Spider-Man: Far From Home’s greatest strength is its antagonist, filling a Thanos-sized void post Endgame
Spider-Man: Far From Home’s strongest feature is its antagonist.
Compared to other adaptations of Spider-Man released in the last few years, Spider-Man: Far From Home isn’t really the best. It is definitely nowhere near the breath-taking experience that was Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which is probably the best thing to have happened to the web-slinging superhero on the silver screen.
It is also a bit of a let-down after its 2017 prequel Homecoming. Tom Holland is still convincing as Peter Parker, but writers Chris McKenna and Eric Sommers should realise that teen comedy tropes can only be used so many times before they start becoming repetitive and forced.
In Homecoming, for instance, Parker has a crush on Liz Allan (Laura Harrier) and gets placed in embarrassing or awkward situations as a result of his attempt to impress her. In Far From Home, Parker now has a crush on Michelle Jones (Zendaya) and gets placed in similar situations as a result of his attempt to tell her about his feelings. High school teenager struggles with his feelings for a girl. We get it. Can we have more character development, please?
Having said that, there are quite a few aspects of the Spidey mythology that Far From Home not only gets right but also improves. Zendaya’s MJ or Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May in the movie, for example, are progressive depictions of characters which were otherwise either overtly sexualised in comics or portrayed as helpless.
But Far From Home’s strongest feature is its antagonist: Quentin Beck aka Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal). This is an especially positive sign for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, because the new phase after the Infinity Saga needs to fill the void left behind by Thanos, the saga’s primary antagonist.
The revelation of Mysterio as the antagonist in Far From Home wasn’t exactly a big shocker. In fact, Mysterio has been one of Spidey’s most prominent enemies and one of the original members of the Sinister Six, a group of the most dreaded supervillains in Spider-Man comics. So, even when Mysterio was parading as a superhero fighting the ‘Elementals’ in the first half of the movie, the upcoming plot twist was probably expected.
Despite its predictability, the twist still worked and was much needed in the film to highlight Beck’s motive, which is thankfully something more thoughtful than clichéd world domination. Further, it is quite disappointing to note that this is the first time Mysterio has appeared as the primary foe in a modern film adaptation of Spider-Man. Of course, there was a rumour that Bruce Campbell was set to play Mysterio in the eventually cancelled Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 4.
The beauty of Mysterio’s motive lied in its simplicity. He is merely portrayed as an avaricious man hungry for the kind of status which superheroes enjoy in the movie’s world. He thus uses illusions and deception to trick that world into believing that he is, in fact, the friendly neighbourhood hero that it needs. He also uses Peter Parker’s vulnerability after Tony Stark’s death to establish a relationship with him and convince him that he is the father figure Parker is looking for.
Of course, in terms of motive, the MCU has had some other antagonists with distinct and focused intentions. In Iron Man 2, for instance, Ivan Vanko aka Whiplash is hell-bent on seeking revenge for his father’s humiliation by Stark. In Captain America: Civil War, the antagonist Helmut Zemo also seeks revenge for the death of his family due to the battle of Sokovia in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Quentin Beck is like an evil politician trying to project himself as the leader and protector of the masses by selling lies and twisting facts in an era of fake news and ‘alternative facts’. If that reminds one of some or many contemporary world leaders, it only shows the importance of his motive and how identifiable his character is.
Mysterio has always been the master of illusions in comics. But Marvel’s clever treatment of Mysterio’s habit of deceiving people in Far From Home points out a level of self-awareness of its own flaws. “Gyllenhaal’s Beck can’t help but spell it out: The MCU has become so numb to planet-shaking crises that one only needs to show up at the right time in a colorful (sic) costume to win the trust and adoration of the masses,” this article in Birth.Movies.Death. aptly puts it.
The threat from the typical antagonist mostly manifests in physical ways, even if that physical threat was devised by the his/her intellect. The Spider-Man mythology is also full of such foes: Doc Ock, Rhino, Scorpion, Vulture, Kraven the Hunter, Sandman, Shocker, Electro, Venom, Carnage.
Such antagonists, of course, result in great action sequences and visual, CGI-fuelled treats. But there is a smaller group of supervillains who rely primarily on psychological threats and mind tricks to challenge the protagonist. Mysterio in Far From Home often shifts focus from special effects to issues less explored in superhero films, like gaslighting. He intends to obtain information from or eliminate the protagonist by messing with the very mind of the superhero, adding a much-needed layer of depth to the conflict which would otherwise be a straightforward brawl.
The movie sequence set in Berlin in which Mysterio casts one illusion after another until Spider-Man loses his grip on reality is one such beautiful example.
Of course, typical supervillains like Thanos have also been shown using psychological threats in Infinity War and Endgame. And Mysterio also relies a bit on the firepower of drones in Far From Home in his conflict against Spider-Man. But just like Thanos relies much more on his physical superpowers and vast army, Mysterio uses psychological tricks more often.
Mysterio is to Spider-Man what Scarecrow is to Batman or what Kilgrave is to Jessica Jones. While Scarecrow in the Batman movies and comics uses mind control drugs to make his victims hallucinate their worst fears, Kilgrave can directly control the mind of his victims and have them do literally whatever he says. What makes these three antagonists stand out is their psychological approach to a conflict with the protagonist.
Now that the Infinity Saga is over, Marvel should introduce antagonists who offer viewers unconventional ways of looking at a conflict. While it unfortunately does not look like Mysterio will be back in the Spider-Man films to come, other similar foes – like Chameleon (a supervillain who is a master of disguise and, in some Spider-Man adaptions, has the ability to shape-shift) – should be introduced in MCU films.
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