Warning: This post contains spoilers for Spider-Man: Far From Home.
A high-school-aged twink spends a pivotal summer vacation in northern Italy, where he forms a complicated bond with a handsome older man — it’s not just the plot of Call Me by Your Name, I’m also talking about the first half of Spider-Man: Far From Home. When Peter Parker (Tom Holland) finds his school trip to Venice interrupted by a terrifying CGI water monster, he and his classmates are saved by the surprise appearance of a new masked hero, Jake Gyllenhaal’s Quentin Beck, soon dubbed Mysterio. For Peter, who’s mourning the loss of his mentor, Tony Stark, Beck initially seems the perfect replacement. He’s sympathetic and supportive, a good listener who’s not afraid to bend the rules if it will help Peter grow. He’s like Mark Ruffalo in You Can Count On Me, though instead of playing pool they’re saving major cities of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire from certain destruction.
However, as Oscar Wilde might have said, to lose one’s surrogate father figure is unfortunate; to lose two looks like carelessness — and Peter is too caught up in his own issues to realize that Beck is not what he appears. The Far From Home PR team has been treating the film’s second-half reveal as if it were a major spoiler, but given that Mysterio is a familiar antagonist from Spider-Man comics, TV shows, and video games, it’s not much of a surprise when this ostensible savior turns out to have a secret plan for world domination. (My colleague Bilge Ebiri’s iron law of superhero nicknames: “If it ends in ‘-man’ it’s a hero, if it ends in ‘-o’ it’s a villain.”) What is a surprise, though, is the precise nature of his villainy: Mysterio is the rare MCU bad guy who feels like he knows he’s in a superhero movie.
Like Euron Greyjoy in A Feast for Crows, Beck is uncannily aware of the tropes of the story he’s in. In Far From Home, he first introduces himself to S.H.I.E.L.D. with a story about fleeing an alternate-universe Earth that had been ravaged by a squad of demons called the “Elementals.” They even, *sniff*, killed his wife and child! It’s kind of a ludicrous backstory, but after the events of Infinity War and Endgame, he scoffs, people will believe anything. The rest of his ruse seems perfectly pitched to this particular moment in the franchise, too. Beck’s Mysterio sets himself up as the natural replacement for the Avengers who recently signed off: a roguish mentor like Iron Man, yes, but also a noble, square-jawed soldier like Captain America and a grieving family man like Hawkeye. Even the multiverse aspect of his tale seems attuned to a world where Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse just came out a few months ago and fans debate how Marvel properties owned by Sony and Fox might make their way into the MCU.
Once he unmasks himself as a disgruntled former employee of Stark Industries — a type of baddie much more on Spider-Man’s level than massive meteorological monstrosities — Mysterio remains in conversation with the genre. As in every big-budget superhero film, the action scenes in Far From Home have an unnatural weightlessness to them; here, though, the gag is that this time they actually are weightless CGI, as Beck’s been faking the “Elemental” attacks through sophisticated holograms. (Like a modern superhero actor, that isn’t actually him flying through the air.) At times, he feels like a contemporary blockbuster filmmaker, painstakingly planning each battle for maximum emotional impact and berating his underlings to give him higher stakes and a bigger scale, no matter the cost. In the final showdown, he’s an actor-turned-director, barking out orders to the crew over a walkie-talkie, then turning around and delivering his quips in-character to Nick Fury. (As often happens on these projects, Beck’s so busy that he hasn’t had time to write decent dialogue. If the best he can do is a plaintive “This is for my family!,” he may need to schedule some punch-up sessions.)
Even in his final moments, Beck remains dangerously genre-savvy. His attack on London is a failure, and Spider-Man has managed to become immune to his
tricks illusions through the simple act of closing his eyes. Lying wounded on Tower Bridge, he offers Peter the film’s MacGuffin, a pair of high-tech glasses once owned by Tony Stark. It’s a perfect story beat, a moment of catharsis and reconciliation that has the additional benefit of not being too violent for the kids in the audience. But that’s because it’s a hologram. The real Beck is about to shoot Peter in the head, and it’s only the timely intervention of the Spidey-sense that saves the day.
Two films in, Jon Watts’s Spider-Man movies have managed to find their own creative wavelength apart from the rest of the MCU — a little more cartoonish, slightly more gonzo, more comfortable going for the enjoyably stupid laugh. This version of Mysterio feels of a piece with all of that, down to the meta thrill of casting Gyllenhaal, who when he was Tom Holland’s age was seen as a potential replacement for Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man. When you need a character who’s self-consciously re-creating superhero tropes, who better to play him than Hollywood’s most postmodern leading man?