Far From Home Spider-Man Peter and MJ

In Spider-Man: Far From Home, Peter Parker and his fellow students head to Europe, following a long line of Americans for generations that have headed abroad to expand their horizons. Naturally things go awry, travel plans get askew, and Parker cannot run far away from the obligations that his powers have committed him to.

There are hundreds films that speak to the experience of heading abroad and the kind of antics one gets up to that echo, in sometimes surprising ways, in this newest blockbuster. As more and more of cinema emerges as these megaproductions, there are still correlations, intended or otherwise, to different narratives we’ve experienced in the darkened halls of the movie palace. 

In keeping with the notion we’re meant to take this formerly frivolous stuff seriously, here are a few films that speak to these life experiences (excluding Eurotrip was very much an active choice), and how they evoke a sense of Spidey’s own heroic journey.

The Before Trilogy

I came to Richard Linklater’s films late, only screening the first two of the trilogy in prep for 2013’s Before Midnight (in my prejudice I always assumed they were Notebook-like shlock; I was very wrong.) On a personal level the journey was quite shattering – I’m a couple years away from Ethan Hawke’s age, and like in Before Sunrise spent a summer in Europe, meeting exotic European women and trying to impress them, entirely unsuccessfully, with a bit of charm, wit and philosophizing. No film has ever captured for me as well my year spent abroad, in one vignette aboard a train encapsulating everything that I was then, with that sense where the possibilities were endless and the future unwritten. Two decades from when I made those journeys I saw myself entirely inhabiting the fragile bubble that Celine and Jesse inhabit, that chance meeting that at that moment feels the most serendipitous and fateful of your life. 

Their reunion in the second film, Before Sunset, didn’t speak quite as personally – it’s not as if I spent a decade becoming a famous author – but by the 2013 conclusion of the trilogy I saw far more than I cared to admit in the raw reality of the arguments and disappointments in Midnight. Looking in the mirror I see myself as that brash and fearless 20-something wooing with rich conversations with a Eurorail pass in my pocket, but in the pit of my stomach I realize I’m the middle aged person whose future remains unsettled and the past a mix of nostalgia and regret at missed opportunities, with a modicum of wisdom hard earned thrown in as well.

Spidey’s sense: Marvel has had its fair share of live-action middle-aged drama – just look at Endgame for how torches get passed to younger generations – but they’ve never fully embraced the ennui like, say, the Affleck Batman tried to do with various degrees of success. People don’t want to see their heroes fade, of course, but the closest we’ve seen to a truly cynical Spider-man is in the extraordinary Into The Spiderverse, where the adult emotions of a broken man are pitted against the vagaries of youth. The banter between Jesse and Celine is certain in keeping with Peter’s proclivity for pontification, and even the tiny bit of existential regret exhibited in Far From Home echoes nicely with the themes of Linklater’s film.

National Lampoon’s European Vacation

Of all the dreck of my youth this is a film that still somehow speaks on the deepest of levels. I worked at Canada’s Wonderland, a half-baked themepark north of Toronto, and it was dubbed “Wallyworld” by many that suffered through all the sub-Disney shtick. Yet it’s Amy Heckerling’s 1985 family trip film that most left a mark. It’s a boorish look at the worst of American tourism, tacking off cliché after cliché as the hapless Griswald’s make their way past the bastions of culture in their typically gormless fashion. It’s all pratfalls and cheap jokes at the expense of the ignorant out of their element surrounded by arrogant locals, but if you’ve spent any time in the summer in Paris, London or Germany it’s still easy to spot the Griswaldian hordes, and you can only hope with your backpack in tow (and Canadian flag proudly emblazoned) that you’re not confused for one of them.  

