Warning: Spoilers ahead for Spider-Man: Far From Home.
Spider-Man: Far From Home opens with a scene familiar from any superhero movie: a city reduced to rubble, as a handsome man in a cape battles on.
But it’s the scene after that makes it clear this is specifically a Spider-Man movie.
The strains of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” start playing over an endearingly amateurish tribute to the fallen warriors of Avengers: Endgame, comprised of low-res images and watermarked stock photos.
The slideshow fades out into a high school news broadcast, and two student anchors proceed to catch us up on life in the MCU over the past five years, via videos of kids disappearing and reappearing, before-and-after photos of those who survived “The Blip,” and huffy comments on the unfairness of having to do the entire school year all over again.
It’s a quintessentially Spider-Man scene, even if Spidey himself doesn’t appear for another few minutes. “I always thought about it as being the Avengers at the penthouse level, and Spider-Man is the ground floor,” says Far From Home director Jon Watts in a phone interview with Mashable. “By using him to give the perspective on the world, we’re allowed to see a completely new side of it.”
Where most of the MCU movies unfold from the lofty viewpoints of billionaires, super-soldiers, and literal gods, the two Spider-Man movies have offered us insight into how ordinary citizens might experience these same events.
Homecoming was explicitly about the experience of growing up in a universe where superheroes battle aliens over the Manhattan skyline and show up in classroom PSAs. Far From Home takes a broader view, taking Peter out of New York to show how the rest of the world is reacting to events chronicled in the past 22 films.
So, for example, the movie selection on Peter’s flight to Venice includes a documentary about Wakanda, a biopic of Iron Man, and — Watts seems particularly amused by this one — a drama about the Snap, from United 93 and Captain Phillips director Paul Greengrass.
“When really dramatic things happen in our world, he’s the filmmaker that people trust to tell the story about it,” Watts tells me. “So it made sense that he would be the one to make the movie about the Snap.”
“Certainly being young doesn’t mean that you’re going to be protected from dangerous things.”
Elsewhere, Peter sees murals and shrines commemorating Iron Man. He attends a charity event aiding those displaced by the Blip. He watches Flash try to pass himself off as 21 — the age he would be if he hadn’t disappeared — and sighs as Mr. Henderson recounts how his wife used the Blip as cover to abandon their marriage.
The circumstances may be fantastical, but their rippling effects were inspired by real life: “You just have to look at how the world has actually dealt with crazy events,” says Watts.
Although Peter is himself an Avenger now, and one that played a crucial role in the battles of Infinity War and Endgame, he remains the closest thing Marvel has to a regular-guy lead, give or take an Ant-Man — and therefore an ideal way into the lives of everyday folks who happen to exist inside the MCU.
“I think [Spider-Man] is the most relatable hero,” says producer Kevin Feige on a call to Mashable. “We try to make all of our heroes relatable in some aspects. But Peter, being a young man who lost his parents and lives with his aunt and goes to school with his friends, is about as relatable a Marvel character as there is.”
Part of Peter’s groundedness stems from his youth. As the youngest MCU title hero by at least a decade, Peter is uniquely qualified to demonstrate what it means to come of age in an era of superheroes and supervillains, and how that might shape the morality or self-image or general outlook of an impressionable mind still working all that stuff out.
Peter’s age also makes him seem unusually vulnerable for an Avenger. It’s one thing to see a middle-aged man like Tony Stark sacrifice himself to protect the planet; it’s something else entirely to see a kid like Peter risk his life before he’s even had a chance to live it. But, as Watts points out, that’s simply the way it goes sometimes.
“Certainly being young doesn’t mean that you’re going to be protected from dangerous things. You read the news and you realize that kids are going through some really, really intense things,” he says. “So as much as you do you want to protect him, it’s important to tell a story where he faces genuine danger, because that’s real.”
In Far From Home, as in Homecoming, that peril comes from another individual whose life has been molded by this superhero-centric context. Mysterio turns out to be a scientist frustrated by his own irrelevance in a culture obsessed with the Avengers. Along with a team of disgruntled former Stark employees, he sets out to regain the power and prestige he feels he’s owed.
The brilliance of their plan is that it exploits this very same reliance on superheroes, preying on the uncertainties of a society so worn down by disaster and so desperate for relief that they’re willing to believe anything. They might even embrace as their new savior a megalomaniacal fabulist who insists he alone can fix this broken world.
This is the Avengers’ world; Peter and his friends are just living in it.
It’s a storyline rooted in a bone-deep understanding of the MCU. Not just its mythology or its made-up science or its comic-book inspirations, but the mundane everyday reality of it, from its from its popular culture (full of superheroes) to its role models (still more superheroes) to its overall mood (still reeling from disaster, but eager to move on).
In the moment, Homecoming and Far From Home‘s callbacks to the other films often play as Easter eggs or throwaway gags. Taken together, however, they become the very webs holding the MCU together, the backdrop against which the rest of these stories can take place.
Though Far From Home ranks among the series’ lightest entries in terms of tone, the context they provide brings gravity to the rest of the franchise, reminding us what’s at stake with every decision, victory, or loss our heroes face. This is the Avengers’ world; Peter and his friends are just living in it. Thanks to the Spider-Man movies, we get to know what that’s like.