The article has spoilers for Spider-Man: Far From Home.
It seems inevitable that any long-running franchise should become, in no small part, about itself. There are any number of obvious examples. Steven Moffat’s tenure on Doctor Who was, in many ways, an interrogation of the core concepts of the show’s mythos, returning time and again to exploring the dynamic between the lead and co-star and the necessity for a story to have a “monster.” The Daniel Craig Bond movies — especially Casino Royale and Skyfall — are largely concerned with the mechanics of constructing a James Bond story in the 21st century, though it should be acknowledged that GoldenEye got there first. Recent iterations of Star Trek often serve as profound meditations on what it means to be Star Trek.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe reached this point around 20 films into the ever-expanding franchise. There was a strong sense of this meta-textual awareness with both Infinity War and Endgame, with Thanos literally stripping the heroes of their agency. “I am inevitable,” Thanos repeatedly boasted. He often felt like an anthropomorphic manifestation of the concept of inevitability. As he taunted Thor in his first scene in Infinity War, “Dread it. Run from it. Destiny arrives all the same. And now, it’s here. Or should I say: I am.” It was always possible to read Thanos as a metaphor for any number of existential threats, from something as concrete as climate change to something as abstract as death.
However, Thanos also felt like a manifestation of the various forces acting on the MCU outside of the writers’ control. Thanos was death and time, but he was also a force for change and transformation. He was an effective stand-in for ideas like contract renegotiation or for the logistics of trying to orchestrate a crossover on the scale of Infinity War and Endgame. Even the writers acknowledge that Thanos was the true protagonist of Infinity War, something that he largely accomplished by pushing the rest of the cast where the story needed them to go.
While Thanos made a strong case for himself as an avatar of inevitability, he was never particularly convincing as the manifestation of random, dispassionate chance. Notably, his finger snap is not random. It could never be. The characters who survived the snap (and the characters who were taken) were not arbitrarily chosen; they were dictated by narrative necessity.
Of course the original six characters from The Avengers survived, because the story needed them to. Of course the entire teenage cast of Spider-Man: Homecoming was snapped away, because production necessities required that as well. Spider-Man: Far From Home builds upon this idea, right down to casting its own villain as a similar, if slightly more grounded and less abstract, metaphor for the process of making a blockbuster on that scale.
Many critics and writers have observed that there is something slightly strange about the sequels populating multiplexes this summer. In Vulture, Nate Jones described the box office flops Dark Phoenix and Men in Black: International as “step-quels — part of the family but also kind of not.” Much of the debate around Toy Story 4 centered on the question of whether it was a necessary extension of a story that many felt was completed in Toy Story 3.
This is a continuation of a trend that Vulture’s Mark Harris noticed as early as 2016, with sequels being marketed more as “brand extensions” than as stories in their own right. In the contemporary summer blockbuster landscape, a clear no-frills sequel like John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is very much the exception rather than the rule. The dynamics and relationships at play are much more complex than they once were.
Far From Home understands this more than most. The film is in a strange position. It is technically the last film in Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which seems surreal given that Endgame was always going to be the culmination of that era and that Far From Home was being produced by Sony Pictures rather than Marvel Studios. Circumstances compound this confusion, creating a confluence of factors that make it impossible for Far From Home to have ever been its own thing.
The plot of Far From Home is so tightly woven into and informed by the events of Endgame that the film’s second trailer was considered a spoiler and held back until two weeks after the release of the bigger blockbuster. More than that, Endgame found itself in the position of being both massively financially successful and not quite massively financially successful enough to the point that Marvel Studios organized a theatrical re-release the weekend before the debut of Far From Home.
Of course, this iteration of Spider-Man felt the gravity of the MCU long before Endgame was released. Following the critical and commercial disappointment of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Sony Pictures brokered a shared custody arrangement with Marvel Studios over the character of Spider-Man. Peter Parker (and some of his supporting cast) could appear in Marvel Studios films, and in return familiar faces from the Marvel Cinematic Universe would pop over to help buoy his solo films.
Tom Holland made his first appearance as Peter Parker in Captain America: Civil War. In return, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jon Favreau appeared in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Holland reprised the role in Infinity War and Endgame, joined in both cases by his Homecoming co-star Jacob Batalon. In Far From Home, Favreau, Samuel L. Jackson, and Cobie Smulders pop across to lend the wall-crawler some MCU star wattage.
