This article contains spoilers for Spider-Man: Far From Home.
Spider-Man: Far From Home features one of the most interesting Marvel Cinematic Universe villains to date. Quentin Beck — aka Mysterio — is a master of illusions. In Far From Home, Mysterio is a former employee of Tony Stark who uses advanced holograms and combat drones to masquerade as a hero from another dimension and trick Spider-Man and world leaders into giving him more power.
From a legal perspective, there’s a lot to talk about in Far From Home. We can start with the easy stuff. One of the movie’s key plot points involves an advanced weapons platform dubbed E.D.I.T.H. (Even Dead, I’m The Hero) that was developed by Tony. It can hack into any smartphone or computer, assassinate anyone anywhere, and level any city. In the real world, this kind of technology would be subject to a variety of weapons regulations that would strictly control how and by whom it could be used. That’s not so in Far From Home, where S.H.I.E.L.D. agrees to give E.D.I.T.H. to Spider-Man — who is not even old enough to own a handgun in most European countries — without any oversight or control over how he uses it.
The Law of Mysterio’s Holograms
The more interesting legal issues relate to Mysterio’s advanced holographic technology, which can be used to create videos and projections of individuals that are indistinguishable from the real thing. This technology essentially already exists. Advanced machine learning algorithms can use an individual’s speech patterns to generate videos of the individual saying pretty much anything. These “deepfake” videos are incredibly convincing, and to the untrained eye can be indistinguishable from the real thing.
Depictions can be even more realistic when visual effects artists are involved, as we saw in the recent Star Wars depictions of Carrie Fisher. While the holographic technology is not yet at the same level, it is not far behind. That was demonstrated with the now seven-year-old Tupac hologram at the 2012 Coachella festival, and with the more recent holographic depiction of Ronald Reagan.
As it stands, there aren’t many laws that regulate or control deepfakes or holographic technology in Europe or in the United States. At the federal level, a handful of congressmen have proposed legislation to regulate deepfakes, but the proposed laws are widely recognized as unenforceable and aren’t even close to passing. Some states have passed deepfake laws, but those focus on particular types of deepfakes. For example, Virginia passed a law making it illegal to distribute deepfake pornography “with the intent to coerce, harass, or intimidate” another person, and Texas passed a law that relates exclusively to deepfakes and election manipulation.
The fact that there is not a deepfake-specific law does not mean that normal laws are inapplicable. A person who uses a deepfake to commit fraud or theft is still guilty of fraud or theft. What it does mean, though, is that Mysterio could have achieved many of his goals without violating any laws. Mysterio could have used deepfakes to bolster his reputation without destroying valuable and historically significant European landmarks. He could have released a projection or video showing him stopping a fake robbery or mugging.
Alternatively, since his story is that he came from a different Earth, he could have created and released videos of heroic feats that took place there. If Mysterio wanted a live, public display of his heroics, he could have used his drones to simulate an elemental attack in a city with carefully placed, low-level ordinances that would not result in any significant damage to people or property. The point is that, without a deepfake law, there is nothing illegal about using holographic technology to deceive people. Likewise, there is nothing illegal about Mysterio’s claim that he was a decorated soldier from another Earth — the Supreme Court has recognized that individuals are perfectly free to lie about military achievements.
It is also permissible for Mysterio to use deepfakes to obtain power and recognition. A person only commits fraud when he lies or omits information and, in doing so, causes injury or harm to another person. There is no fraud when someone lies in order to bolster their reputation or to obtain some advantage that does not come at someone else’s expense. In Far From Home, Mysterio wanted to impress Nick Fury, meet Queen Elizabeth, and receive government approval to start or join a new superhero team. Those are perfectly acceptable goals, and there is nothing illegal about lying to achieve those goals.
In this way, the best parallel to Mysterio is probably Disney’s Aladdin. Aladdin and Mysterio have similar goals — they want power, fame, wealth, and to meet the royal family (albeit for different purposes). While Aladdin didn’t have access to virtual reality technology, he did have access to a magic lamp that essentially served the same function as Mysterio’s holographic technology and E.D.I.T.H. But Aladdin used the lamp to achieve his goal without destroying historical landmarks or murdering dozens of schoolchildren. Mysterio could easily have done the same.
Battling Mysterio in Real Life
While reasonable minds can disagree, I think the scariest use of Mysterio’s power took place during Far From Home’s mid-credits scene, when Mysterio used his holographic technology to frame Spider-Man for his own crimes. In the comics, this sort of thing happened all the time. Indeed, the very first issue of Amazing Spider-Man showed the Chameleon — a master of disguise — framing Spider-Man by committing crimes in a Spider-Man costume. The same thing happened in Amazing Spider-Man #13 when Mysterio — in his first appearance — committed burglaries dressed as Spider-Man. FFH takes that well-worn plot and updates it for the age of “fake news” and deepfake technology.
In this sense, we can view Spider-Man: Far From Home’s Mysterio as an embodiment of the threat posed by modern deepfake technology and large-scale disinformation campaigns. While we may have to wait a few years to see how Spider-Man responds to Mysterio’s antics on the big screen, the comics give us a sense of how it will play out. In each of the classic stories, Spider-Man clears his name by exposing his villainous doppelganger in the act. As deepfake technology and virtual reality continue to advance, we can only hope that the world will learn from Spidey’s lessons and will triumph over the real Mysterio-like threats just as definitively as Spider-Man did in the comics.