Like Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, the new Spider-Man movie is all about the franchise's own struggles of identity. Thanos' plan was to use the five Infinity Macguffins to cull half the universe's population, a kind of Malthusian redemption for a character "driven mad" by the loss of his home world: having watched his civilization collapse from overpopulation, he set forth to wreak his solution onto everyone and everywhere else. But his villain arc was always, also, legible as the Marvel Cinematic Universe struggling to deal with a serious surplus of heroes. As each new movie introduces one or more new super-powered heroes — as Dr. Strange, Ant-Man, Black Panther, and Spider-Man joined an already packed roster — there were simply too many stars to make a legible constellation (especially with more on the way). Some of the originals had to go, so they did: Thanos' plan was defeated, but the franchise's overpopulation was solved by culling Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, and Vision from the herd (and allowing Thor and the Hulk to recede into supporting roles). In this way, balance was restored, and we watch the sun rise on a grateful universe.
Spider-Man: Far from Home, then, is all about the space which their absence has opened up, and the question of what will fill it.
This void manifests in uncanny ways. The movie begins with Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" carrying the audience out of the darkness of the pre-film's elegies to the deceased Stan Lee, an interesting moment, but also a very strange one. The franchise's love for Lee has always been utterly sincere, and Spider Man: Far From Home will be the first MCU movie not to feature a cameo from the man who originally co-created the character (though it was cardiac arrest that took Stan Lee, not infinity-stone snap). But his absence, more than even Iron Man's, marks this movie as the first in a new phase of the franchise. After the tributes that Marvel always pays to itself before each movie, the audience in my theater didn't seem sure how to react to the montage of fallen heroes that followed (which turns out to be an amateur student production for Peter Parker's high school). Some of the audience vigorously applauded, a few people giggled; I found myself struggling to gauge the tone and react accordingly.
It was an extremely MCU dissonance, in other words, and the struggle continues throughout the movie: deeply ridiculous, self-consciously meta, and yet played very, very straight. The kids making that video-production — which then hurries through an expository "since the snap" infodump recapping of what has happened to Earth in the wake of Thanos' attack — are too young to fully take themselves seriously (or it's something of a joke when they do), and the scenario they're living through makes no sense if you think it through even a little. Half the living things in universe disappeared and then came back, five years later, and the solution is to hold a few fundraisers? It shouldn't be fine. The scale of the problem is wildly out of proportion to the difficulties portrayed onscreen, which should have toppled every government in the world and thrown the Earth's ecological and industrial cycles into terminal dysfunction. But can you listen to Whitney Houston singing that song without getting chills? Without losing sight of the picky details and embracing the emotion?
From another angle, it's worth remembering that it was always going to be Tom Holland's Spider-Man who could carry the franchise forward from the loss of the original Avengers. Like them, he fits a profile: He's a white male with a costume, a backstory/origin myth, a secret identity, and a charge to keep (not to mention a deep roster of corresponding supervillains). But unlike Dr. Strange, Ant-Man, Black Panther, or Captain Marvel, he's an unquestionably marquee standard-bearer character: Holland's Spider-Man is the third big budget reboot since the year 2000, and that's not including last year's animated Into the Spider-Verse, the best of the lot (maybe even the best superhero movie ever made). He is the only MCU character who entered the franchise with such a heavy burden of expectation, with so many successful predecessors to be measured against (by contrast, Iron Man (2008), Thor (2011), and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) were by far the first successful movies about those characters). He is certainly the biggest super-hero character associated with Stan Lee, in terms of popularity, success, and consistency; Spider-Man always comes first when his work is listed in tributes and obituaries.
