By Stephanie Pacheco
I am a sucker for the Marvel universe. If I am a piano, it can play me all day long. Spider-Man: Far from Home hits all the right notes of emotions for fans after Avengers: Endgame, as well as major cultural and philosophical points, especially perceptions and truth. Its success points to a universal desire for something beyond ourselves.
Spoiler warning: In the aftershock of Tony Stark/Iron Man’s (Robert Downey, Jr.) altruistic death in Endgame, Far from Home shows a Marvel universe in mourning and still processing what’s been dubbed “The Blip,” the five-year disappearance and subsequent reappearance of half of the earth’s population. Frequent images and tributes to Iron Man pop up throughout. Then Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) must struggle with inheriting and living up to Stark’s legacy. The AI-rigged sunglasses that Tony leaves to him become a symbol of the responsibility passed along, and Peter mistakenly hands them off to the traitorous Quentin Beck/Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), inaugurating the main struggles of the film.
When Mysterio is revealed as a fraud, it’s pleasant and unforced that the Chief of Security, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), becomes the guide for Peter. It’s as nostalgic for fans as it is for Happy, as Peter plays around with Tony’s technology, designing a suit and trying it on.
Mysterio’s illusions play with Peter’s worst self-doubts, dark and universal. “If you were good enough, maybe Tony would still be alive,” he tells Peter, complete with a skeletal haunt in the Iron Man suit. As with the other Marvel movies, the script is psychologically savvy enough to tug our heartstrings as it plays on the character’s insecurities.
Truth and Myth
Mysterio, as a disgruntled illusion-maker, also serves to push questions of truth and deception to the fore of the film. Peter ultimately overcomes these by trusting his Spider-Sense (hilariously dubbed “Peter Tingle” by his aunt) and crushing the legions of drones that create the entrapping images.
As a villain, Mysterio plays on the perceptions, dreams and expectations of his audience, fooling even Nick Fury into believing that he is a remnant soldier from a multiverse Earth. He even taps the topic of fake news when he alters and selectively edits a video, shown after the credits, to frame Peter as a liar and reveal his identity. The idea of edited or manipulated footage influencing public opinion, and even changing the facts as known to higher-ups, figures prominently. Mysterio claims the power to set these narratives when he says, “Mysterio is truth.”
Unfortunately, the real-life basis for this ability of media and public figures to manipulate what we believe is all too real and has come to trouble our society. Robert McNamee, an early mentor of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, bewailed in Time Magazine the unique reality it creates for users:
“Facebook’s algorithms give users what they want, so each person’s News Feed becomes a unique reality, a filter bubble that creates the illusion that most people the user knows believe the same things.”
Thus Facebook has not motivated its users to access trustworthy, shared outlets whose journalists work to bring true information to the public. It shows the power of groupthink. Ironically, Spider-Man’s usual truth-teller, MJ (Zendaya), twists the Orwell quote that “the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world,” to her advantage to distract her classmates from Peter’s frequent disappearances. Far from Home is hyper-aware of the power of media and “heroes” to alter our perceptions.
To give another real-life example from the other side of the political aisle, media personalities were quick to jump on the video footage of high school boys from Covington Catholic High School during the 2019 March for Life. News outlets and Twitter personalities gravitated to a narrative about white supremacy because it fit the trending talking points, without necessarily watching all of the footage or verifying what happened. As a result, a young man who tried to de-escalate a tense situation was skewered on TV and the internet as harming a gentle, protesting elder from the Omaha Nation.
Without going too far into politics, it’s clear that the ability to steer perceptions is a powerful one. Mysterio uses it to his advantage in the Marvel universe. Meanwhile here in the actual universe, honesty, clarity and truth are things to which we as a society need to pay more attention, while still recognizing the limits of human perception. Given social media’s contributions to polarization, which we also see across news outlets, an earnest striving to learn truth and listen to each other is needed for cohesion in American society. Spider-Man sheds some light on it in an easy, action-packed, fun-filled way that doesn’t hurt anyone’s feelings because we, the audience, know that Peter Parker is telling the truth. Too bad it’s not that simple in real life, and it’s a huge issue that needs to be dealt with.
