By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD
The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world.
--- George Orwell
An American friend, a very lovely lady friend to be specific, encouraged me to watch Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019) recently. I’d avoided any of the new Spider Man movies over the years out of loyalty to actor Tobey Maguire and director Sam Raimi, but she insisted because the movie was all about conspiracy theory paranoia in the US, with George Orwell being explicitly quoted. So, I simply had to watch it… on my computer, for free.
I was pleasantly surprised. It’s really a lot of fun and it’s full of well-plotted twists and turns. The visuals and special effects also deserve special mention, combining mythology with ultra-modern technology and extraterrestrial threats with traditional architecture, almost pitting old world versus new world. The drone scenes were spectacular, with POV photography that leaves your head spinning and that ups the stakes. Weirder still the sound was good. I almost didn’t need the subtitles file I downloaded, a rarity nowadays. But that’s not the half of it.
Americana the hamburger
Admittedly I haven’t kept track of the MCU movies and couldn’t entirely see this film in context so I couldn’t get emotive about ‘the Blip’ and how people who were gone were so disconnected because of the five years that went by. I also couldn’t laugh at the jokes about it either and it took some time for the comedy to rev up. What happens here more or less is that this new and improved spider kid (pun intended) played by Tom Holland is on a school science trip to Europe where he shirks his superhero duties in favour of hitting on his potential girlfriend, the obnoxiously good looking MJ (Zendaya). Meanwhile things are going awry back home as he is given a gift from the now deceased Ironman-Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr), a pair of glasses that access an AI computer network called E.D.I.T.H. that can deploy weapons and computer surveillance systems. His aunt May, played inexplicably by the too young, too gorgeous, too Mediterranean-looking Marisa Tomei, is also being hit upon by Stark employee and confidant Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). Worse still, badass goodguy Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is on his ass because of a new threat posed by ‘elementals’, mythical beasts that represent the elements earth, air, fire and water, after being warned by a hero from a parallel-dimension earth, Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), who later takes on the name ‘Mysterio’ after social media fans give him that label. But none of this bothers Peter while he’s on his trip, thinking only of how to get close to the gruff, rough MJ while his equally horny teenage friends duke it out themselves.
Straight off you can see some admirable themes here. The class is multicultural and multiracial. There is a Muslim girl that is conservatively dressed, I presume Arabic, and Peter’s best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) is a native Hawaiian while the classmate he falls for is as a platinum blonde. MJ looks mixed race herself, while one of the two teachers in charge of the trip is black and the other is white. This is the American melting pot on display, to a global audience, and you have to admire the inclusiveness of it all, especially given that the two teachers are very responsible and protective, while being equally dorky, goofy and incompetent.
Peter being the reluctant hero may be a reference to the US turning in on itself with the election of Trump, and many of the Europeans on display do have a somewhat sinister, conniving look to them compared to the hapless, naïve Americans. They counter these stereotypes with another set of stereotypes later in the movie so I’m hoping this reluctance isn’t a reluctance to interfere abroad but a reluctance to lead abroad, through example and earnest cooperation and mutual sacrifices. (I’m hoping). The grander theme and central concern of the film however is what’s happening to ordinary people thanks to conspiracy theories and paranoia, as my American friend very rightly pointed out. You have the kids talking about their next destination, the historic landmark that is the Eiffel Tower, thusly: “… read it was secretly built as a mind-control antenna”. When the elementals from the parallel earth start attacking the school teacher who is a scientist thinks “witches” are responsible.
