Fake news has always been Spider-Man’s greatest foe
Far From Home traps Tom Holland’s webslinger in a post-truth world – but Spider-Man has always had to deal with irresponsible journalism (contains spoilers)
**Warning: this article contains MAJOR spoilers for Spider-Man: Far From Home**
“People tend to believe – and these days, they’ll believe anything.”
So says master illusionist Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Marvel Studios’ latest Spider-Man: Far From Home, and when our real, non-superhero world uses “fake news” and “post-truth” as regular buzzwords, it’s not hard to draw some topical parallels.
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If our own world is beset by official, high-profile denials of basic fact to favour the biases of individual people, what hope for a world where magic, aliens and insane super-powered characters really exist? Really, it’s a surprise it took this long for somebody to try and seize control of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s narrative from within – but maybe Quentin Beck was just the man to do it.
Throughout the movie, Mysterio is performing the sci-fi equivalent of disseminating doctored video, creating sophisticated illusions and lies to sell his story of being the world’s latest superhero – and then, when Spider-Man (Tom Holland) foils his plans he goes back to basics, editing fake footage to suggest that Spider-Man committed his last attack and leaking the film to controversial online news outlets, who immediately call for Peter Parker’s head.
The latter story point in particular seems to draw a line between the idea of fake news and Mysterio’s illusions, and it’s tempting to roll your eyes at such a heavy-handed attempt to tie a family superhero movie into serious issues of trust in the Fourth Estate, not to mention the real-world denigration of reported fact that continues every time Donald Trump sends a tweet.
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But the real truth is, Spider-Man has been fighting fake news for longer than any of us – even if in the 1960s they didn’t really have that word for it. Back then, it was just the Daily Bugle newspaper and its hyperbolic editor/publisher J Jonah Jameson, who had it out for Spidey from day one.
First appearing in the opening issue of the ongoing Amazing Spider-Man comic in 1963, Jameson was a frequent thorn in the webhead’s side, irrationally convinced that his heroic acts were a cover-up for some nefarious activities and grossly skewing the wallcrawler’s actions in almost every issue to paint Peter Parker in a bad light.
Spider-Man foils The Enforcers’ bank robbery? Well, he’s probably in league with them. Electro uses electromagnetism to cling to a metal tower? He must be that webbed menace in disguise! Whatever Peter did Jameson would find a way to beat him with it, and as a result Spider-Man has traditionally always had a considerably less popular (in-universe) public persona than almost any other hero.
At one stage, this became a plot point, with Spider-Man unsure about joining the Avengers due to his terrible PR and his fellow heroes shocked at the vitriol directed at him compared to themselves.
While other superhero comics had a reasonably healthy respect for journalism – Clark Kent’s work at the Daily Planet was often a good cover for his exploits as Superman – the more countercultural Spider-Man comics written by Stan Lee and drawn by Steve Ditko often had a suspicion of authority figures, and the newspaper editor was no exception.
Journalism could do good in the world of Spider-Man – the heroic reporting of characters like Ned Leeds showed that – but it was always subject to the biases of those who led it, and in truly exaggerated comic-book style Marvel’s comics showed just how destructive those biases could become.
At a few points Jameson’s antipathy towards Spidey grew so twisted that he ended up accidentally creating villains like the Scorpion and the Spider-Slayers, attempting to take down Spider-Man with his own vigilantes but instead creating far greater public menaces than Peter Parker ever would be.
Of course, it would be a little heavy-handed to suggest this was some grand critique of journalism from Lee and Ditko, suggesting the greater harm to public discourse of cynically chasing sensational stories and sales at the expense of truth. Half the time Jameson ended up forced into humiliating retractions and/or was the victim of some practical joke of Spider-Man’s, and his vendetta wasn’t taken too seriously.
But it is interesting to see how prescient these story elements were, decades ahead of Twitter, deepfake videos, Post-Truth or fake news – even if these days, many of us are more worried about people choosing not to believe the press rather than the other way round.
In Spider-Man: Far From Home it’s interesting to see the Daily Bugle get a topical update – as in the recent Playstation Four game, the new movie version of Jameson has become an online shock-jock, Alex Jones-style – and tied into the grand lie of Mysterio, it definitely makes for an interesting twist on Marvel’s now-traditional movie formula.
Whether Spider-Man can conquer the lyin’ Daily Bugle quite as easily as he bested Vulture, Green Goblin and the rest remains to be seen. Personally, I’ll believe it when I see it.
Spider-Man: Far From Home is in UK cinemas now