The Heart and Soul of “Spider-Man: Far From Home”
Breaking down how the movie absolutely nails its emotional heartbeat
About half-way through Spider-Man: Far From Home — the latest (and greatest?) from Marvel Studios — Peter Parker (Tom Holland) and Quentin Beck (Jack Gyllenhaal) are sitting at a bar and taking it easy after defeating a lava monster known as an “elemental”. Their small talk is followed by Parker’s decision to hand over to Beck an important technological advantage that ushers in the scenarios for the second part of the movie. It is a huge moment in the Far From Home, but what follows is more crucial.
Parker is in a rush to go: he wants to meet-up with MJ (Zendaya) in hopes to finally open up about his true feelings for her. As teenagers would put it, Peter Parker “likes likes” MJ.
On his way out, Parker asks Beck what his odds are of her feeling the same way. Beck positively smiles, but offers some honesty, “Eh, 50/50 kid. You’re pretty awkward.” Parker smiles, “Yeah,” and rushes out the door. He was accepting of Beck’s opinion. After that, everything clicked.
I was already invested in Parker and MJ’s friendship/relationship, but this moment cemented those feelings and my hopes that I was going to walk away from this movie feeling emotionally satisfied. (Spoiler: I sure did).
The success of Spider-Man: Far From Home (and of every movie, really) hinges on the depth of its characters, which helps aids the audience’s investment into said characters. Shallow characters lead to a shallow investment (which leads to negative reviews). Characters that feel like actual people (maybe even yourself) are able to connect with audiences, gaining a more complete emotional experience at the movies.
Peter Parker and MJ (which stands for Michelle Jones and is only a nod to the Mary Jane character many associate those initials with in the Spider-Man universe) are two high school friends with crushes on one another. However, their attraction does not feel forced. Some of those watching may have expected their romance. Even if that is the case for you, their journey exploring said relationship is incredibly satisfying.
In Far From Home, the writers — Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers — expertly showcase a budding romance beginning to blossom. Even more, the performances by Holland and Zendaya just bring what the writers had in mind to life in the most perfect way possible. Watching this movie brought back memories of high school crushes (which I loved, by the way) and connected me with characters that could have fallen flat.
So, why did that moment with Beck help me piece this together?
Parker and MJ are genuine teenagers who are happy with their identity. They are who they are: awkward (not in a negative context), nerdy and somewhat outcast from the others. MJ is blunt and sarcastic — sometimes coming across as mean — but her intentions are never to hurt anyone. She owns who she is and never apologies for her honesty. She thrives with her wit and intelligence, which builds up her stoic attitude. But there is something more vulnerable brewing inside her mind.
Parker is nerdy-smart, socially awkward and absolutely kind-hearted. He is always looking for the best in people, but also has a hard time relating to others (duh, he is Spider-Man) — making for awkward situations with most classmates. And especially with MJ.
MJ and Parker are as genuine as teenagers come in the movies, yet both are fearful that any change in their attitudes toward one another might shift their friendship in the wrong direction. Like most teenagers who “really like” each other in high school, they dance around the obvious and search for the perfect moment to fully express their secret (for Parker, that weight is a liiiitle bit heavier). To see how this unfolds and how Spider-Man: Far From Home excels at telling their story, let’s break down the key moments.
First, the gist of the movie: Peter, MJ and some fellow classmates embark on a two-week trip of Europe — chaperoned by teachers. On this trip, Parker develops a plan on how he is going to tell MJ about his true feelings for her. The plan is incredibly sweet. In Venice (known for glass), Parker plans to buy a glass black dahlia flower necklace (MJ’s favorite, because of the murders) and give it to her when he expresses his feelings atop the Eiffel Tower in Paris. In return, Parker hopes MJ shares the same feelings about him.
Parker’s plan does not happen quite like he hopes, because of Parker’s Spider-Man duties, but what unfolds is still pretty sweet and one hundred percent genuine.
The first part of the plan is getting close to MJ, and there is no better way to do so than sitting next to her on an 8 hour flight. Parker tries to concoct a way for this to happen. The problem: she is sitting next to someone else. He asks his friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) to get her to switch seats, but it ultimately ends up with Parker sitting next to one of the teachers and MJ sitting next to pretty boy Brad Davis (Remy Hii).
There is a high level of excitement to the trip for Parker because this gives him in an opportunity to spend time with MJ and do so in adventurous places (and hopefully without the fear of being called to duty). That excitement begins before the plane takes off, as Parker brought along a dual headphone jack (which he never gets to use with MJ) in hopes to watch movies together. That excitement is relatable; his intentions are genuine and sweet. We never really go inside MJ’s mind, but the audience gets a suspicion that her feelings are about the same. Parker and MJ exchange glances that are quick, but reveal there is more inside their heads than their friendly banter back and forth — which is also flirtatious.
