Spider-Man: How About Saving Home?

Spider-Man makes a Faustian pact with climate denialism (Sony Pictures 2019).

While the Marvel fandom melts down over suspiciously well-timed leaks and rumors surrounding an upcoming Spider-Man movie, we thought it would be timely to revisit Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) in our first retrospective film analysis. Why? Not because we’re nostalgic for the previous Spider-Man installment, which was co-produced with Sony’s Columbia Pictures. Rather, we think everyone should be aware of the climate denial on display in this Marvel Studios title before they decide to give the popular Disney subsidiary any more of their money.

Like our previous reviews, we’ll run the film through the Climate Test to see what it turns up on climate storytelling grounds. For those unfamiliar with this new measure of climate representation in fiction, you can get up to speed on the three rules of the Climate Test in our first Medium article here.

Rule One: Does it acknowledge that the Earth’s climate is changing?

Yes. Early in Far From Home, Peter Parker and his friends head out on a school excursion to Venice, where they find the lobby of their hotel flooded. In this way, the film acknowledges that the Italian city is actually ‘sinking’ — a nod to the rising sea levels caused by global warming.

The film also features mythical monsters called ‘Elementals’, which take destructive, anthropomorphized forms of the four classical elements: earth, air, water and fire. The Air Elemental, for example, is described as a cyclone with a face. Throughout our many myths and legends, supernatural monsters like these typically serve as literary symbols representing the forces of nature itself. And because the climate crisis is acknowledged early in this film, it’s easy to interpret the Elementals as the embodiments of extreme weather and other environmental impacts brought about by climate change. Indeed, the Water Elemental is evocative of Venice’s rising waters. We think that representing the climate crisis in this imaginative way has a lot of storytelling potential — if only it weren’t so problematic in this story.

The Water Elemental strikes the flooding city of Venice, Italy (Sony Pictures 2019).

Rule Two: Does it portray unchecked business-as-usual as the cause of climate change and as a negative character trait?

No, and this is where things get messy fast. Instead of showing that villainy lies with the human forces that unleashed the very real monster of climate change, the film’s main antagonist is a lone character named ‘Mysterio’: an inventor and engineer who is revealed to control the Elementals because they are nothing more than optical illusions generated by his hologram projectors. That is, the film’s ‘nature’ problem, representative of climate change, is also portrayed as a fake and fabricated issue.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because climate deniers in reality also tried to paint the climate crisis as a false issue back in 2009, when they hacked the emails of climate scientists and intentionally took their contents out of context to argue that the scientists were spinning a hoax. Given our true situation — where the scientists have been cleared of any wrongdoing by as many as eight independent investigations; where the international consensus on climate change has only strengthened since; and where the misinformation of deniers continues to set us back — a blockbuster movie that reaches a worldwide audience yet echoes the denial narrative is a deeply disturbing development.

The sentiment of denial is driven home by Mysterio who, in addition to stoking fear through his optical ‘climate’ illusions, insinuates that those of us who understand the threat of the climate crisis in reality are really a gullible bunch. This is communicated through statements that otherwise seem to come from nowhere, like “it’s easy to fool people when they’re already fooling themselves” and “people need to believe and nowadays they’ll believe anything”.

Rule Three: Does at least one character do something at least once to help solve the climate crisis?

Given that climate change is symbolically portrayed as a fake crisis, no. The only issue that Spider-Man confronts in this film, then, is the entirely fictitious problem of the ‘climate’ hoax, which inevitably means bringing down Mysterio through one-on-one combat in order to restore business-as-usual. Along the way, the story also casts doubt on the news media, echoing the claims of ‘fake news’ most commonly heard from climate deniers and other opinionists who believe in the premise of ‘alternative facts’. Our hero, Peter Parker, is even made to parrot the fake news sentiment when he says with irony that “the news never lies”.

While misinformation is a real problem in the world today, thanks in large part to social media, there’s usually a distinction between sources of information that are reputable or trustworthy, and those that aren’t. Far From Home makes no attempt to distinguish between the two and, through Mysterio’s deceptive scheme, ends up encouraging audiences to downplay phenomena like climate change as cases of misinformation. In doing so, the film normalizes the denial narrative wherein the climate crisis is reduced to a scientific conspiracy.

“…[W]ith great power comes great responsibility.” So why is Disney… largely missing-in-action when it comes to good climate storytelling?

What are moviegoers supposed to make of all the above? While it may be subtle, requiring some reading between the lines, the film’s messaging amounts to nothing less than climate denialism. Any movie that suggests that the climate crisis isn’t real, or subliminally teaches people to doubt the reality of the crisis themselves, is hugely problematic. But maybe this was just an honest and unintentional mistake by the filmmakers? At best, they’re astoundingly tone-deaf to the implications of how their stories may be interpreted or received. Either way, here’s the kicker: This isn’t an isolated case for Marvel Studios. When combined with the misrepresentation of environmentalism in Avengers: Infinity War & Endgame (2018 & 2019) and, more recently, the dishonest climate storytelling of Eternals (2021), what we’re seeing is a trend. Is it time for climate activists — and everybody else who cares about the climate for that matter — to boycott Marvel? After three strikes, we think so.

We all know from watching the Spider-Man movies that “with great power comes great responsibility”. So why is Disney — now effectively at the apex of the entertainment industry having acquired Marvel, Lucasfilm, Pixar and 20th Century (Fox) — largely missing-in-action when it comes to good climate storytelling? In a world that’s suffering a pandemic of ignorance and apathy alongside COVID-19, the overabundance of climate-ignoring, climate-dismissing and climate-denying stories in Disney’s ballooning production slate is ultimately part of the problem. Yet Disney claims to be “committed to protecting the planet and delivering a positive environmental legacy for future generations”. If this is to be taken as more than corporate greenwash, then how could Disney’s executives give Marvel the green light to tell such environmentally-damaging stories, especially one as harmful to the climate movement as Spider-Man: Far From Home?

If you’d like to see Hollywood’s major studios including Disney and Columbia make films with more helpful and effective climate stories, please support our Hollywood climate storytelling campaign. In collaboration with the Fridays For Future youth climate movement begun by Greta Thunberg, we’re calling on the studios to take a stance on climate change by committing to more, and better, climate stories. You can find out more on our Action Network page:

https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/hollywood

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