being simple, enjoyable stories about one of the most appealing heroes in the history of superhero comics, they're leaden meta-narratives about the MCU itself. 2017's Spider-Man: Homecoming was as much about the fact of the MCU's interconnectivity and the studio's skill at negotiating to get what it wanted away from Columbia as it was about its own ostensible story. And now we have Spider-Man: Far from Home, which is straight-up not about Spider-Man at all: it is the epilogue to Avengers: Endgame first, and it is Iron Man 4 second, and it is a Spider-Man vehicle only when it cannot, in the moment, find a reason to be one of the other things. Its driving conflict is not the big popcorn stuff about Spider-Man versus CGI monsters, and it is not the character stuff about Peter Parker being a gormless high schooler who just wants to be normal; it is primarily asking the question, "What becomes of the MCU now that Robert Downey Jr's character is dead, and is Tom Holland up for being the new main star of the franchise?" And I have ample evidence in front of me that this is fascinating to many people (though I cannot muster up enough imagination to understand why they consider it "fun" to watch), but I'm sorry, when your big thing is, "Can Spider-Man be the new Iron Man?", you have strayed entirely from the path of grace. No, Spider-Man can't be the new fucking Iron Man, he's the old fucking Spider-Man, and while this film sort of finds its way to vaguely agreeing with that, it also does pretty clearly want to say yes, he's the new Iron Man, and either way, it's not a compelling question to have asked.

Anyway. It's eight months after the end of Endgame, and the unfathomably devastating, civilisation-altering events of that film - in which the 50% of humanity that had disappeared five years prior suddenly reappears - is dealt with in exactly the respectful fashion I'd expect from this franchise: by being hand-waved away in a series of snarky jokes. The only actual lingering negative effect of the "Blip", which is apparently the insanely stupid in-universe name for what every real-world movie fan has been calling the "Snap" for the last 14 months, is that people are very sad that Tony Stark is dead (and also that Captain America fellow, and the redhead chick in black leather, whoever she was. But enough mourning for those losers). Chief among these is Peter, who had taken to treating Tony as something of a surrogate father, and is now just trying to keep his head down and survive high school and finally gin up the courage to ask his friend MJ (Zendaya) on a date (among the many, many missed opportunities this film races by: all of the core characters from Homecoming very conveniently lost the same five years Peter did, so none of the relationships need to be even briefly re-evaluated). He hopes to do this on an impending class trip to Europe, but fate has other plans, and by "fate" we mean "Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, finally bored with this role), who does not give any shits about Peter being a teenager, and just wants the boy to be a goddamn superhero already". In a profoundly bad run of luck ... or is it? ... Peter's trip coincides with exactly the same locations that some kind of race of giant extra-dimensional beings called Elementals are trying to destroy the planet, stymied only by the intervention of Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), a man in a florid cape and fishbowl helmet who claims to come from another Earth in another dimension.

What happens with this is secondary, in part because it is mind-blowingly predictible. Also, what happens with Peter's flatfooted courtship of MJ is secondary. Heck, everything in Far from Home is secondary, because this film would much, much rather operate in an almost non-stop mode of dreadfully shrill comedy than actually have anything like stakes or consequences. The film interrupts every serious moment in its first half with a deflating joke; it even makes jokes about how it keeps deflating things with jokes. As someone for whom the MCU's sense of humor has become one of the very worst things about it (tied with its brown-on-brown cinematography house style, which shows up in full force in Far from Home, and just ahead of its allergy to good action choreography, which is actually much less of a problem here than in Homecoming), Far from Home's boundless enthusiasm for stopping things cold for jokes - this is the closest any of the 23 films in the series has come to being a full-on comedy - is a constant source of irritation and dismay. The film meanders around with a perpetual smirk, sucking the energy out of everything, and even if the jokes were funnier than they are (which, de gustibus non est disputandum, maybe you find great mirth in watching e.g. Peter's nerdy friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) get all gooey-eyed over his summer fling, and if that's the case I envy you, because it made me want to die), the way that they perpetually undercut the action would still be a problem.

Besides the lousy comedy, Far from Home is a pretty run-of-the mill action picture; in part, to be sure, this is because Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is only seven months old, and that demonstrated how much more we deserve than the slack nonsense we get here. But to be fair, Far from Home also has better action sequences than any other MCU film in at least a couple of years; the climax, which is an actual literal "light show" climax to a degree that almost feels like more meta-commentary, actually uses Spider-Man's skill set in an interesting, free-floating way, moving through three-dimensional space at speed, and is the best live-action setpiece built around this character since the end of the Sam Raimi trilogy back in the 2000s. It still suffers from being generically conceived and unattractively shot, but having so recently suffered through the dreary anti-choreography of Captain Marvel, to say nothing of the actually illegible fight scenes in Homecoming, any little crumb of decent action is better than nothing.

The bad comedy, the boring action - all of this encrustation hides a generally strong beating heart. The one thing that definitely works about this incarnation of Spider-Man is Tom Holland, who has a great gung-ho attitude about him, and when Far from Home remains content to be a teen romcom about a geek traveling Europe and not knowing how to ask a girl out, it's actually good. There's a warmth and sweetness to it that doesn't necessarily suggest "comic book movie" in any meaningful way; but Holland and Zendaya work together, they have an easy, light chemistry, and when the movie keeps everything else out of the way, it's a really lovely, affecting character comedy. To be sure, it does this rarely, and basically not at all after the first 40 minutes; but it's nice and charming, the bright light in a sea of CGI murk that suggests that maybe there is a way to redeem these movies, at least in fits and starts.

Other MCU reviews (Phase 3)
Captain America: Civil War (Russo Brothers, 2016)
Doctor Strange (Derrickson, 2016)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Gunn, 2017)
Spider-Man: Homecoming (Watts, 2017)
Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi, 2017)
Black Panther (Coogler, 2018)
Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Brothers, 2018)
Ant-Man and the Wasp (Reed, 2018)
Captain Marvel (Boden & Fleck, 2019)
Avengers: Endgame (Russo Brothers, 2019)
Spider-Man: Far from Home (Watts, 2019)