Spider-Man: Far From Home has swung into theaters. And just like Peter Parker, it has a great responsibility: It must simultaneously bridge viewers into the next big phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, tie up any lingering questions about the events of Avengers: Endgame, and function as a standalone story for Spider-Man.
In general, it’s up to the task. But what’s most intriguing about Far From Home might be the way it connects to our world. So four members of Vox’s culture team — Alex Abad-Santos, Allegra Frank, Emily VanDerWerff, and Alissa Wilkinson — sat down to talk about how Far From Home comments on and reflects our “post-truth” era, not least because it seems keenly interested in the next generation, in more ways than one.
Spoiler warning: The following conversation contains spoilers for Spider-Man: Far From Home and its end-credits scenes.
Alissa: The story of Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spider-Man, has always been partly about being a teenager, navigating the huge changes that come with growing up. And superhero stories more generally have always been about fighting whatever forces are threatening humanity and the free world.
But even by those standards, Spider-Man: Far From Home, the second film starring Tom Holland as Spidey, feels particularly on the nose as a movie about teens fighting what threatens the world.
And it clearly believes that one of the biggest threats to the world now is fake news.
Well, fake news, and illusions of reality spun by people grasping for power, and also drones, I guess? As the film’s villain, Mysterio, explains to Spider-Man, he capitalizes on people’s willingness to “believe anything these days,” and creates the appearance of a threat that he can rescue them from, making it bigger and bigger and bigger. He also tries to trap Spider-Man in holographic illusions that spin one into the other, with no apparent end. The “dark web” jokes kind of just write themselves.
That’s not even mentioning the, uh, alt-right “news” commentator who pops up in the mid-credits scene, or the revelation of the post-credits scene: that some craftily edited footage makes it look like Spider-Man is the villain, not Mysterio.
The result is a film that suggests you can’t always believe what you see, and that powerful people, or those who want to be powerful, will always manipulate the truth to their advantage. It’s pretty striking, and I have some questions. For instance, how much of this kind of extremely relevant social and political commentary appears in other Spider-Man properties, and how much is the MCU updating itself for 2019 and what’s ahead?
Alex: Let’s acknowledge that the mid-credits scene is a very brief glimpse of J. Jonah Jameson, and we don’t really know his political leanings. But his mannerisms and his brusque tone seem to be a riff on a blustery Fox News type like Bill O’Reilly or Jeanine Pirro.
If he does turn out to be an alt-right commentator, then the scene seems to be a direct reference to Sony’s video game Marvel’s Spider-Man which was released last year. In that game, Jonah isn’t a newspaper editor but rather the host of a boisterous podcast (to me, he seems like a sendup of Alex Jones) who lambastes every good deed Spider-Man does and offers a negative take on it. JJJ’s video game persona could be seen as an updated riff on an earlier comic book arc where he became a radio host who took his frustrations against Spider-Man on the air.
But it’s also important to note that in the Spider-Man comics, JJJ really believed in equality and stood up against racists — something that you probably can’t say about alt-right figures who dabble in white supremacy.
The meta-ness of Far From Home’s iteration of the character is that painting JJJ as alt-right or denouncing the alt-right could be interpreted as Sony and Marvel taking a dig at Ike Perlmutter, the former boss at Marvel Studios. Perlmutter’s history at Marvel includes stories about him reportedly saying that girl toys don’t sell (hence the lack of Black Widow merchandise) and that black people “look the same” (when Don Cheadle replaced Terrence Howard in the Iron Man franchise). Kevin Feige, Marvel Studios’ current president, and Amy Pascal, the former head of Sony, both reportedly had feuds with Perlmutter. And according to a 2018 report from ProPublica, Perlmutter is now secretly shaping the Trump administration’s VA policies.
But yeah, either way, making JJJ a blowhard feels like a natural progression for the character. While we don’t know if he supports the alt-right’s hateful ideologies, his recklessness in putting Peter Parker in danger and being easily manipulated by an edited video sure makes him a villain who’s easy to dislike.