However, watching Homecoming and Far From Home, it is curious how the MCU’s gravity narratively weighs on these films. Both are structured heavily around the character of Tony Stark, who launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Iron Man back in May 2008. Homecoming casts Tony as a mentor to Peter, a barely present parent offering moral guidance and technical support. Mirroring this, Far From Home is structured around Tony Stark’s absence. “Everywhere I go, I see his face,” Peter confesses.
This is not flowery abstract dialogue; Downey Jr.’s face (and Iron Man’s visage) are all over Peter’s world tour in Far From Home. Even beyond that, both Homecoming and Far From Home exist in the orbit of the armored Avenger, remodeling iconic Spider-Man villains as third-tier Iron Man baddies operating below Tony’s radar. Homecoming introduces Adrian Toomes as a scavenger who is forced out of business by Stark and finds his own way to fly around with advanced tech. Far From Home features Quentin Beck as a former Stark employee who swears revenge after a public humiliation. These villain arcs are familiar, but not from Spider-Man films. Toomes and Beck could easily have fit into Iron Man 2 or Iron Man 3. They are more emotionally invested in Tony than Peter.
In a sense Spider-Man is subsumed by the MCU. Homecoming and Far From Home have a much tighter connection to the heart of the shared universe than some of the movies produced by Marvel Studios themselves like Doctor Strange or Thor: Ragnarok. This is surreal, given that Sony has been releasing Spider-Man films for longer than the Marvel Cinematic Universe has existed. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy helped to kick-start the modern superhero boom, demonstrating what was possible by bringing these four-color icons to the big screen in the 21st century.
More than that, Spider-Man arguably has a bigger pop culture footprint than any of the core heroes in The Avengers. The character’s cartoon theme song and animated television shows are an essential part of pop culture, whereas audiences struggle to pick a soundtrack cue from any of the Avengers movies. As a result, it is a little weird that Far From Home makes a bigger deal of a needle drop of “Back in Black” by AC/DC from Iron Man than the title character’s theme music.
One of the minor recurring motifs of this summer’s slate of blockbusters has been an anxiety around Disney’s ubiquity. Disney owns any number of blockbuster brands including Pixar, Lucasfilm, and Fox. It is suggested that the Fox merger will give Disney control of 40 percent of the theatrical market. Much has been written about how this year’s crop of summer blockbusters has been financially disappointing, but Disney is still on track to earn $9 billion at the box office in 2019.
In fact, Disney even seems to own criticism of itself. Earlier in the summer, Dumbo earned $350 million dollars worldwide while casting Michael Keaton as a thinly veiled broad pastiche of Walt Disney. It also seemed just a little pointed that the famously reshot climax of Dark Phoenix found the X-Men being dragged in chains into custody of the MCU. Deadpool 2 assures us that this is the “Mutant Control Unit,” but the acronym appears very prominently.
All this sets the stage for Far From Home, which feels like a superhero film about making a superhero film. The core plot of Far From Home finds Peter traveling around Europe trying to get some time to himself, only to continually be kidnapped by Nick Fury and forced to participate in some by-the-numbers blockbuster set pieces and awkward exposition. Peter very clearly doesn’t want to get roped into another superhero adventure. “I don’t want to talk to Nick Fury,” he tells Happy at one point. It is perhaps telling that Quentin’s first line before throwing himself into a superhero action sequence and blasting green energy from his hands is to tell bystanders, “You don’t want any part of this.”
However, Peter cannot escape his obligations. The first half of Far From Home plays this relatively straight. Peter is introduced to Quentin, dubbed Mysterio, as a refugee from another world, the “multiverse” associated with superhero storytelling and familiar to film and television audiences through Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse or The Flash. Mysterio is tracking the four elementals who must be defeated in something equivalent to a video game quest chain: one at a time in a variety of exotic locales. They can even be combined to increase their strength — which genre-savvy characters within the film compare to the Power Rangers or Voltron.
These plot mechanics recall the gathering of the Infinity Stones in Infinity War and Endgame, with Mysterio even offering a three-dimensional presentation to Peter and Fury similar to the exposition delivered by Dr. Strange and Wong to Stark and Bruce Banner in Infinity War. The elementals are primal forces dating back to the dawn of time, and so on.