This is the Paris where at the Louvre there are signs within that has arrows pointing to Winged Victory and Mona Lisa for those that want to rush in, see the famous bits, and rush out again to grab a Royale with Cheese at McDo on the Champs Elysees. These days the vast majority will just go to Vegas to see the Eifel tower, with only 36% of the U.S. even has a passport to go outside its borders, while those that do leave often only want to have what they have at home, just with different scenery. It’s appalling reductive and insultingly simplistic, yet there’s a diabolical truth to the Vacation film that’s undeniable, the satire hitting far too close to home. Finally, if there’s a more bitter, better metaphor for family vacations than the endless circling of a roundabout, intoning “hey look kids, there’s Big Ben, there’s parliament!” while locked into a Sisyphean journey on a roundabout I don’t know what is.

Spidey’s Sense: Parker and his fellow students are traipsing through Europe as part of a school science trip, but they’re doing little more than looking at landmarks themselves rather than actually experiencing any local culture. It’s a common trope in Superhero movies to use iconic vistas – The Washington monument last film, St. Mark’s square in Venice this time – in order to make us feel more connected to the mayhem and destruction. It’s the disaster porn equivalent of “hey, look kids, there’s Big Ben”, and endemic to contemporary blockbusters.

An American Werewolf in London

John Landis’ 1981 classic (along with the far lesser 1997 sequel set in Paris) is obviously situated in the UK, and before Brexit finally occurs this one’s still firmly within the idiom of what we’re discussing here. The film cleverly exploits a core basis for xenophobia and travel anxiety – that feeling that if one leaves the comfort of where one is secure very, very bad things are to take place. This isn’t a new notion, of course, but what sets the film apart is that it takes the idea of lycanthropic transformation seriously enough without being overly didactic or dour. These are unasked for “powers”, and the uncontrolled outbursts make David as much a victim as victimizer, making one feel empathy despite the many rampages. There are plenty of tourist-friendly vistas, from Trafalgar to Piccadilly, and even the London Zoo makes an appearance to check that off the itinerary. Yet it’s our empathy for David’s circumstance that elevates the story, finding in the human emotions the real core of the story beyond the (groundbreaking) special effects and bucket of blood.

Spidey’s Sense: The correlations are pretty clear – being bitten by a radioactive spider is no less gothic than some viscous animal creeping up on you on a moor – and part of what Peter’s confronting in Far From Home is this notion about whether he’s cursed to be Spider-man rather than simply living out a “normal” life. The “with great power comes great responsibility” shtick may be trite, but it’s a clear and driving force for this character that heightens its mythic possibilities beyond those of less iconic characters. Gone another way and Peter’s bane becomes a darker curse (see: Venom), his powers more tragic than uplifting.

Hostel

Eli Roth takes the travel romance of the Before Trilogy, the American idiocy of European Vacation and the travel anxiety Werewolf and merges it into a horrific, unsettling bout of torture and mayhem. The film is full of anxiety, where different customs and conditions are unsettling to the boorish bros out for a good time. The ultimate in fratboy debauchery, this is the Europe of dark dreams, where drug-fueled brothels and exotic European beauties speak to the very exoticism and otherness that draws these foreigners to explore the unknown. This sense of doom derived from uncomfortable vacation destinations doesn’t require a plane ticket – in Deliverance all they needed was a boat and some paddles – but there’s something darker and deeper about European evil, drawing on far more ancient anxieties to drum up its effect. What’s at the core of Hostel is a sense of escape, that one can simply in the end leave all this behind and return to the comfort of home while leaving all the mayhem and destruction behind. As metaphor for much of what has transpired over the last few centuries for U.S. foreign policy, this remains a pretty apt if disparaging metaphor. 

Spidey’s Sense: You’re not going to get anything quite so bleak out of the Marvel Universe, but there’s still at play here a unremarked upon ambivalence for the locations where the destruction happens. Whenever things go awry we only focus on those characters (Americans) we know, with suddenly locals being little more important than the bricks that come shattering down. In many ways this Spidey film embodies the notion that a few Americans show up, blast through iconic vista after iconic vista, and then get in a plane and go home to continue their lives. Not quite the ennui of Roth’s melancholic, morbid film, but perhaps not as far off as might first appear.

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