The scenes on the plane perfectly illustrate what it is like having a crush in high school. Instead of simply asking to sit next to one another, Parker wants his revelation to be somewhat natural: “Oh, look, we’re sitting next to one another… I happen to have this dual headphone jack… We should watch movies together.” He is still not sure about MJ’s feelings, so revealing his feelings too soon might scare MJ away. Parker is as honest and wholesome as they come, and would never act sneakily or undermine anyone when it comes to people he knows well. I think MJ senses that wholesomeness and appreciates it.
During the flight, Parker utilizes the bathroom. As he opens the door, MJ is there to greet him. Parker panics. He goes back into the bathroom and cleans up a bit, as he tries to be calm, cool and collected. MJ, slightly confused, sense what is happening. In a way to let Parker know she is on to him, and I’d argue a flirty move, is not there to greet him when he re-opens the door. Not seeing as he exits the bathroom, he is clearly bummed. He missed a chance to interact with MJ yet again. Parker is a guy clearly crushing hard and most definitely a high schooler.
We can all relate.
Once in Europe, MJ and Parker begin to open up to one another.
Parker, MJ and other fellow students have the freedom to roam, explore and hang-out. Their itinerary does not seem too strict. Parker’s plan goes into motion.
Parker continues to hold back with MJ, only exchanging looks or a quick word to her. He notices MJ enjoying Venice, but, as Brad takes her picture with the Venetian birds, Parker realizes he needs to get his plan going. Seeing her enjoy city gives him relief that his plan is worth the time and energy. He successfully tracks down the necklace — it is gorgeous, by the way — which calms him down and boosts his confidence.
With the necklace purchased, Parker’s ready for the next step. Off-screen, MJ ditches Brad and the rest to find Parker, who is wandering the streets. She explains her new favorite word, an Italian phrase for lots of uses: back off, get out of my face, not today. “It is the greatest gift the Italians gave the world, besides espresso,” MJ wittingly announces, “I was born to say this word.” Her wit, intelligence and charm are all on display.
But they also reveal a different side of MJ.
With the group, MJ is incredibly closed off and resorts to her infamous dry humor. Her remarks are usually incredibly blunt and brutally honest. She has a hard time making friends, because of this, and is usually alone.
Most of the time, being alone is fine by her — she prefers it. But, with Parker, she acts a bit different. She relaxes, can easily make conversation and, most importantly, enjoys his company. These moments of “small talk” with Parker in Venice showcase a side of MJ that she reserves for him.
Why Parker? He is awkward, but Parker is a wholesome, caring guy. As Peter Parker, there is no “show” for others; he is who he is (besides the Spider-Man part, but I’m talking about his personality). She appreciates Parker. MJ sees his bluntness (which totally different from hers) and respects it.
Following this Venice conversation, it is pretty clear where MJ’s mind is at and Parker’s feelings could be mutual. It is our first look inside MJ’s thoughts: she likes likes him.
Their conversation is cut short due to a battle between Parker, who uses his Spidey skills and help from new “hero” Mysterio to defeat a water “elemental”. Parker tells MJ to get the others and run. She does.
After the battle, the classes reconvenes in their hotel to discuss what had happened. MJ is her sarcastic self — removed from the others in the background and offering witty remarks. Parker comes in late, which MJ notices, and the two have a few words about the day.
“Did you see what happened,” Parker asks.
“No, I was running,” MJ remarks.
Parker awkwardly changes the subject to their upcoming trip to Paris, where phase two of his plan can go into motion. MJ responds with a fact about the Eiffel Tower being constructed as a Nazi mind controlling device. Parker seems weird-ed out by the comment.
“That’s why it’s my favorite part of the trip,” MJ says with a charming smile. Parker returns the smile; there is still hope.
Alas, Paris never happens.
Thanks for the need of Spider-Man against more “elementals”, their trip shifts to Prague. Parker is torn about being a hero for the world, while also not wanting to abandon his trip (but most importantly MJ).
Prague becomes the destination for the upcoming “elemental” attack. To get his friends out of harms way, Parker tries to ensure they are no where near the possible battle zone that is due at any moment. The solution is one of Europe’s stories sources of entertainment: opera. The class is not thrilled about sitting for four hours to watch opera, but end up attending despite reservations.
For MJ and Peter Parker, fate begins to shift.
At the opera, the class makes their way to their front row seats. MJ stands back — taking in the beauty of the opera house or (as I like to believe) waiting for Parker.
“You look really pretty,” a nervous but smiling Parker tells MJ, as he approaches her.
