Why it Works: "Spider-Man: Far from Home's" Timely and Terrifying New Villain
Updated: 6 days ago
The sparkle of summer fireworks lit up the sky earlier this month, and when it comes to the always exciting world of storytelling, the spectacle is just getting started. Yes, we’ve had a few duds already this summer, (Cough: X-Men: Dark Phoenix and MIB: International) but we’ve also been gifted the surprisingly wonderful Toy Story 4, Rocketman, and the long-awaited third season of Stranger Things. And we still have The Lion King, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and the second installment of IT on the way. Certainly not lost in the excitement of 4th of July parties, World Cup soccer, and the continuing adventures of the Stranger Things kids, however, Marvel Studios’ released the follow up to this year’s Avengers: Endgame and the heralded conclusion to the Infinity saga, Spider-Man: Far from Home.
Spoiler alert: even though the movie has been out for a week and I intentionally waited as long as I could before releasing this post, if you haven’t seen it already and don’t want anything spoiled, turn away and come back after you’ve seen Spider-Man: Far from Home. You’ve been warned! What follows are my perspectives on the movie and why I think Marvel Studios just gave us one of its mostly timely and terrifying villains yet.
I want to clarify something to start, though. This is not going to be a traditional movie review. There are plenty of great reviews of Spider-Man: Far from Home out there, and while I do often review new book, TV, and movie releases, this summer I wanted to do something a little different.
If you haven’t figured it out, Perspectives off the Page is devoted to writers as much as it is those who just appreciate good storytelling. Many of my ideas are focused on helping authors, screenwriters, and playwrights hone their craft and find their voice, but I also try and discuss story’s greater impact on culture and audiences. And when we talk about culture, it’s impossible to deny the impact of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
More than just a financial juggernaut (thank you, Fox. Disney and Marvel can now use this character), the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become one of the biggest film franchises of all time, and it’s not by accident. Yes, an assembly of iconic characters does help, but even great characters can be mired in bad story and mismanaged into a miserable film. We’ve seen this before. Thankfully Ironman and Marvel Studios changed the game in 2008, and they’ve managed to maintain and exceed even their own narrative elevation and expectations.
Starting today, and continuing every week from now into the Fall, I wanted to look back on each entry of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and discuss a single, story element that elevated that film to greatness or lowered it to the level of good or just okay.
But one film at a time. Let’s get to Spider-Man: Far from Home.
In short, Spider-Man: Far from Home does exactly what it should following the events of Avengers: Endgame. It deals with the consequences of the Thanos snap and subsequent return of half of the universe (5 years later!), while allowing its youngest Avenger to find his way (and identity) while trying to navigate a world without Tony Stark. If Tony Stark and Peter Parker are the bookends of the Infinity saga, Spider-Man: Far from Home is a beautiful semi-colon to the MCU. It respectfully closes out the previous chapter of the larger story while hinting at a new era to come; and as we’re reminded in the mid-credits sequence of Far from Home, everything changes from here.
At its core, Far from Home balances Spider-Man’s cosmic battles with Peter Parker just trying to survive being a teenager to perfection. He’s fighting Elemental creatures in one scene and trying to sit next to the girl likes in another. Director Jon Watt’s understanding of teen drama is on point, as is Tom Holland’s performance, a big reason why we (like Tony Stark) have faith in the future of the MCU.
There is so much to like and even love about Spider-Man: Far from Home, but where I really want to focus my attention for this week, is how Marvel Studios brought a classic Spidey villain into the MCU and reinvented him for the modern era.
Let’s talk about Mysterio!
It’s been widely understood that the MCU has had a villain problem for quite some time. Not every big bad has reached Loki status and not every villain is as awful as Ironman 2’s Whiplash either. There have been a few greats and a whole lot of mediocre antagonists facing off against the Avengers, Guardians, and other heroes. Thankfully, both Spider-Man entries in the MCU have absolutely nailed their villains, giving us two of the best in the franchise.
Apart from the Caped Crusader, aka Batman, Spider-Man has one of the best rogues galleries of any comic book hero. Just look at the lineup: Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, Kingpin, Venom, Carnage, Sandman, the Lizard, Electro, Kraven the Hunter. The list of freaks, mad scientists, and public menaces who’ve stepped up (and even united) to take on the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man is seemingly endless, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to a screen success.
