By Mitch Duperree
These opinions do not reflect the views of the Is It Really podcast (just 1/3rd of it). Also, spoilers below.
Spider-Man: Far From Home is the first Spidey film in history to take Marvel’s friendly, neighborhood web-slinger out of the neighborhood. I can’t help but wonder if director Jon Watts made that decision out of sympathy. A cartoonish demagogue using psychological manipulation to get his victims to question their direct experiences? If this were set in America, it would need to be called Spider-Man: Too Close to Home.
I’m of course describing the MCU’s latest big bad, Mysterio. Played coolly by Jake Gyllenhaal, who knows just how much to hold back. He initially superhero lands onto the scene in a familiar fashion, seeming like another talented actor slumming it as a blank-faced guy in a cape…until we realize that’s exactly the point. When Watts unleashes Gyllenhaal’s full potential, he flourishes into a petty, ego-driven villain as memorable as Homecoming’s Adrian Toomes or Black Panther’s Killmonger.
And that’s this movie’s M.O….misdirection. I entered the theater expecting a superhero jaunt. What I got was a con movie. I wasn’t the only one fooled. Marvel deployed a marketing strategy worthy of old Fishbowl Head himself when they released the trailers for Far from Home.
You may remember teasers of a square-jawed Gyllenhaal leaping into harm's way to fight raging elementals with fantastical powers. When I saw those clips, I certainly considered the possibility Mysterio might go straight. Did the notion of Kevin Feige retconning one of Spider-Man’s signatures rogues into an intergalactic soldier seem ridiculous? Yeah, a little. But I just watched wizards and raccoons squaring off against Space-Barney in Endgame, so anything seemed possible.
All this subterfuge strikes an appropriate tone for the silver screen debut of one of comics’ most notorious tricksters. Created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Mysterio first appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man #13 and quickly became known for using special effects, hypnosis, and sleight-of-hand to manipulate his enemies into seeing what he wanted them to see.
In short, the ideal villain for an age of fake news and misinformation.
During my first viewing of Far from Home, I couldn’t quite figure out what seemed so familiar about the Quentin Beck character, a failed actor, forsaken scientist, and master illusionist. But as Beck’s desire for celebrity and recognition bubbled to the surface, his real-world doppelganger became more and more apparent: Donald Trump, a failed reality T.V. star, forsaken steak mogul, and master misogynist.
The weapons in Trump’s and Mysterio’s arsenals are one and the same. Both pander to fear when it suits them and gaslight for personal gain.
Beck puts these sinister skills to use when he convinces Peter to hand over the deadly E.D.I.T.H. glasses in a Prague bar (that turns out not to be a bar). He plays on Peter’s insecurities like a fiddle; and, by the end of the scene, Parker is practically begging Beck to take the keys to the kingdom off his hands. Beck even seals the deal by donning Stark’s glasses to co-opt the likeness of Peter’s fallen father-figure.
It’s hard not to recall Trump’s countless appeals to emotion. Few political figures in recent history have shown Trump’s ability to cater to his base’s fears of immigrants, globalism, and anything “other.”
In Far from Home, when Tony Stark entrusted a teenager with a fleet of killer drones, I rolled my eyes. When Parker bequeathed that power to Beck, I gasped. I felt the same way the first time I realized the star of The Apprentice is now the keeper of the nuclear codes, the man with his finger on the button.
Later in the movie, Mysterio forces Spider-Man to confront a zombie-like, rusting Iron Man, who accuses Peter of letting him down. As I watched the horrific display, the words “Make America Great Again” were ringing in my ears. As an American, I’ve certainly felt pressure to live up to the legacy of our golden age and it seems like our country is wrestling with skeletons these days.
In the end, Mysterio’s most devastating ability is how he shapes the way the public feels about Spider-Man. Just when you think Peter’s won, Beck gets one last twist of the knife in by outing him to the world. Mysterio manages to deal a bigger blow to Spider-Man than any villain before him. Like Trump, he understands he doesn’t have to win; he just has to make the other guy lose. These bad guys know that perception is power…and that’s what makes them so dangerous.