“And therefore I have value,” she remarks.
Parker fumbles for words as MJ sweetly smiles, “I’m messing with you,” then with a tinge of nervousness in her voice, “You look pretty too.” The audience gets more of what happened in Venice. This conversation is another opportunity for the movie to showcase MJ and Parker’s characteristics and give the audience the sense that these characters have depth.
Then they go a step further.
They notice opera glasses, which are meant to be shared, available close by. Parker makes his move, but, as is character, sort of fumbles at getting the message clear to MJ. Sensing where he is going, MJ completes his thought and agrees to sit next to him and share the opera glasses. This is the first crucial moment of their budding relationship. With MJ agreeing, Parker’s spirits are lifted and his confidence soars. Parker senses the fact he has a chance with MJ and that his feelings toward her are mutual— and if there is a chance then nothing will stop him from giving her the rose and confessing his true feelings. (Actually, there is one thing: his Spider-Man duties. But, that is a minor side step toward this end game).
MJ’s side of things is harder to dissect, because the movie is not in her point of view. But given what Far From Home (as well as the first movie in this series, Spider-Man: Homecoming) has already told us about her character, she appreciates Parker’s shy, awkward honesty. Moments early, Brad (remember him from the plane) tells MJ he would save a seat for her. MJ gives him a weird look, as if to say, “Don’t assume where I want to sit”. Parker, after complimenting her and asking if she would like to sit next to one another, jumps at the opportunity. Obviously, given the glances and loose, friendly banter back-and-forth, MJ has already began these deeper feelings for Parker. But the simple notion of asking is something a) MJ appreciates and b) solidifies her feelings for Parker. Zendaya’s perfect delivery and her subtly expressive performance all but ensures what is swirling through her mind.
Sadly — we never get a full opera scene. Parker is called off as the “elemental” approaches. However, the two are now linked. Without officially confessing, they both are semi-aware of each other’s interest in one another. Parker leaves the opera house, despite his reservations of staying. Noticing his absence and disappointed they won’t continue sharing this moment together, MJ sneaks out of the opera and follows him.
There is another layer to all of this: MJ has a hunch that Parker is Spider-Man. Following him, witnessing the battle and recovering a vital clue all but confirms her beliefs. Back at the hotel once the battle is complete, and the students are being informed they are being sent home, Parker returns clueless. After being caught up to speed, he is bummed that the European dream is over. Of course, this all happens outside of MJ’s room. She hears the commotion (Parker’s return) and opens her door. Parker and MJ have a small, awkward encounter and wish each other good night. It seems as if Parker’s door — in this case — of opportunity has closed.
But, what happened at the opera house has swayed fate in the other direction of being shy and reserved: Parker approaches MJ’s door to knock, hoping to finish his plan in Prague. She opens the door before he even gets a chance to knock — FATE!! — and Parker starts to rattle on about not wanting the trip to be over. MJ’s expression, which is usually reserved for biting sarcasm, is of panicked excitement. Parker asks to go for a walk; he can not even finish the thought before MJ exclaims, “YES”, with stoic excitement fills her face.
“I’ll meet you down stairs in 10 minutes,” Parker, still awkward but defiantly more confident, informs her.
“I’ll meet you down in 5,” she replies.
And here we go!
The two walk out of the hotel absolutely smitten. Their smiles — that both try to hide from one another — are not missed by the audience. MJ and Parker walk around historic Prague, getting to a historic bridge in the city. Parker is ready. With rose in hand (inside a tin can) he begins to tell MJ the truth — or at least a truth. He does not quite make it (sense a theme?) as MJ finishes the thought: you’re Spider-Man. Parker tries to back away from that, but MJ has physical proof: webs. She pieces the circumstantial evidence with the physical evidence. Parker relents and tells her the truth, once he senses they are in trouble.
This is the moment. MJ and Parker, despite some social naivety, are smart teens. And the am not/are too back-and-forth about Spider-Man’s identity is essentially another way of having the talk they were supposed to have. MJ reveals she has been watching him (which she admits was because of her hunch he was Spider-Man). We know, thanks to the moments between them so far and Zendaya’s perfect expression, that admission is not entirely true. But this conversation confirms to Parker of MJ’s feelings toward him.
Why? Because Parker was doing the same thing to her — all the glances, looking out for where she was at and trying to get to be in the same spot at the same moments as her. He pieces it together, probably internally screams of joy: “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god — MJ likes me!”
