“It’s easy to fool people when they’re already fooling themselves.”
After the behemoth of AVENGERS: ENDGAME and its dizzying success, the Marvel films turn inward with SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME, a surprisingly meta and cynical look at the artifice of ‘superhero cinema’ and how people – already operating under increasing self-delusion in both the film’s post-ENDGAME reality, and in the turbulent real world of viewers watching the film – let themselves be deceived. It might be a typical Marvel film in many ways – apart from one or two memorable sequences the visuals are typical smeary, bland hodgepodges, rendering the film’s various European locales the same dim smush that obscures any meaningful line between location filming and CGI, as of course intended – but that central theme of people buying into deceptive artifice because of their own personal self-deluding fallacies is handled bizarrely holistically, a legitimate throughline that works through the entire film.
The theme resounds through the personal level, with Peter Parker and MJ’s teenage flirtations (and don’t both actors sing when given material with a bit of, well, material emotion to play instead of generic superheroic fluff?) wracked with deceptions to each other, born of understandable reasons both on the superheroic and hormonal registers. It resounds through the villain (is it a spoiler that a 1960s villain called ‘Mysterio’ is something of an illusionist?), with them swanning about in a literal motion-capture suit, an image I’d argue more arresting and central to the film’s ideas than even its big showcase effects sequence where Mysterio unleashes a volley of illusions designed to prey on Spider-Man’s psyche. It resounds through ‘Nick Fury’ (in actuality the alien character first narratively misprescribed as a villain in CAPTAIN MARVEL), the fake news that marks the film’s ending, the aborted blackmail of a compromising shot of Peter Parker and some European agent, and through the entire setting, as it struggles to deal with replacing Iron Man, fitting square pegs into that round hole in trying to convince itself things can go on the way they did before.
It’s impossible to frame that last sentence in anything but meta terms, and the film actively encourages that approach, with ‘Fury’ playing the part of a movie producer trying to convince Spider-Man into one more film off his contract, and Mysterio playing the part of director glitzing more action and would-be pathos into his disposable superhero spectacle. Is it good fortune that Mysterio’s costume essentially already looks like a cynical mash-up of Iron Man, Thor, and Doctor Strange’s, or is that inherent commentary on the genre in general, all the way back to the 1960s when he first came about?
What’s clearly commentary is Mysterio outright talking abut the difficulty in dazzling audiences that should reasonably be numb to action-laden superhero spectacle, but instead continue to eat it up with abandon. What better casting than Jake Gyllenhaal for this villain, when he himself was originally set to replace Raimi’s Spider-Man Tobey Maguire midseries after a back injury? Just as the Marvel world is so readily hoodwinked by that performance that they’d give unreasonable power and control to Mysterio, Peter and MJ sabotage their own relationships and chances at happiness by displacing their own agency and senses of reason onto the worst case scenario narratives they hold to. It’s no coincidence their relationship only ends up actually forming right after Spider-Man learns to close his eyes to prescribed narrative and instead act based off his own emotions and intuition. All the interplay between doubt, cynicism, misplaced trust, and the media machine that empowers it all doesn’t really come to a conclusive head in Spider-Man and Mysterio’s confrontations so much as those two teenagers setting aside all the narratives and societal expectations around them, and instead just actually listening to each other and acting with love.
The film is packed with references to other Marvel Cinematic Universe films – the visual callback to Captain America wielding his shield and Thor’s Mjolnir in AVENGERS: ENDGAME when Spider-Man wields a sign and drone in the same fashion, the film’s plot being based around extrapolating character motivations from the well-memed “Tony Stark built this in a cave, with a box of scraps!” moment from IRON MAN, and the holographic technology used for some less-painful-than-just-talking (and furthering-Disney’s-special-interest-in-deageing-tech) exposition in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR – but the most critical reference is to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films of the 2000s.
Those films were such a success, culturally and creatively and financially and by whatever other metric a blockbuster film can be measured, that they have loomed after all Spider-Man films that came after them (and, of course, were a huge part of the facilitating the whole ‘genre’ of superhero films blossoming into the titan it is today). Their success and influence has been so great that cannier filmmakers have leaned into them (SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDERVERSE’s direct play with basically their universe, outright recreating scenes for laughs), less canny have unsuccessfully tried to copy them with superficial tweaks (THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN short-lived series, both in general conception, and specific characters like the Osborns), some have split off stray elements so as to use aspects of the IP while avoiding Spider-Man himself (the villain spinoffs of VENOM and MORBIUS), and some have pointedly avoided everything they did as much as possible, so as to remain somewhat distinct (SPIDER-MAN HOMECOMING in its dogged avoidance of literally anything from the Raimi films, as well as the general Marvel Cinematic Universe treatment of Spider-Man in general – note the abandonment of Uncle Ben, and the substituting of Marvel flagship Iron Man into basically that same role).
The Marvel Cinematic Universe films have very insistently avoided any classic “webswinging by skyscapers” scenes that the Raimi films are so well-known for, so the main sequence of SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME (before its two post-credit sequences) ending with one of those is very notable, as is that first post-credit sequence outright having a character from the Raimi films reprise his role, inexplicably, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After a whole film commenting on the artifice not just filmmaking in general, but specifically in the dizzying hollowness of superhero films, outright breaking with convention there felt earned. This is not a Sam Raimi film, but it’s a film that ended up being consistently self-aware enough that it found the freedom to not just reference, but outright include, hugely recognisable elements from those Raimi films into itself.
As Mysterio points out, all that can be gained from chasing higher stakes and more action is shallow nothingness – note the amusingly cynical repetition of “Avengers-level threat!” in the dialogue. But in instead looking inward, not just at the hollowness and artifice of that type of filmmaking, but at why that type of filmmaking has been so insanely successful with modern audiences, why, that’s positively Brechtian. “People need something to believe, and nowadays they’ll believe anything.” What does it say that Spider-Man was only able to defeat Mysterio when he literally closed his eyes to ‘the media’, Mysterio’s ‘superhero movie’, and embraced his emotions and intuition instead of following along that prescribed narrative? It’d be one thing if the film just followed that up with the requisite happy ending, but instead the two postcredit sequences both hammer that point of wilful deception born of misplaced trust in authority (itself born of needless self-doubt and denialism brought on by a setting in tragedy). “It’s easy to fool people when they’re already fooling themselves” indeed. Four Led Zeppelin songs, and a fishbowl.