Eleven years and 23 movies in, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is primarily about itself: a chronicle of major events and minor wisecracks high on its own world-building. Some individual MCU projects assert their own thematic or stylistic concerns, but it appears increasingly difficult to escape the gravitational pull of the series’ big-picture continuity. So it was probably only a matter of time before the MCU produced a superhero movie that can be easily read as an allegory about the challenge of continuing to make additional superhero movies. Characters in Spider-Man: Far From Home talk openly about whether certain new feats of supervillainy constitute an Avengers-level threat to the world.

This movie’s predecessor, Spider-Man: Homecoming, dipped into that discussion, encouraging its hero to act locally before going global. Accordingly, it was one of those aforementioned MCU pictures that distinguished itself, at least a little bit, from all the Avengers stuff. Far From Home has a lot more gravity to contend with. It’s the first Marvel movie since the timeline-altering events of Avengers: Endgame, bringing back the half of the universe’s population that Thanos snapped away—including formerly dusty Peter Parker (Tom Holland), also known as your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Here the similarly un-snapped Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) plays the part of a weary producer, trying to goad Parker into stepping up and filling the superhero void left by a departed Iron Man. Parker isn’t so sure; he’s a little burnt out by all the superhero action and feels he deserves a vacation. Is he a fair-weather fan, or maybe an impatient film critic?

More directly, he’s flipping the dynamic he shared with Tony Stark in Homecoming, where Peter was eager to jump into battle and Stark urged him to pump the brakes. Now Peter has an end-of-school-year trip to Europe (this is evidently a somewhat less cash-strapped Spidey than the Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire version), and wants some time to hang out with his best buddy Ned (Jacob Batalon) and get closer to his sardonic crush MJ (Zendaya) as they hit the highlights of Venice, Paris, and London. But Fury, even more irritable than usual, summons Parker’s alter ego when a series of disasters demands an Avengers-level response. A caped stranger who the press accidentally dubs Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) also arrives to inform Fury that beings called Elementals will destroy the Earth if given half a chance. Peter Parker must once again rush back and forth between his teenage dramas and his world-saving ones.

In a way, Far From Home suffers slightly for the nimble work of its predecessor. Homecoming populated Peter’s world with such delightful high-school characters—not just MJ and Ned, but new versions of Flash Thompson (Tony Revoroli) and Betty Brandt (Angourie Rice) alongside a sad-sack science teacher (Martin Starr), all three along for this Eurotrip—that Far From Home has a deep bench before it even gets to the likes of Fury, Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), and the ghost of Tony Stark. That’s not a literal ghost (one should always clarify with long-term fantasy sagas), but Stark’s legacy looms over Peter’s conscience, and over the overstuffed movie itself. Stark essentially takes the place of Uncle Ben as Spider-Man’s emotional motivator, a development that feels either organically inventive or a little cheap, depending on one’s level of MCU fealty. Same goes for the positioning of the tech-savvy Peter as a sort of Tony Stark Jr. Is that really the responsibility he’s supposed to be assuming?

Photo: Sony Pictures

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Spider-Man: Far From Home does make an effort to explore how more ground-level characters might react to the cataclysmic events of the last couple of Avengers movies. Because victims of the “Blip,” as the movie calls the Thanos-caused purgatory, returned to life five years later without aging, one of Peter’s rivals is a formerly shrimpy tween who blossomed into a handsome, confident young man during Peter’s absence. Director Jon Watts, who also made Homecoming, smoothly steers some of that heavy MCU world-building back into goofy high-school comedy, and his cast is so winning that the movie’s interpersonal surprises are often more exciting than its big plot twists. Holland and Zendaya are younger than the past Spider-Man leads, but it’s still remarkable to see a couple of twentysomethings evoking sweet, genuine teenage awkwardness. At the same time, Watts doesn’t overplay the mooniness; unlike the leads of the Amazing Spider-Man movies, these characters actually talk to each other.

Watts is less adept at bringing that chatty sense of personality into the movie’s action filmmaking. There are some fine ideas for Spider-Man action sequences, like a scene of a plainclothes Peter struggling to save Venice buildings with his webbing, but most of them are executed with a drab lack of showmanship. The MCU house-style cinematography gives a variety of actual European locations the same washed-out color scheme and smeary effects-cloud destruction; it’s an aesthetic that discourages any distinction between location work and green-screen.

Far From Home has some moments that nearly comment on the nature of attempting to dazzle audiences with generic superhero spectacle. Watts ultimately backs away and settles for commentary by implication; the movie’s most exciting physical confrontations eschew building-smashing for a surreal bent reminiscent of last year’s triumphant Spider-Verse cartoon, as well as the MCU’s own Doctor Strange. Like the often-comic tone (Nick Fury has never been so frequently interrupted while delivering grave exposition), these scenes suggest a looser, jazzier adventure than Watts is ultimately allowed to deliver. In another self-reflexive move, Far From Home transfers the real dilemma back to the filmmakers: The character comedy is great fun, and the action spectacle often feels like their responsible burden.