The Prague scenes brilliantly showcase two teens who defiantly have feelings toward one another. The genius of Far From Home is the depth of its characters and the tossing out of tired tropes. Both MJ and Parker are awkward, yet genuine teens that want to express themselves but do so in the normal teenage way of not saying too much. It can be absolutely horrifying to tell someone your inner feelings about said person. The possibility of losing the other’s friendship is always a worry. Holland and Zendaya do a perfect job bringing all these sides to their characters.
MJ and Parker become a team. Spider-Man duties call for Parker and MJ is excited to be in on Parker’s secret — and will get the chance to gloat to Ned she figured it out. That level of trust is huge, and MJ respects Parker even more for not letting superhero fame get to his head. The two head back to the hotel to fight whatever is coming their way.
Far From Home’s final battle takes place in the European Union’s largest city. To get there, Parker (as Spider-Man) embarks on a journey to meet up with fellow Avengers allies. He leaves MJ and Ned back at the hotel to cover with their school trip. Plot wise, Quentin Beck (remember him getting the technology from Parker) wants to become a hero but staging a huge battle between him and the “elementals”. He creates a plan to destroy London — and ultimately killing Parker, MJ and Ned because they all know Beck’s plan. The trip is lured to London, secretly by Beck so he could kill them. Parker, after battling Beck in Berlin, makes his way to London with a new Spidey suit and a plan for action.
After the emotional high moments in Prague, MJ and Parker have been apart leading up to the London battle. Yet, both are stepping up for one another when needed. When Brad calls out Parker for always disappearing to the teachers and fellow students, MJ sticks up for Parker and calls out Brad. (Fuck you, Brad!) Agreeing with MJ, the students agree to move on from Brad’s complaint. Meanwhile, Parker, while trying to determine how to defeat Beck, is always pushing for MJ’s safety. He has the help of “Happy” (Jon Favaraeu), a fellow Avengers ally, to watch over MJ (and Ned) and protect them at all costs. Once the battle does begin, “Happy” tracks down MJ and Ned and lead them to a safer location.
The London battle is the climax between Spider-Man and Beck; its aftermath is the climax of MJ and Parker’s relationship in Far From Home.
Once Beck is defeated, MJ rushes after Parker. The two meet, hugging and feeling relieved the other is OK. (Just a side note: Far From Home does a tremendous job at making this relationship feel natural and real. But, after what just happened and them meeting alone on a bridge filled with destruction, this only spot whrre their relationship felt like a movie. Nonetheless, I am allllllll for it). There is a touch of awkward humor to relieve any tension. They both know where stand with one another.
MJ says the man (“Happy”) who helped provide safety had given her the black dahlia flower necklace Parker meant to give MJ in Paris. Parker is disappointed. For starters, the necklace is broken. On top of that, battered and surrounded by destruction was not the way he wanted to express his feelings to MJ. It does not matter. We know MJ appreciates Parker’s thoughtfulness, and the necklace takes the cake. Parker tells MJ about his plan and, for the first time, has the confidence to let MJ know his other secret. MJ confides that the feeling is mutual.
The emotional investment of Far From Home pays satisfyingly pays off.
The couple kiss — not a “movie moment” kiss but a rather awkward kiss. It is absolutely perfect. MJ and Parker, throughout the entire movie, awkwardly figure out ways to hang out and reveal their true emotions with one another. MJ and Parker’s dual awkwardness does not ultimately hinder their hopes at revealing their true feelings. They find the confidence, as it grows throughout the movie, to do so. But, as awkward teenagers, that emotional high echos their personality.
Far From Home consistently has the message that the genuine personalities inside both MJ and Parker are keys to their attraction of one another. If Parker (or MJ) awkwardly have to plan sitting next to one another (see the plane ride) or a time to be alone (see Prague), you bet their first kiss is going to be awkward, too. However, it is all part of the charm — and the fact the movie nails that aspect is beautiful.
Their embrace in London is emotionally high point of Far From Home. Through all the glances, conversations and effective performances, the audience know what is building between MJ and Peter Parker. I, for one, bought and enjoyed every single second.
Far From Home sets up MJ and Parker as the romantic leads, but does so in a smart and effective manner. These are not two characters who have to be a couple (because of how the audience thinks story telling works), but feel as if they should be a couple. For some, the superhero plots and arcs is this movie’s emotional high point — which I understand. There are tons of people out there tied to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. From what I saw and discussed with those in the know, Spider-Man: Far From Home does a great job portraying those arcs.
For me? The movie works and is at its best when dealing with MJ and Parker’s friendship turned relationship. It is Tom Holland and Zendaya at their best; it is the movie’s writers at their finest. MJ and Parker give Spider-Man: Far From Home emotional staying power to invest in the other far-reaching stories.
Quentin Beck was absolutely right when calling Parker “pretty awkward”, but I am sure Parker or MJ would not want it any other way.