I don’t know if he’ll factor into Marvel’s plans for the future, though, considering the next few movies on the studio’s list are probably The Eternals, a Black Widow movie, a Doctor Strange sequel, and a Black Panther sequel. I can’t fathom any of those stories being about something as contemporary as the “state of the media.”
What do you all think? Would you pay to watch Okoye deal with Tucker Carlson? If that’s the direction Marvel is going in, how well would Spider-Man lend itself to that kind of narrative?
Emily: Yes, Far From Home’s occasional bits about fake news are particularly pointed, but when I watched Jake Gyllenhaal’s delightful turn as Mysterio — a turn that has made me believe in supervillains again! — I came away thinking about something very different: blockbuster filmmaking.
What I love about Gyllenhaal’s casting is how it puts a none-too-subtle meta-gloss on the whole MCU. For starters, Gyllenhaal was very nearly cast as Spider-man himself, way back at the dawn of superhero cinema. When Tobey Maguire balked at the initial paycheck he was offered for 2004’s Spider-Man 2, Sony threatened to hire Gyllenhaal to take Maguire’s place, on the theory that one slightly bland and dry white guy with brown hair was just as good as another. Maguire blinked and returned for the Spidey sequel. And Gyllenhaal spun off into a career that would grow progressively weirder as time went by.
Now, he’s brought the nervy energy of his turns in Nightcrawler or Okja to the world of Marvel, and he keeps making fun of the cinematic universe he finds himself in, like he’s Abed from Community or something. In this regard, my favorite moment of Far From Home is when he keeps pointing out how unlikely the fake backstory he’s cooked up for his invented “Quentin Beck” character — who came to Spidey’s Earth from an alternate Earth that was destroyed by magical monsters called Elementals — is. People would rather believe that Beck is from an alternate universe than that egotistical billionaire Tony Stark liked to take credit for things other people in his organization worked very hard on.
To my mind, Mysterio is ever so slightly positioning himself as the auteur of the MCU. If super-producer Kevin Feige is Tony Stark, the aloof know-it-all who changed everything and left others scrambling to catch up, then Mysterio is every director who’s subsequently felt hemmed in by Marvel Studios’ overriding ideas about how movies should be made. At one point, he all but claps his hands frantically and shouts, “C’mon, people! We’re losing our light!”
More and more, Marvel’s movies are positioning themselves as their own greatest villains. They’ve always carried a whiff of almost-critique of American imperialism (which I wrote more about here), and now they’ve curdled into a self-critique, a dark realization that the only thing Marvel has to fear is Marvel itself. Nobody can beat them at this point. And achieving that kind of strength almost always means a backlash is somewhere on the horizon.
What I like best about Mysterio is the way that Far From Home curlicues this borderline self-loathing into its themes about fake news and other manipulations of reality. We live in a world where lots and lots of people fell for an obviously faked video of a “drunk Nancy Pelosi” and where the technology necessary to create fake video footage advances with each passing day. What Mysterio is talking about goes beyond even fake news, into the realm of how willing we are to believe just about anything if it bolsters a story we already want to be true — like the idea that a normal teenage boy could be bitten by a spider and become a good-hearted superhero. This isn’t a critique of fake news; it’s a critique of escapist narrative in general, which I find kinda thrilling.
Maybe I’m wrong, though! Allegra: Did you get big Michael Bay energy from Mysterio like I did?
Allegra: There’s some definite BMBE radiating from Mysterio — both from the character and from his over-the-top, explosive action set pieces. But in Quentin Beck, the man behind the illusory mask, I saw something more akin to ... Orson Welles. Seriously! I’m not saying Beck’s plan to overwhelm Peter with highly elaborate, highly constructed scenes of devastation deserves a spot on the Sight & Sound poll. But to your point, Emily, of Beck serving as a proxy for the creatively boxed-in directors at the helm of these Marvel movies, I see him as someone who broke through and wants his hands in every piece of the pie. He not only directs and writes but stars in his projects too!