Peter just wants a low-key school trip, but Fury cannot allow him that. Fury was introduced in the post-credits scene of Iron Man to welcome Tony to “a much larger universe,” but he shows up in Far From Home to steal Peter away. “I think Nick Fury just hijacked our summer vacation,” Peter laments to his friend Ned, as he finds himself drafted to fight “an Avengers-level threat.” All of this is pretty on-the-nose already, with Peter trapped between wanting to be “a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” and being forced to be “the next Iron Man.”
However, the film’s big twist makes this central theme literal. It is revealed that Mysterio is not a superhero, nor is he from another dimension. In fact, the elementals don’t exist and Mysterio isn’t actually present for most of his big fights. Instead, he is carefully and elaborately choreographing the rhythms and structures of a superhero blockbuster to suit his own ends — and trying to trap Peter within them. Mysterio is specifically targeting Peter, which is is why the film’s first action set piece conveniently coincides with Peter’s trip to Venice.
Far From Home very overtly frames Quentin as a film producer. The villain Mysterio is known for his iconic green costume, but Beck seems to spend most of the movie wearing a green-screen suit. He choreographs action sequences with a special effects coordinator, worries about creases in his cape with a costume designer, and workshops story decisions with a writer. Jake Gyllenhaal has tremendous fun in the role, playing up the character’s theatrical flourish; after completely fooling Peter, he raises a toast to the cast and crew of his elaborate deception like he is throwing a wrap party.
During the movie’s climactic action sequence, director Jon Watts repeatedly cuts back to Beck dressed in an absurd special effects harness that looks like it belongs in the special features of a film like this rather than a theatrical cut. When Peter and MJ figure out Mysterio’s plan, he pursues them with all the rabid enthusiasm of a studio trying to stop spoilers from leaking. (#MysterioDemandsYourSilence, it seems, and has the power to enforce it. #DontSpoilSpidey indeed.)
Mysterio is dedicated to giving his audience what he believes that they want, and using all that big empty spectacle to empower himself. Most of Beck’s effects are barely practical, relying on image manipulation and holographic projections. The parallels with modern movie production are obvious. After all, Gwyneth Paltrow didn’t even realize that she was in Homecoming, so it seems perfectly reasonable that Mysterio wouldn’t be entirely present for all of his action scenes.
Quentin is a man who doesn’t just understand the language of superhero films — he has actively weaponized them against Peter, trapping the web-swinging wonder inside a simulacra of an Avengers-level blockbuster. It’s brilliantly wry and self-aware, one of the most shrewd and sophisticated narrative choices in a Marvel Studios film since Shane Black radically reinvented the Mandarin for Iron Man 3.
Of course, there is a catch with all of this. As wary as Far From Home seems to be about the sinister machinations of both Fury and Mysterio to ensnare Peter within a standard comic book blockbuster instead of allowing him to find his own path, Peter never rejects the blockbuster trappings to focus on his own particular brand of crime fighting. Indeed, Far From Home suggests that the key to beating Mysterio is not to resist the conventions of this sort of spectacle but to eagerly embrace them.
Peter’s mistake in Far From Home is to surrender Tony’s power to somebody else, suggesting that there are some things that exist above his pay grade. In contrast, Peter manages to reach the blockbuster climax by having Happy Hogan pick him up in an Avengers Quinjet where he can build a new suit for himself using Tony’s technology. Happy smiles when he looks back and finds Peter playing with holographic technology to augment his suit in the same way that Tony did.
Peter prevails in Far From Home by accepting his place as the next Iron Man rather than simply remaining a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. The first post-credits scene reinforces the comparison by having Peter “outed” as Spider-Man. Peter had been the rare MCU character with a truly secret identity, and robbing him of that seems to fit him more conventionally within the Marvel Studios model.
Naturally, Peter defeats Mysterio at the end of Far From Home, incapacitating the manipulator in the middle of one of his elaborate deceptions. It is perhaps notable that Far From Home has Beck endure a classic Disney villain death; he is not fatally wounded by Peter, but by his own arrogance in arming the drones around him against the explicit safety instructions. However, Mysterio is the master of illusion. Perhaps his defeat was simply an elaborate deception, similar to the post-credits reveal that Nick Fury was really Talos from Captain Marvel all along. Maybe Mysterio won, and maybe he succeeded in trapping Peter inside a more conventional superhero blockbuster.