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Mysterio Is an MCU Villain Who Wants to Be a Hero

Jake Gyllenhaal’s master of illusion in ‘Spider-Man: Far From Home’ knowingly nods to fake news—and superhero fatigue

Marvel Studios/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

Spider-Man: Far From Home functions as the coda to Marvel’s Infinity War saga, which means the movie’s biggest task is picking up April’s broken crockery. Director Jon Watts manages this with cute, pleasant flourishes. After the Marvel Studios splash screen, there’s a tribute to Tony Stark, shoddily crafted by the Midtown High A/V department: Two students awkwardly wrestle with his legacy, and then with the fact that some of their classmates, who were presumed dead for five years, just up and returned from the ether a few weeks back. The most pressing question in Far From Home, though, is who can fill the void left by Iron Man—and poor, sweet, teenaged Spider-Man is left all alone to answer it.

He is, obviously, out of his depth. Tom Holland’s take on the character really rises to Stan Lee’s “feet of clay” standard. Beneath the mask, Peter Parker is believably frazzled about pop quizzes, his debilitating crush on MJ, and his second late father figure, whose big metal space boots he now has to fill. In one scene, his anxieties are given voice by a gaggle of reporters, demanding to know who defends Earth from aliens now, and whether the Avengers are still a thing. (These could also be the questions of moviegoers who struggle to envision a Marvel Cinematic Universe without Robert Downey Jr.) Parker escapes to a rooftop in tears. An Iron Man mural in memoriam looms large in the background. The world needs a hero, and Parker might not be it.

That’s where Quentin Beck comes in, a handsome and notably taller man, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. He’s both bound by duty and motivated by the loss of his family to rescue this reality, which is not his, from certain destruction by natural disaster beasts called “the Elementals.” It’s no weirder or sparer than anyone else’s backstory in the MCU, and even though you know this man is a cad, a villain named Mysterio, you’d be forgiven for being lulled by his noble suffering, his beard, and the urgency of his mission. Which, Beck argues, is all it really takes to satisfy our needs for a hero. His plan is to sucker Peter—lost, scared, and tired—into handing over Mr. Stark’s parting gift, a global defense system for use by “the Next Iron Man.”

Who is Quentin Beck? And what’s his problem? Well, remember the beginning of Civil War, when Tony walks around in his own memories with the help of really advanced digital simulation tech? That tech was Beck’s baby, and not only did Tony misuse it, he sent it to market with a stupid name. Then Tony fired him. So that’s Beck’s ax to grind. Like Vulture in Homecoming, Mysterio has endured one bad day too many, and resolves to take by force what’s long been denied him. For Vulture that was money and power; for Mysterio it’s mainly recognition. And he achieves it through obfuscation, misdirection, and corruption of the basic heroic ideals that we, the viewing public, are eager to believe in. Every superhero movie has a larger issue it wants to be about now, and Far From Home contends with the idea of fake news and the mutability of fact—but gently, like Stephen Colbert presenting the idea of “truthiness.” Beck intends to exploit the public’s desire to be saved, and the attention economy, by putting on a really good show. “People will believe anything,” he says.

Think back to when Mysterio appeared in the theatrical trailer, giving 110 percent against … something that looked like more of a threat. There were blog posts that considered whether Mysterio, Good Guy was canon. That his deception works as well as it does is a credit to Gyllenhaal, who looks and talks the part of a hero. He’s polite when insubordinate; he calls Peter “kid” in the chummy, reassuring way; and he goes out for a drink after a hard day’s work of world-saving. Beck is obviously disdainful of heroes despite wanting the recognition that comes along with being the world’s only savior. Gyllenhaal plays him like a person who spent time reading superhero Wikis so as to better roast the whole enterprise. This is only enhanced by the real-world possibility—as in it is eminently possible—that Gyllenhaal has never seen a Marvel movie.

To overread this a little more, his charm offensive in the movie’s first act almost seems like an obligation. Once Beck outs himself as the villain, Gyllenhaal really lets loose. In the comics, Beck is also a failed stage actor and a ridiculously talented special effects artist. These elements of Beck’s comic history are evident when he first begs out of Mysterio’s restricting costume, or when he is “directing” the upcoming battle with the next monster of the week. He’s simultaneously in control and on the verge of losing it, and so particular about the details of set design as to train anti-personnel guns on his stage hands. Gyllenhaal was clearly having the time of his life. Later on, during the actual fake battle, Mysterio whizzes around shooting ectoplasm rays at a giant smog monster while shouting “THIS IS FOR MY FAMILYYYYYYYY!”

While it’s still an underdog story about a kid with superpowers, Far From Home revels in the pot shots it takes at heroes: being them, having them, worshipping them. A decade-plus into the MCU, a necessary condition of making a superhero movie is acknowledging superhero fatigue in some way; Mysterio is that acknowledgement. As Marvel moves into the next phase of a franchise that’s netted in excess of $8 billion at the box office to date, how appropriate that we get a villain who wonders loudly, haptically, whether this all might be kind of dumb. Played by an actor who has definitely seen Thor: Ragnarok. People will believe anything.