This regression down the cognitive scale is being driven by a lethal combination of social media and social isolation, in the opinion of the movie. You can’t help but notice that the kids prefer to play video games or commune via social media or watch downloadable movies than actually talk to each other, even if they’re sitting right next to each other on board a long and boring flight. Same goes for bus rides in the wonderful forests and hills of the European countryside. They hardly look outside through the windows and are busy texting each other, which is why they don’t readily notice the drone that Peter accidentally dispatches against a classmate also hitting on MJ, the boy desperately trying to show her a photo he took of Peter stripping in front of an attractive woman. (He was changing into a new spidy suit at the behest of one of Nick Fury’s heavy-handed European agents). This incident also shows you how intrusive people have become thanks to all these new technological toys, and not just governments and corporations. (Peter himself gets advised early on to use VPN to stop anyone from tracking him electronically). This intrusiveness in turns feeds the sense of isolation and people’s fears and anxieties. They don’t know who is spying on them or why or what lies in store for them as a consequence.
Picking up the set pieces
The solution to all this however is not to turn the clock back technologically. Peter finally learns to take up the mantle from Tony Stark and use E.D.I.T.H responsibly, and it’s highlighted that the machinery is more than morally neutral but actually errs on the side of caution and has built in legal safeguards. (Look at how Mysterio gets himself killed when he removes these safeguards). The philosophy of tools is highlighted in the scene when the kids and Mr Happy are in London, fighting against killer drones using medieval weapons and armour. Mysterio himself turns out to be a phoney, using elemental threats that are nothing more than holograms and explosions. He’s a disgruntled former employee of Stark Industries who hates how superheroes get ahead while the real geniuses who produce their toys are left in the shadows and he so wants to posit himself as the protector of mankind in the face of these imagined threats.
That’s yet another thing that feeds the fear and mass psychosis of the masses, and Peter’s aunt always reminds him to use his spidy senses, which are what allow him to differentiate truth from lies in the end. In one very nice scene you have Mysterio telling his cronies to kill the holograms and risk his diabolical planning by saying: “They’ll see what I want them to see!” Quentin Beck understands how much people need heroes in these trying times and will trust them blindly, especially in the face of threats – real or imagined. Substitute leader for hero and you get the picture. Luckily Nick Fury himself admits that he’s been had, with all his American go-it-alone bravado, and gets rescued by his European helpers. A badly injured Peter also gets helped out in a funny scene at a vegetable market in Holland, with goats.
Europeans are more cynical and historically versed than Americans so it seems this shelters them to a considerable extend from political paranoia. Americans were all shocked by Watergate, not to mention what went wrong in Vietnam, and so lost their trust in politicians, whereas Europeans and Arabs and pretty much everybody in the Old World never trusted them to begin with. The trick is we can mistrust them without going to the opposite extreme and assuming everything that is done in politics is a lie and directed at us as individuals. History is important too, as evidenced by that hilarious Eiffel Tower example. If you’ve never heard of it before and assume it’s something brand new, you can wonder about its ultimate function. If you know it’s a historical landmark and know who built it and why and when and where, you don’t fall prey to claims made about it online. It’s like that quip about I don’t need to go to China to know it exists as long as enough people have been there and back.
My American friend also filled me in on the QAnon conspiracy theory, perpetuated online, which is partly why the rightwing protestors stormed Capitol Hill. When you check out podcasts about this ridiculous body of theories – claiming the Democrats are part of some paedophile satanic cult planning to rule the world – and you find that somebody online was feeding misreading of online chatter. One particular podcast explained how people got hooked on this nonsense, with a woman who lost her job thanks to the 2008 financial meltdown spending more and more of her spare time online, being cooped up at home with nothing to do and feeling worthless.
The woman, thankfully, discovered it was all a hoax and even online conservatives like Brittany Sellner are growing wary of it. (My American friend is a Democrat, if you must know). For my part I used the example of how a conspiracy theorist from the US was overjoyed about the sci-fi flick Prometheus (2012) with its (silly) idea that intelligent life was spawned on earth by alien engineers. He honestly believed this movie confirmed theories that European aristocrats had in the 19th century about their divine or extraterrestrial origins and talked about how one of the two discovers of the DNA molecule believed it may have had an extraterrestrial origin. There’s a famous theory that RNA came from Mars, given that its corroded by water, and that a piece of Martian rock was found on earth from billions of years ago, but that doesn’t have anything to do with space aliens seeding the oceans with alien spores or anything. (You practically see that in the opening sequence of Prometheus). There’s also theories about bacteria being lifted to earth via cosmic rays and even modern theories that viruses come from meteorites crashing into the earth’s atmosphere, serious scientific ideas that have neither been confirmed factually or depend on conspiracies and alien agency. As for decadent aristocrats coming up with explanations for their genetic superiority, this is to be expected because religious explanations were falling by the wayside in the face of science and Europeans were riding high after having colonised or imperialised the entire planet, giving rise to fanciful notions such as white supremacy and Whiteman’s burden.
