Spider-Man: Far from Home is a Superhero Film for the Fake News Era

Pop Culture

Spider-Man: Far from Home is a Superhero Film for the Fake News Era

Illustration: Ahmed Sikander

Amovie that features an unusually smart high school kid with the mutant powers of a spider (and the adorable factor of Tom Holland) has no real business making a serious point about real-world issues. Aren’t comic book movies supposed to be escapist fun? But Spider-Man: Far from Home, the first MCU film to release after the epoch-closing events of Avengers: Endgame, perfectly straddles the line between blockbuster entertainment and current affairs commentary, by making our friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man go toe-to-sticky toe with one of the most difficult adversaries he has ever faced: Fake news.

(Spoilers ahead for those who haven’t watched Spider-Man: Far from Home.)

This wouldn’t be the first time that superhero films, despite their reputation as mindless CGI-fests, have surprisingly held up a mirror to society by taking very real fears and transplanting them into a fictional universe. Marvel in particular is especially good at this. Captain America: Civil War dealt with unwarranted government surveillance at a time when we were all coming to terms with the fact that our privacy had been repeatedly breached online, and we were not as secure as we thought we were. Avengers: Age of Ultron saw Earth’s Mightiest Heroes strive to overcome a malevolent AI created by Tony Stark, just as we were beginning to learn about the implications this new technology might have on the world as we knew it.

Far from Home follows in the tradition of these earlier MCU films that grapple with realism. In it, Jake Gyllenhaal plays the antagonist Mysterio, but the real villain is misinformation. Mysterio is a trickster, like Loki, except instead of superpowers he uses science in his deceptions. He presents himself as a hero, but the villains he vanquishes are of his own making – enemies made to seem real with projectors and attack drones. His aim is to be seen as Earth’s saviour, a successor to Tony Stark, as it were. Even though his staged showdowns cause real damage, so strong is his grasp on the narrative of events that his myth starts to seem real. Peter Parker doesn’t just have to fight against Mysterio and his drones, he has to fight against the widely accepted idea that Mysterio is one of the good guys.

“People will believe anything,” Mysterio tells Spider-Man during one of their confrontations. He could just as easily be talking about people in our world as the MCU.

Just last month, Amitabh Bachchan tweeted a video showing a NASA-designed machine that generates rainclouds to provide water to drought-stricken areas, and Big B thought that India needed such a machine ASAP. While his intentions were noble, the video was in fact fake, but by the time that was pointed out it had already reached his 37.6 million followers.

Far from Home follows in the tradition of these earlier MCU films that grapple with realism.

There are darker implications to fake news as well. Last year, the IT Ministry rebuked WhatsApp for the harmful and false content that was being broadcast on its platform and leading to incidents of violence, lynching, and even death, from Maharashtra to Assam. Fake news reared its head again early this year, in the wake of the Balakot airstrikes. Images circulating on WhatsApp, supposedly of the damage left behind by the Indian Air Force, were proven to be photos of the aftermath of a suicide attack in Pakistan by BBC fact-checkers.

In an age of rampant misinformation, Mysterio is the perfect villain, and a well-told lie can be harder to beat than any flesh-and-blood foe. Far from Home is self-aware of its subject matter, leaning into the fake news motif by updating The Daily Bugle from a tabloid to a conspiracy theory-peddling vlog in the mould of Alex Jones’ InfoWars. The post-credits scene tips this hand entirely when a doctored clip of Spider-Man ordering drones to kill civilians is broadcast in Times Square. In a way, it’s reminiscent of the outrage against Kanhaiya Kumar when doctored clips of him and other JNU students shouting anti-India slogans began circulating, and turned him into public enemy number one for a few weeks.

After the intergalactic scale of Avengers: Endgame, an MCU film that’s more grounded in its plot is a welcome palate-cleanser. Far from Home also proves that the MCU still has fresh stories to tell, even as the curtain comes down on its most successful period to date. A lot of that is due to how well it pits Spider-Man, one of our favourite superheroes, against one of the greatest threats of our times. In the first film of Marvel’s Phase Two, Spider-Man might be far from home, but he’s closer to reality than ever before.