A serious miscast brought us Topher Grace as Eddie Brock, aka Venom, while an academy award-winning actor in Jamie Fox was still not enough to electrify Electro in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Many of the Spider-Man’s villains are campy and cartoonish, and guess what, they’re supposed to be! They’re comic book characters, people, and villains at that. They’re allowed to have crazy costumes, insane origin stories, and even more monologuing than professional wrestlers.
Side note: thank you, Syndrome of The Incredibles for giving us the term “monologuing.”
The bottom line is, it takes an enormous amount of vision as a creative team to bring a Spider-man villain to the big screen and get it right. You must stay true to the essence of that character while somehow grounding him in the modern world, not to mention the rest of the MCU.
Thankfully, in both Spider-Man: Homecoming and Far from Home, the filmmakers found the right formula for doing just that:
1. Ground the villain’s origin in the aftermath of known events from in the MCU,
2. Focus their motivations on personal gain over global destruction,
3. Find a GREAT actor!
Both films followed this formula to ultimate success. Michael Keaton was SENSATIONAL as Adrian Toomes, aka Vulture, and Jake Gyllenhaal, I can now say, is just as delightful as Quentin Beck, aka Mysterio.
I am in the small camp of people who still remembers Jake Gyllenhaal’s name being floated around as a potential replacement for Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man 2. That was 2004, by the way, four years before Ironman kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe! Personally, I was thrilled to read that Jake had been as the new Spider-Man villain just because he’s such an incredible and often underrated talent in Hollywood. But Mysterio…? I was very curious to see how Gyllenhaal and the Marvel team would adapt one of Spider-Man’s most campy and eclectic villains.
In the comics, Quentin Beck was a master of illusions and special effects wizard in Hollywood before shifting his talents from movie-making to crime. He was always a nightmare for Spidey because you never knew what was real and what was an illusion when dealing with Mysterio.
When the trailers for Spider-Man: Far from Home premiered, they gave us the first glimpses of Gyllenhaal’s Quentin Beck, which was visually very respectful of the original comic book design, while still feeling grounded in the MCU. In the trailers, Mysterio claimed to be from another universe, seemingly “confirming” post-Endgame fan theories about the introduction of multiple universes opening up in the MCU. I personally still believe this is a possibility for future storylines, however, I wasn’t buying it from Mysterio, and I wasn’t wrong.
Disney and Marvel Studios’ marketing for Spider-Man: Far from Home proved to be just as much an illusion as one of Mysterio’s master ploys. I still remember asking one of my friends the day the trailer dropped, “how crazy would it be if Mysterio is actually making up being from an alternate universe and is just taking advantage of everyone’s fears and theories following the snap?”
Well… as it turns out, I wasn’t that far off.
In the film, Quentin Beck is a genius, but a disillusioned and volatile genius at that. Instead of a special effects wizard from the movie industry, the MCU made Beck a former employee of Stark Industries, yes, the Stark Industries of Tony Stark and Ironman. And we’ve actually seen Beck’s technology before.
In Captain America: Civil War, Tony Stark introduced an augmented reality system that allowed the user to hack the hippocampus of the brain to work through past memories and trauma. He called it Binary Augmented Retro-Framing, or BARF for short. In Far from Home, we learn that this advanced holographic technology was actually Beck’s masterpiece.
Enraged that Stark would take his life’s work and use it for his personal therapy, Beck left Stark Industries and took other disgruntled scientists and lab techs with him. With their combined brain power and Beck’s charisma, the think tank of Stark Industries cast offs developed a drone powered, holographic system, which they used to fabricate elaborate global disasters and fool the world into believing that Mysterio was the hero the world needs to beat back this new Elemental threat.
Beck is a mastermind of manipulation. He identifies humanity’s fears, introduces and escalates a situation that plays on them, then announces himself as the solution. It’s a terrifying ploy that isn’t even reserved for comic book villains anymore. How often do we see lesser versions of this in politics, journalism, and social media?
The MCU’s iteration of Mysterio is an absolutely terrifying villain, but not because he’s as maniacal or malicious as Thanos or Hela. He’s a villain that should be very recognizable because he’s a product of our world, our fears, and our inability to discern fact from fiction or what’s real from what’s fake anymore. He forces Peter to question everything about reality, even his friends and those he trusts; and he fools the world into thinking he’s the hero while making his enemy (Spider-Man) out to be the villain in the public eye with just a few doctored images, keystrokes, and careful editing.