The Nazis, pushing the Aryan master race myth, claimed either to be of alien origin or – get this – descended from the people of Atlantis. Did I mention that Donald Trump was a big fan of the said conspiracy theorist?!
Love, lies and lonelinesses
Spider-man is the perfect vehicle for exploring all these contemporary conundrums. Peter Parker is such a nice kid he represents innocence to perfection. When Mysterio offers to buy him a drink, to celebrate their victory, Peter insists he isn’t 21. Then you find him drinking away his sorrows and he’s just sipping away on lemonade!
The casting is really appropriate both for the storyline and the themes in general. The kids all look like self-indulgent American teenagers and picking Jake Gyllenhaal was a wise choice. He has a soft voice and is charming and likeable and the last person you’d expect to be a phoney, and he has a tech savvy, team-leader spirit to him. He celebrates his victory, hoodwinking Peter into handing over the glasses, in typical pep-talk American businessman fashion. (Europeans and Arabs are too cynical for that kind of thing. We work to get paid so as not to starve and nothing more. Americans actually expect to be ‘motivated’). To the considerable credit of the movie the psychodynamics of paranoia and alienation are also broken down in an enjoyable and relatable way. After they get back to the US Ned brags to Peter about how he broke up with his newly found American classmate-girlfriend, holding true to the adage that it is better to have love and lost than never have loved. It’s that fear of getting hurt, in your personal life, that helps perpetuate that loneliness and paranoia. (That might explain that annoying sideplot with Happy and Aunt May). You see this with MJ since one of the reasons she’s so aloof is that she tells people exactly what she thinks – doesn’t sugarcoat things, seeing that as lying. She’s also quite sensitive about how boys speak to her, wondering if a guy is making an advance or verbally harassing her.
I still can’t figure out why they have Marisa Tomei playing Peter’s aunt but I suppose they needed someone with her feisty disposition to be a working girl that isn’t dependent on Peter while also egging him on to be the superhero he’s meant to be. A modern family but still a good, stable, wholesome family. She can take care of herself fine but there’s no harm falling in love and getting married again. One doesn’t detract from the other, something that has almost become anathema in everything from the new Star Wars trilogy to the live-action remake of Mulan to… I hate to say it, Terminator: Dark Fate.
I kid you not. Check out the T-800’s celibate relationship with his illegal immigrant semi-wife. And they killed off rebel soldier Grace (Mackenzie Davis) before she got a chance to bump into an alternate time-line Kyle Reese. That’s a good idea for a reboot, to be honest.
It’s not like Sarah Conner is going to be birthing any future resistance leaders anymore, unless they clone her like they did Palpatine in Rise of Skywalker. If they can reboot Spider-man successfully, after several duds, and keep him true to his thematic roots, I don’t see why they can’t do that with Terminator or Star Wars. Anything to get Mackenzie Da… err, Grace back and besides Arnold Schwarzenegger. Talk about a Beauty and the Beast rebooted reboot!!
Special thanks to my American friend Jill and please check out Youtube reviewer Smack Talk on Dark Fate and the new Star Wars trilogy to make sense of the current downturn in American if not global cinema.
 Please check out Dr. Jörg Matthias Determann’s Islam, Science Fiction and Extraterrestrial Life: The Culture of Astrobiology in the Muslim World (2021), pp. 41, 61. And check out my review of the supercool book while you’re at it!