This article was written exclusively for The Film Magazine by Sam Sewell-Peterson.
This piece contains spoilers for Spider-Man: Far From Home.
I loved Far From Home, both for its endearing teen relationship drama and for its super-heroic pizazz. I went back to watch it for a second time a few days later, and both times the same thing struck me: Mysterio is throwing some serious shade at superhero movies.
The master-stroke from director Jon Watts and writer Chris McKenna is how the film presents its central antagonist Mysterio. The scene about halfway through where he reveals his master plan may not be especially imaginative (in classic Disney villain fashion he explains it point-by-point to his cronies in a bar) but Gyllenhaal mostly pulls it off.
Essentially, what he and his tech team are doing in the film is using movie blockbuster technology to fool the whole wide world and disguise their criminal intent – it’s essentially what would have happened if Hans Gruber’s gang of faux-idealistic robbers worked for ILM as a day job. It relies on modern movie audiences being savvy about the filmmaking process and, specifically, what goes into a multi-million dollar blockbuster to make it look as good as it does. Once Mysterio’s grand illusion has been revealed, we get to see the making-of-the-scam, much like a DVD special feature: all action blocking, visual effects compiling and rendering as a supervillain plans his own next superhero set piece.
For all of this to work, the movie relies on all of us having seen at least some behind-the-scenes footage of an A-Lister prancing around in an unflattering grey suit covered in ping pong balls. When his scheme is foiled, the finale has Mysterio fighting Spidey in just such a leotard because his super-suit, like everything else in his arsenal of illusion, is projected.
At one point Mysterio scoffs incredulously that his invented backstory as a dimension-hopping hero “named Quentin” has become believable in a way it never could have been pre-Avengers. When you’ve got space raccoons, wizards and god-alien-vikings hanging out and saving the world, nothing’s off the table, and when nothing’s off the table any bizarre tale can be used to manipulate others.
If we take the filmmaking metaphor further, as a VFX artist Mysterio is sick of not getting the credit he deserves for all his hard work and technical innovation. Tony Stark was essentially both the director and the star of his own biopic, anyone who made valuable contributions behind the scenes to his fame and fortune was completely forgotten. Arguably, Mysterio is doing exactly the same thing to his team, who are crafting his illusions and giving his “powers” heft, while he gets to swan around as a superhero and bask in the glory; but what would a great comic book villain be without hypocrisy?
Mysterio’s claim that people will believe anything now, or more accurately that you’re not taken seriously unless you “shoot lasers and wear a cape”, is indicative of the current state of the film industry. While I don’t subscribe to the view that superheroes are ruining movies, as an audience we have to be aware of how the success of such movies, Marvel’s especially, is changing the Hollywood landscape and the way the films themselves work. Avengers: Endgame is now the biggest movie ever, having finally unseated Avatar thanks to satisfyingly paying off a decade’s worth of stories and giving audiences exactly what they wanted. We’re probably not going to see this kind of success again for a long time, even from the ubiquitous Marvel.
Far From Home is being gently critical of the industry that spawned it, of audiences who only want to see spectacular spectacle. Mysterio’s tricks allow him not only to fool Spider-Man but everyone watching in the cinema as well. Aside from appreciating the striking visual quality and imagination of the illusion sequences, we are being taught to not take what we see for granted. Blockbusters need to play with formula and keep us on our toes to survive. VFX magic and ever-bigger action sequences alone aren’t enough to be compelling. After Endgame not a lot will be enough for a long time. If there’s not anything more below the surface, we’re just paying to be dazzled by an illusion.
I know you couldn’t ask for a more exciting cliffhanger for Far From Home to leave us on, but by necessity it also means leaving Peter’s school days behind him, and that makes me sad. I’ve lived spending time with these characters and seeing Peter and MJ’s relationship blossom like a murder flower. Emotionally connected material like this needs to remain the focal point of Marvel films going forward to retain audience engagement: compelling character first, crash-bang-wallop second.
Written by Sam Sewell-Peterson
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