Peter Parker can’t catch a break. That’s his appeal. Just when he thinks he has a grip on juggling his life as both a spandex-clad crimefighter and a typical highschooler, in comes the Vulture or Mysterio to wreck his day. They call it the Parker Luck, and it is as vicious as it is comical.
Finding a balance between great power and great responsibility is at the heart of every good Spider-Man saga, and in Spider-Man: Far From Home, at the root of that struggle are J.B. Smoove and Martin Starr. The two comedians have the unenviable task of maintaining order on the Midtown High School for Science and Technology’s European field trip. Such a gig would be difficult no matter the circumstances, but the addition of an Avenger in their fold and a Mysterio-bewitched S.H.I.E.L.D. agent pulling strings adds an extra layer of tension.
Their stress is our entertainment. Extending from a formula practiced since the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, director Jon Watts goes to great lengths to mix high-stakes adventure with comic relief. Bringing on cats like Starr and Smoove does half the job for him. In what can only be called a miracle within blockbuster filmmaking, Watts provided a nearly blank canvas for Smoove and Starr to operate upon, and their experience on set was one of delirious improv and one-upmanship.
It’s no secret that producer Kevin Feige prefers to keep a tight grip on his narratives, and his actors are often performing with minimal knowledge regarding the overall plot of their movies. “They are very secretive,” Smoove tells me by phone ahead of the home video release of Far From Home. “Especially leading from Avengers: Endgame. People don’t notice, but we actually shot like a page here and there. Just a page a day sometimes. So we didn’t get a lot of insight into what the full story was, because they didn’t want to put it out yet.”
The actors were given pieces of a narrative, and it was up to them to make it work for their characters. “The script ended up changing before we started shooting,” adds Starr, in a separate interview. “I had read a version that had partial redactions, but all the redactions were spoilers about the other Marvel movies.
What could have been maddening to some proved somewhat understandable for their spontaneous spirit. “You can still piece it together,” he continues. “I can’t read that line, but based on the context here, I can pretty much guess what we’re talking about.”
About their characters, Smoove says, “We’re small molecules in this world. We’re playing two teachers trying to chaperone these students on this field trip. We had to embody being a teacher to make it come across the right way. But, other than that, we didn’t get very much, man.”
Their characters were barely on the page and developed mostly through conversations with Watts and their improv game. “On the first movie, I didn’t really know how they would incorporate me into the film,” explains Starr. “My dad was a teacher for many years, so on some level, Mr. Harrington is me respecting and bringing some part of him to life in these movies.”
They’re not the most capable pair to watch over Peter and his classmates. Mr. Harrington, in particular, is filled with a nervous energy that could be potentially as dangerous as any member of the Sinister Six. “It’s weird playing a teacher who’s definitely incompetent,” says Starr. “At least at the core of it, he really cares about these kids, and I had so many teachers that were trying their best. And I think as incompetent as he may be at times, he’s trying.”
Smoove grew up a comic book kid, and he hit the roof the second he got the call to play Peter’s driving instructor in an Audi ad cross-promoting Spider-Man: Homecoming. “That commercial was a blessing,” he admits. “To be able to take that energy from the commercial and show all the chemistry on camera with Tom Holland and take that and transfer that over to Far From Home.”
Smoove did not take his time on set lightly. His role as Mr. Dell offered him a chance to contribute to the continuum of comic books and be a part of the art he cherishes. “Comic books were our outlet for fantasy and adventure,” he says. “When you’re reading a comic book, you would visualize the Hulk punching The Thing, or Mister Fantastic stretching across the country to grab something, or fighting all these different things. It’s up to the comic book writer, illustrator, and editor to make it come to life! To make me feel it when I’m reading it. And now I get a chance to bring that all to life here.”
Far From Home left Peter in a tight spot. Whatever the plot, the next installment in the franchise will have to deal with the ramifications of Spider-Man’s unmasking. That begs the question, how will Mr. Harrington and Mr. Dell respond to this news? “I don’t know,” says Starr. “He’ll probably pretend that he already knew or figured it out. I’m curious to see J. Jonah Jameson come into play. J.K. Simmons is incredible, and bringing him back from the first series will be fun to see how they incorporate him into the next movie. I’m excited.”
Smoove has a better idea, “Mr. Dell is going to be pissed off because Mr. Dell has this kid’s back!” Just thinking about the revelation gets the actor’s dander up, and sends him into a joyful tirade. “Mr. Dell has all their backs, and when Mr. Dell finds out that Peter Parker is Spider-Man, let me tell you something, he is going to lose it, man. I think Mr. Dell will take it to heart because Mr. Dell is a damn good teacher. I know it doesn’t always come across in the movie, but Mr. Dell is a very compassionate teacher. This kid’s got to learn something. When Mr. Harrington and I find out that that little guy, that damn Peter Parker is Spider-Man, not only will we be shocked, we will be intrigued by how that young man got those powers. We’re scientists. We’ll want to know where he got those damn powers from!”
Starr and Smoove may never see the entirety of the script for the next sequel, but they’ll find the charge to make their sequences work for them. Their pleasure in the franchise comes from building personally epic scenes in castaway moments. At the very least, Peter will have to add Mr. Harrington and Mr. Dell to a very long line of people demanding explanations.
Spider-Man: Far From Home is now available on Digital HD, DVD, Blu-ray, and 4K Ultra HD.