A moviemaking lifetime ago, before the dawn of cinematic universes and elaborate studio deals for comic-book intellectual property, Jake Gyllenhaal almost played Spider-Man. This was back in the early 2000s, when contract negotiations with Tobey Maguire got tense enough that Columbia Pictures briefly extended an offer to the hotshot young star Gyllenhaal to play the hero in Spider-Man 2. He never took the role and ended up having a much more interesting career (possibly as a result), turning in dynamic work in projects as varied as Brokeback Mountain, Nightcrawler, and Okja, and becoming that rare sort of character actor with leading-man looks. Which, of course, makes him perfect for a Marvel movie. Everything old is new again.
In Spider-Man: Far From Home, the second entry in the second reboot of the Spidey franchise (and that’s not even counting that pesky Into the Spider-Verse), Gyllenhaal plays Mysterio, a velvet-cloak-wearing warrior from an alternate reality clad in green armor and a fishbowl helmet who zips around the screen emitting verdant fog. In other words, he’s pretty weird—the kind of B-list villain screenwriters have to start digging out of comic-book back issues when superhero series drag on for this long. Without spoiling anything, I’ll say the weirdness goes several layers deep with Mysterio. Which makes Gyllenhaal ideal casting—he’s a funhouse-mirror take on a caped crusader here to question just how odd audiences are willing to let these movies get as Hollywood keeps offering them up.
Ostensibly, this is a regular old Spider-Man movie, one set in a Marvel universe still roiled by the aftermath of the almighty Avengers: Endgame, in which the 50 percent of people zapped into dust by Thanos’s cosmic snap suddenly popped back into existence. Peter Parker (Tom Holland) was one of the fallen comrades who reappeared, as were his pals MJ (Zendaya) and Ned (Jacob Batalon), and here they all nonchalantly resume their sophomore year of high school. Though there’s a little effort to acknowledge the supreme bizarreness of this Rapturelike event (here dubbed “the Blip”), there’s much more material about the death of Peter’s mentor, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), who served as his gadget-loving surrogate dad in Spider-Man: Homecoming and assorted Avengers flicks.
As Peter wrestles with whether he could ever step into the metal boots of his beloved hero, he is swept up in an adventure of international intrigue by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Mysterio, who enlist his help to do battle with a bunch of elemental monsters across Europe. This plot gets rolled into a high-school trip, bundling Peter’s superhero inferiority complex with the more routine issues of his big crush on MJ and his efforts to keep his costumed identity secret from his classmates. The director Jon Watts, who also made Homecoming, relies on the same goofy kinetics that powered his previous film; these movies lack the grandeur of Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man trilogy, but they do capture the hero’s motormouthed, wise-guy attitude best.
A tale of Spider-Man ping-ponging around cities such as Venice, Prague, and London, fighting beasts made of fire and water, would probably serve the Marvel Cinematic Universe just fine, but happily this movie has far stranger plotting in mind. I just can’t talk about its many twists without spoiling the fun. I’ll simply say that Gyllenhaal, who has a real talent for balancing charm, rage, and utter ludicrousness, is excellent as Mysterio, using the hero’s left-field presentation to satirize the ongoing phenomenon of cultural worship for do-gooders in colorful spandex. Jackson, an old hand in the Marvel world, doesn’t quite have the zingy chemistry with Holland that Downey Jr. did, but as Fury he gets to be a little less stoic and self-serious than usual.
The biggest achievement of all remains that Marvel managed to introduce Spider-Man into its crowded universe just a few years after he’d been played by Maguire and Andrew Garfield in five movies and make him feel fresh. Keeping these films as relatively low-scale high-school capers (buoyed by Marvel’s fat visual-effects budget) has kept Holland’s hesitant, kindhearted Spider-Man from seeming like a fatuous flagship star. These movies still allow Peter to make mistakes, to bumble into heroism rather than boldly go, and to give his chemistry with MJ some time to properly simmer; Marvel movies are naturally episodic, but for Spider-Man that path is at least somewhat distinctive. Spider-Man: Far From Home is a bouncy addition to a bulging franchise, with just enough fringe zaniness to help it stand out from the pack.