This article contains major spoilers for Spider-Man: Far From Home.
Spider-Man, transformed from the page into a live-action hero, has become a cartoon again. I’m not referring to the myriad animated series revolving around the superhero, or to last year’s phenomenal film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse; I’m talking about the Spider-Man played by Tom Holland. In his five Marvel movies—the most recent of which is Spider Man: Far From Home—many of the scenes that feature the costumed hero in action are filmed through motion capture and rendered via sophisticated CGI, a process Holland alluded to in a recent interview. “We didn’t even attempt to shoot a lot of the action practically on set—we did it all in mo-cap,” he said.
It’s an advancement that means Holland and his stunt doubles don’t have to be thrown around when performing Spider-Man’s death-defying feats. But it’s also a fact that popped into my head when Far From Home revealed its ultimate twist: that Mysterio (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), who introduced himself as a high-flying hero from another dimension, is merely the computerized creation of Quentin Beck (also Gyllenhaal), a disgruntled scientist once employed by Tony Stark, who died in Avengers: Endgame. In the hope of gaining control of Stark’s high-end technology, Beck has concocted this superhero fantasy to bamboozle the public—and Spider-Man—into thinking Mysterio is a deserving successor to Iron Man. In other words, anytime Spider-Man goes into battle alongside (or against) Mysterio, he’s really fighting with a light show made by an army of invisible flying drones.
It’s a clever update of Mysterio’s comic-book origins. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko introduced the character in 1964 as a stuntman turned supervillain who used his skill with theatrics and makeup to create frightening illusions. Far From Home, written by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, tweaks Mysterio to slyly mock the increasing unreality of moviegoers’ favorite superheroes. Indeed, for his climactic battle with Spider-Man in Far From Home, Beck is shown donning the skintight, strangely patterned spandex uniform that any Marvel actor would instantly recognize as a motion-capture suit. In an age of “deepfakes” and untrustworthy news outlets, this Mysterio is an apt villain, a representation of the pervasive anxiety that it’s getting harder and harder to believe what one sees. But I also took the character as a joking prod at Marvel movies themselves, which are assembled through post-production processes so complicated that actors sometimes can barely understand the plot of the movie they’re making.
Beck invents Mysterio, who wears a flamboyant caped outfit with golden armor and a crystal-ball helmet, not because he’s always aspired to be a superhero, but because he knows that people respond to heroism. He’s after Stark’s tech, which would allow him to harness even more drones, launch weapon strikes, and essentially surveil the world. And he knows the world will be happy to put that power in the hands of a costumed do-gooder. The plan works on Peter Parker, at least: Still a teenager in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and mourning the death of his mentor, he hands over a high-tech Stark device to Beck because the older man seems more settled in his superhero identity. The ultimate lesson, of course, is that Peter’s deep sense of responsibility makes him far more worthy of the technology than he believed.
But I couldn’t help wondering whether, besides mocking manipulative fakery, the Far From Home director Jon Watts was also poking fun at the supposed infallibility of the caped crusaders who dominate box offices year after year. Fans are so devoted to these characters that the actors playing them have become political leaders of a sort; meanwhile, Hollywood leans heavily on stylized superhero narratives, a tendency that Far From Home satirizes by portraying Quentin as a sort of diva demanding center stage. Gyllenhaal almost played the role of Spider-Man many years ago, as I noted in my review, but he’s far better suited to this exaggerated parody of heroism, with bluff and bluster covering for egomania. A bizarre twist late in the film also finds that the shape-shifting alien Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) was impersonating Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) for the entire run time, revealing even this supporting role as an exaggerated performance.
The Marvel honcho Kevin Feige has said that Far From Home marks the end of Marvel’s third “phase,” a story cycle that included 11 films. Whatever comes next for the franchise is mostly unknown, given that its two biggest stars (Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans) have now retired from the MCU. Fittingly, though, Far From Home ends with a post-credits twist that introduces the character J. Jonah Jameson (played by J. K. Simmons, a holdover from the old Spider-Man movies)—and reimagines him as an Alex Jones–type conspiracy-monger, sharing fake videos designed to ruin Spider-Man’s reputation. Marvel has never lacked for self-knowing winks to the camera, but in this film, the camera itself becomes the villain.