As a brilliant scientist, Beck became disillusioned with the world because the world no longer listened to smart people anymore. Those with the most power and influence have become the wealthiest, most notorious, and the ones with the most followers on Twitter, Instagram, or YouTube. Media influencers are now world influencers. People seek show over substance and are more than willing to get caught up in the spectacle of emotion rather than ground themselves in the wisdom of truth, fact, and reality.
Having had enough, Beck turned his holographic technology into a platform for launching his own brand of superhero. And when there wasn’t a global level event readily available, he decided to create one of his own? Recent events from the MCU set the perfect stage for a heroic entrance so long as the fear was real and the spotlight was ready to shine. Beck made sure both were.
If Mysterio isn’t a haunting reflection of our fractured world, I don’t know what is. In a story where the hero attempts to discover his own identity, Mysterio is a villain who uses the smoke and mirrors of modern media and technology to fool the world into thinking he’s something he’s not. And who is impacted most by this deception? Who are the ones snapping pictures, re-Tweeting, and reinforcing Mysterio’s brand for him? The teenagers of Peter’s class trip and Peter Parker himself, who unable to see through Beck’s illusions and discover the man behind the illusion, projections and screens.
It’s appropriate that in a story where Peter has to decide what kind of hero he wants to be, Quentin Beck has the power to mask his less-than-noble intentions under the guise of heroism. Appearances are deceiving, and if there’s one resounding theme to Spider-Man: Far from Home, it’s that we probably all need to look a little closer at the one’s we give power to and call heroes.
Beck ultimately loses his battle against Spider-Man in London, but like Civil War’s Helmut Zemo, may have gotten the upper hand in a greater war. He did, after all, unmask Peter Parker to the world and introduce the further lie that Spider-Man has been the villain all along. And yes, having JK Simmons return as J. Jonah Jameson to introduce this piece of fake news to the world is applause worthy!
Mysterio should be regarded as one of the better villains of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Gyllenhaal brings such charisma to Quentin Beck that it’s easy to see why Peter is manipulated early by Beck’s charm and affable nature as the new mentor in Peter’s life. Once revealed, however, Mysterio becomes one of the most dangerous antagonists for the webslinger to face.
There are many ways to create a great villain. There are monsters that prey on society (Jaws), there are fractured versions of the hero (Silva, Skyfall), and there are heroes who become villains (Michael Corleone, The Godfather Part 2). The best villains have real motivations and feel justified in their quest (Thanos). But Mysterio is as much a fool stirring mischief and mayhem in the world as he is an outright villain. He is a terrifying aberration because he is able to convince the world (for a time) that he’s actually the good guy. When a villain can successfully turn society’s loyalty from hero to villain and shift their perspective from what is good to what is evil without them even knowing it, that is a level of deception and manipulation worth fearing.
Remember, few villains ever announce themselves as villains. They hide in the shadows and use smoke and mirrors to mask their true intentions. In Mysterio’s case, he’s just using the most powerful weapons of deception available, our modern media.
We can only hope Mysterio fooled us again by faking his own death because he’s too good of a villain to exit stage right after just one movie. It’s certainly not beyond the master illusionist to deceive SHIELD and Stark tech with another illusion.
Perhaps with Vulture and Mysterio still in the mix, we might get to see an MCU version of the Sinister Six. I would personally lose my mind to see Peter Dinklage as Doctor Octopus leading a team up of Vulture (Michael Keaton) Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), Kraven the Hunter (Manu Bennet), Sandman (Rory McCann), and Electro (Domnhall Gleeson).
Mysterio was the perfect choice for the Spider-Man sequel, and Jake Gyllenhaal was a brilliant casting decision. Nicely done, Marvel. You really thought this one through and introduced a terrific, timely, and terrifying villain for where the world and MCU are right now. We only hope you have more in the tank because we’re ready for the new era of heroes and villains.
That’s all for now. I hope you enjoyed Spider-Man: Far from Home and enjoyed my perspectives. As always, please like this post or subscribe to Perspectives off the Page for fresh content and updates.
And check back in the coming weeks for my story analysis of the original Ironman, the hero and film that started it all.
Until Today, Storytellers