Religion & Liberty Online

Spider-Man: Distrust and Deepfakes

The latest addition the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is Spider-Man: Far from Home, which brings an end to Phase 3.

In this installment, we have an intriguing spin on the standard superhero motif of vocation and responsibility. This theme is perhaps best captured in the iconic wisdom offered by Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, “With great power comes great responsibility.” A driving force of Spider-Man: Far from Home is the question whether great power ever gets to enjoy a vacation.

Does great power ever get a vacation? (Image via Sony Pictures for promotional use only)

Apparently not. And the villainy in Far from Home reveals a world of post-modern confusion and technocratic arrogance, a toxic mix that results in a threat not only to Spider-Man but to the stability of the world itself (spoilers follow).

Far from Home opens us up to what a reality might look like when you literally cannot believe your eyes. This dynamic continues in the post-credit scenes, as we are reintroduced to the shapeshifting Skrulls as well as the ability of media technology to reach beyond the grave and reorient our realities.

Mysterio embodies a kind of cloud of confusion, and his superpower (if he has any to speak of) is the ability to sow distrust–in ones’ self, in ones’ sense of purpose and reality, and in one another. This, as it turns out, has geopolitical consequences, not only for Mysterio’s designs on becoming the vanguard of a new world order, but for democratic governance itself.

In this way Far from Home is a prescient film for our cultural moment. What happens to our ability to live peacefully together, whether domestically or internationally, when you literally cannot believe what you see and hear, whether in person or on a screen? Or as Orwell puts it, and as he is quoted in the film, what kind of life together is possible when “the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world”?

The phenomenon of deepfakes (this is a helpful overview, but it is at VICE, so let the reader beware) are not well-known perhaps, but ‘Drunk Pelosi’ is just the beginning. To this point the technology has been largely the interest of academics and rather more unsavory characters, but now is also the purview of tech startups.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see that as the technology gets more and more sophisticated, and media outlets are less and less careful, a well-timed deepfake might influence an important political election, whether in the United States or elsewhere. If the media is already inclined to believe the worst about someone, and some “evidence” comes along that fulfills all these expectations, then you can see the real-world equivalent of J. Jonah Jameson not stopping to properly check sources before running with something.


A concluding note: The drones in Far from Home reminded me of Portal, and the unbalanced confusion and threats you experience as you interact with GLaDOS. And there’s another connection here as well. In Spider-Man: Far from Home as in Portal, the cake is a lie. And when that’s the case, what’s left for the people to eat?

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.