Against this backdrop, Peter Parker's desire in Far From Home just to be a normal kid — to go on vacation, to do cliched teen romance movie things and hang with his friends (and NOT to return Nick Fury's phone calls and be the new Iron Man) — scans less as a character arc than as an expression of a very real problem for the franchise: Tom Holland's Spider-Man simply can't fill the empty space left behind by the original, now-departed core cast. Holland is 23, but he is totally convincing as a wide-eyed and naïve 16-year-old superhero, and he leaps into that role with total abandon. His Peter Parker is precisely as gullible, over-enthusiastic, and inflexible in his decision-making as teenagers often are, lacking experience and a broader perspective, well-meaning but easily misled. But when it turns out that all of Earth's other heroes are unavailable — for reasons which the last post-credits sequence retroactively explains — Spider-Man's inadequacy to fill their shoes becomes the movie's main problem.
After all, as the supervillains have gotten increasingly galactic in the scale of their superpowers — and the next phase of the franchise looks to be much more cosmically oriented — Spider-Man's very ad-hoc web-swinging and slinging acrobatics start to be completely outmatched. He's the biggest star in the Marvel universe, but he's the least powerful Avenger. He can sort of fly, he's kind of super strong, and he's got a certain amount of tech-savvy; Captain Marvel can smash through spaceships and emerge unharmed, Doctor Strange can magically bend time and space, and Black Panther has an ancient civilization's deep science to call upon. The contrast with Spider-Man's janky little-web shooters — that sometimes run out of web — and his "spider tingle" is stark: "Stickiness" is barely a super-power, as Spider-Man's first-act confrontations with a water and fire elemental quietly but decisively emphasize.
It's no surprise, then, that Parker himself concludes that he's not up for what's coming. In this way, Far from Home manages to make Spider-Man an underdog again, which turns out to be what the character needs to stand out. Without giving away the plot, the major conflict of the movie will be distinguishing a hero from the bells, whistles, and special effects that make hyper-powered characters like Doctor Strange and Captain Marvel work. There are sequences in the movie which directly evoke behind-the-scenes video of MCU shoots, before all the CGI has been layered in; in place of the flashing lights and tech of the final product, we see actors in image-capture suits against green-screened backdrops while an entire crew collaborating in producing the engrossing illusion of super heroism. The question — how can a sticky kid in spandex compete with flying, armored supermen who shoot lasers? — becomes its own answer, as Marvel goes back to the basics.
It all more or less works. As a standalone movie, Far from Home is fine; I might rank it as high as "pretty good" if I'm feeling generous, but only in that kind of mood. It's a little messy; it tries to pack in too many European vacation set-pieces for any of them to really breathe, and the first act feels prolonged; fans will know to expect the big twist in the Jake Gyllenhaal's "Mysterio" character — though even non-fans will probably sniff it out, since Gyllenhaal is just too nice — but the movie takes a long time to get down to the business of being a proper Spider-Man movie. This makes sense in terms of Peter Parker's resistance to being an Avenger. But it can also be frustrating when you are, in the end, watching an Avengers movie. Still, it eventually delivers. It's fine.
Something has, however, been lost in all of this navel-gazing self-referentiality. In the late 2000s, the Iron Man and Captain America movies were inspired by — or at least reflected — the fading glory and dysfunctions of an American empire that was trending downward. Iron Man literally begins in a cave in Afghanistan, after all, and Captain America's antagonists tend to parallel the Bush and Obama-era expansion of the American surveillance state. It was not always clear what these movies had to say about their themes, of course. But they certainly dipped into the feel of the zeitgeist; even Infinity War captured the flavor of defeat that many still feel about the election of Donald Trump, a moment where something unprecedented and horrible irrevocably occurred.
What's most striking about Spider-Man: Far from Home, then — as it kicks off the next generation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — is that the anxieties of that earlier era have given way to a sense that everything is and will be, inexplicably, fine. Where the original sequence of Avengers movies were oriented towards American cataclysm and decline — broad metaphors for anxiety of the destiny of this country — the franchise's self-referentiality reflects a concern with itself, above all.
Marvel, it seems, is the only empire whose fate we need to be concerned about. And Spider Man: Far from Home reassures us that all will be fine.