Something to Believe In
Lastly, and semi-theologically, Mysterio assures himself his plan will work because “people need to believe in something,” and “right now, they don’t believe in anything.” In a way, he was right, and in a way, he was wrong. As a person of faith, I get a little antsy watching movies where the big bad guy is a con man, taking advantage of people’s gullibility. Religion often tends to get that paint brush–a conning belief system that preys on our “need to believe.” Karl Marx is famous for stating, “Religion…is the opiate of the masses.” It keeps people docile; we want heroes, so we make them. And when religious leaders take advantage of their flocks, which is shamefully all too often the case, these criticisms are well-deserved. Mysterio makes the same transgression, and we rightly revile it. It’s pure villainy.
But I honestly believe that there is an honest and truthful sense in which we humans do need to believe in heroes, in a higher meaning to life, in norms of kindness and love for each other. Authentic religion, across cultures, strives to acknowledge and incarnate these universal yearnings. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
“In many ways, throughout history down to the present day, men have given expression to their quest for God in their religious beliefs and behavior: in their prayers, sacrifices, rituals, meditations, and so forth. These forms of religious expression, despite the ambiguities they often bring with them, are so universal that one may well call man a religious being…” (CCC 28)
We humans are always looking for God, for a higher meaning, for something to believe in.
That’s why we tell stories. The stories, or the mythology, if you will, of a culture transmits values, morality, heroes and archetypes, as Carl Jung would have called them. The Marvel Universe tops the box office because it plays the right cultural chords for a lot of people. There is a message of goodness, of truth, of fighting for each other. It’s a good message; it’s one we can get behind.
Looking at mythology from a Christian perspective, J.R.R. Tolkien, Oxford scholar and author of The Lord of the Rings, was fascinated by the idea of myth. Yet about the Christian story of Jesus, of the incarnation, he said that it wasn’t a myth, but the myth, “exactly the same thing–with the enormous difference that the poet who invented it was God himself, and the images He used were real mean and actual history.” In short, it is the true story of a hero from which all others draw their universal archetypes, knowingly or not.
This is not to say that all stories are intentionally Christian, but rather that riveting stories are riveting because they draw from archetypes that are deeply part of the human psyche, a psyche that longs for truth, love and goodness, for heroes and for theosis. In our times, no matter how legitimate religious beliefs and practices are, they gain little traction in contemporary discourse. Yet, far from believing nothing, the reigning popularity of superhero movies– the virtuous Captain America, Iron Man who finds a cause bigger than himself, and here now, Spider-Man’s latest iteration– signals that something about these hero motifs speaks deeply to our hearts as an audience. In a true sense, Mysterio is right. We need something to believe in.
The success of the Marvel movies is just that, something to believe in. We do care about something. The excitement, the themes, the inspiration of the characters and their resonance, point to our thirst for universals, for ideals, which points further to the actual existence of these ideals or spiritual realities. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”
A Hero to Believe In
Mysterio wants to be a hero people can believe in, but it stems from jealousy, and he is a fraud. Fortunately, Spider-Man, alongside his Marvel sisters and brothers, is a hero we can believe in. His earnestness, humility, reliance on truth, and desire to serve and protect are qualities that touch us and touch the universal.
Stephanie Pacheco has an MA in Theological Studies from Christendom College’s Graduate School of Theology (2012); BA in Religious Studies, minor in Government from the University of Virginia (2008). She has written freelance since 2012, tutored 2017 and she’ll be teaching 5th grade at St. Thomas More School in Arlington in August. She’s been published by America Magazine, Sojourners, Crisis Magazine, Ethika Politika, The Truth and Charity Forum of HLI, Soul Gardening Magazine and the Catholic Diocese of Arlington. Her articles have been syndicated by EWTN and Zenit. Check out her blog and her resume on LinkedIn here.
McNamee, Roger. “I Mentored Mark Zuckerburg. I love Facebook. But I can’t stay silent about what’s happening. TIME Magazine, Jan. 2019. Print Edition. Online: https://time.com/magazine/us/5505429/january-28th-2019-vol-193-no-3-u-s/
Flanagan, Caitlyn. “The Media Botched the Covington Catholic Story.” The Atlantic, Jan. 2019. <https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/01/media-must-learn-covington-catholic-story/581035/>