And that need for control is what takes me back to our supposition of a fake news critique lying at the heart of Far From Home. I don’t see that critique and your assertion that this film confronts the escapism of superhero movies as mutually exclusive; in a sense, the audaciously ridiculous nature of extremist pundits feels like an escape from a reality their followers find untoward. Alex Jones offers an escape for his alt-right viewers in the same way that Peter and MJ’s relationship fills that romantic void I felt during my own high school years and have since left behind — something personal and idealistic to project onto, even if some of its inherent ideals are gross and inane.
Ultimately, the film’s overarching themes worked well for me, once they really got going. But I do want to go back to the question of whether Far From Home’s interrogation of a very au courant issue — the omnipresence of illusions, and our inability to trust supposedly honest sources — will carry through to the next Spidey adventure. I’m not sure; it feels specifically tied to the nature of Mysterio’s powers. But I’m curious: Should Spider-Man, or Marvel writ large, make a concerted effort to probe some of this generation’s big societal issues?
Alissa: Honestly, I would love that. I have always been aware of the cultural and political background of the Marvel films, but for the most part they’ve been generic in that regard (with the exception of Black Panther, and maybe the early Iron Man films). The idea that Spider-Man and other future Marvel films might make a more direct gesture toward the real world — since the studio seems determined to have the MCU be adjacent to our own — makes me more interested in what lies ahead.
I don’t have a ton of faith it will happen, though, and the reason is tied to some of the blockbuster filmmaking metaphors in Far From Home: In order to stay on their upward trajectory, the MCU films will need to convince nearly everybody in the world to see them, regardless of nation, creed, political affiliation, and so on.
And so a whiff of too-obvious confrontation of ideas perceived as political by some segment of the audience seems like it could hurt ticket sales. Fan culture around comics is already fraught, and even moves that are baldly unpolitical — like casting black actors, or letting a woman be an action hero — have been met with resistance from some of Marvel’s hardcore fans.
The MCU is so big right now that I don’t think its most devoted fans matter as much as they think they do for ticket sales. But if some cable news talking head or newspaper columnist gets it into their head that the new Spider-Man film is pushing a political agenda and makes a big deal of it, that could cut into the bottom line.
And to film studios like Marvel, the bottom line is what matters most.
So I don’t think there’s going to be much social commentary in the future of the MCU. But I do think there’s a measure of effectiveness to what is already present; one thing I appreciated about Far From Home is that the kids seem to pretty quickly and seamlessly accept the ideas that drones and some fancy tech are making Beck’s large-scale illusions possible, and cop to what the Bad Adults — who are presumably some of the smartest in the world! — are up to.
The teens! They will save us!
Alex: Black Panther is indeed an exception. From its onscreen representation of people of color to its story about colonialism, isolationism, identity, and racial inequality, it’s not only a fantastic movie but also a pretty heavily political one. And to date, it’s still Marvel’s most successful solo superhero movie on domestic soil.
Toxic fan culture does get me down sometimes, because so many of Marvel’s creators, including Stan Lee himself, championed equality, respect, empathy and instilled so many of those traits into characters like Captain America, the Avengers, the X-Men, and even JJJ! Railing against Marvel for bringing women and nonwhite superheroes to the big screen represents a fundamental misunderstanding of Marvel’s superhero legacy.
But enough about all that — let’s talk about a universal truth and a lasting legacy: Zendaya. I think I fell in love with her and with MJ while watching Far From Home. Can she play all the superheroes in Marvel’s future? What did Sony and Marvel do differently with MJ this movie?
Emily: Zendaya! Even the name brings joy to my heart. Zendaya! She’s a glorious screen presence, who’s built her entire persona around being over this shit. Zendaya! Is she technically Gen Z? I think she might be a year or two too old and, thus, a young millennial, but her name is literally Zendaya, so who cares? Gen Z! Named for Zendaya!
Gosh, it’s hard to explain why I enjoy Zendaya so much in these movies, beyond how much I always enjoy seeing her pop up in anything I’m watching. I think it’s because she captures a kind of fundamental #teen conflict between really, really caring about the injustices and broken systems of the world (and wanting to change them as a result) and having all kinds of unruly teenage emotions that you don’t know what to do with. And what I really love about Far From Home is that it lets MJ and Peter get together without tanking her character. She can care about the world and have a boyfriend! It’s possible!
I have already horrified some of you by expressing my strong preference for this movie over Homecoming, and if I had to explain why, most of my answers would come back to the performances of Gyllenhaal and Zendaya, who give the film lots of spark and verve in places where other Marvel movies fall a little flat.
Marvel has long had a problem with bland and boring villains, who don’t seem to have believable human motivations. (This probably speaks to Alissa’s problem with the movies’ unwillingness to engage with our reality unless Ryan Coogler is present to insist on doing so.) But it’s also long had a “perfunctory love interest” problem, and that might be rooted even more deeply. I love Lupita Nyong’o, for example, but she has by far the least of the many intriguing roles for women in Black Panther. And don’t even get me started on, like, Rachel McAdams in Doctor Strange!
That’s why I think Far From Home is so brilliant in the way it uses Gyllenhaal as satirical self-critique, then uses Zendaya as an example of what the world could be if we really tried. It positions the two of them as twin poles each tugging at Peter, so that when he gets together with the girl at the end, there’s an emotional resonance that might not have happened otherwise. That puts it miles ahead of Homecoming, where both the villain and Peter’s love interest get stuck in a story twist that works in the moment but undercuts much of the movie’s third act, which then slowly deflates (another Marvel problem!).
And yet Far From Home is (ahem) far from perfect. For instance: The Skrulls thing was pointless.
Allegra, you are a Homecoming fan. Am I still speaking your language?
Allegra: I’m a Spider-Man: Homecoming die-hard, not a mere fan! But I’m also a lover of Gyllenhaals and Zendayas, so I super appreciate the presence of the former and increased screen time of the latter. Zendaya in particular is, as you pointed out, an appealing love interest unlike that of any other Marvel movie, to me. I’m partial because Zendaya’s MJ is a low-voiced, deadpan, biracial weirdo like me — but also because she is considered legitimately attractive, a girl Peter has to really chase for. It’s the stuff of fanfiction I totally would have written when I was in middle school.
As the writer here who’s closest in age to Gen Z, I have to add that the combination of high school romance and light interrogation of large societal issues, like surveillance states and subjective truths, did ultimately work well for me. I can imagine my teenage self being wooed and even inspired by Far From Home’s presentation of both — just as my current, 25-year-old self is, albeit less so. There are certainly more intellectually stimulating discussions out there concerning America’s growing reliance on drones. But Far From Home’s literal weaponization of them does strike a chord with the younger me.
All of this is to say that while I vastly prefer Spider-Man: Homecoming, Far From Home does feel more useful for a younger viewer, in terms of opening people’s eyes to larger political issues. Alissa, I know you appreciate that the movie took this more socially conscious route and hope that future Marvel films will do the same. But, real talk: Does that make Far From Home more essential or relevant than Homecoming?
Alissa: Probably not? Sometimes those kinds of details can even wind up dating a film. I think a lot of Far From Home’s legacy depends on what happens next, and whether this movie kicks off not just a new era for the MCU’s storylines but also for its storytelling.
That said, I liked it quite a lot. It’s very funny! Night Monkey! Alex, where would you rank this movie among the MCU films?
Alex: I really wasn’t into the first third of the movie. I actually saw it sitting next to Allegra and audibly groaned and grunted during some of the shoddy dialogue — especially the part where Peter gives Mysterio the glasses. But then it really picks up, and I love what Marvel did with Mysterio and Zendaya’s MJ. I think overall, Far From Home is probably toward the bottom of the top half of Marvel movies.
Allegra: I’m with Alex here. I did yelp with delight exactly when the movie wanted me to, and I gasped in fear of my beautiful Peter and MJ’s safety at all the right moments. But I stan a true legend: Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Emily: The bottom of the top half! I greatly enjoyed this outing, and I look forward to more adventures of MJ and her friend, the Spider-Boy. And if Mysterio wants to come back too, who am I to quibble?
(Actually, that’s a great pitch for the next movie — Mysterio and Vulture team up! Not quite the Sinister Six, but I’d kill to see Michael Keaton and Jake Gyllenhaal live it up together.)
Spider-Man: Far From Home is now in theaters.