In “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” which sees our titular hero on a world tour with his high school class, Peter Parker does something Michael Cohen has long denied: Goes to Prague. Naturally, the Forward wondered what Franz Kafka would think of our web-slinging friend.
Peter’s arrival in the Czech Republic comes with some extenuating circumstances. Nick Fury of SHIELD forces a detour of Midtown High School’s European field trip because an elemental fire monster is scheduled to appear and he wants Spider-Man as extra manpower on the ground. This frustrates Peter’s plans to have a low key vacation and get closer to his crush, MJ.
It’s the usual balancing act of a Spider-Man film - the desire to lead a normal life and the oft-invoked “responsibility” of great power. This entry comes with an extra dose of guilt, though, as Peter’s late father figure Tony Stark has entrusted him with his worldwide network of drones. A weird thing to put on a teenager’s plate, but OK.
Seeing Peter in a new, black thermal Spidey suit wall-crawl through a carnival ground in historic Prague, weighed down by obligations he didn’t ask for, we thought of Kafka’s famous man-bug, Gregor Samsa from “The Metamorphosis.” (And yes, we know that the specifics of what kind of “vermin” Samsa morphs into remains the subject of debate, but, in fairness, in this sequence Spider-Man becomes known to the local Czech community as “Night Monkey,” leaving some room for interpretation.)
Like Peter Parker, Gregor Samsa shoulders an unreasonable weight for a young man, compelled by his father’s debts to work tirelessly until his transformation forces him to retire. Samsa also hugs walls, gets dinged up and is treated as a menace by those who misunderstand him.
These parallels alone don’t make “Spider-Man: Far From Home” Kafkaesque (in its way 2014’s “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” has the best claim to that adjective by way of its inclusion of a character named Dr. Kafka) but the machinations of the film’s antagonist, Quentin Beck, a.k.a. Mysterio, certainly lend a 21st Century sheen to Kafka’s ideas of invasive and impersonal totalitarianism.
Beck, a spurned employee of Stark Industries, uses advanced holographic imaging - facilitated by clouds of drones bearing projectors - to present himself as a hero from another dimension who fights monsters made of water, fire, earth and air. His plan is designed to gain the confidence and love of a public starved for heroes in the aftermath of Stark’s death. The monsters and Beck’s superpowers are nothing but high-tech hocus-pocus designed to win hearts, minds and an unchallenged degree of influence.
This bleeding-edge charlatanism is undergirded by something more sinister: A police state where people’s emotions and fears are manipulated by the illusory.
Spider-Man takes a licking from Beck’s gauntlet of kaleidoscopic nightmare-scapes, plummeting down shafts of darkness flanked by ghastly funhouse mirrors after the fish-bowl wearing baddie collapses the illusion of a sterile government building. Beck assumes the form of Spider-Man’s allies and even MJ. It’s frightening and disorienting like the best of Kafka’s fiction, but one doesn’t get the full gut punch of Beck’s menace until a scene at the end credits.
After a climactic fight on the Tower Bridge in London, Beck dies, but not before using his last moments to frame Spider-Man as the villain.
Recording with his swarm of drones, Beck has his team cut together a clip, broadcast from the jumbotron at Madison Square Garden, to make it look like our justice-minded wall-crawler ordered the drones to kill him without mercy and was behind the wave of staged destruction that swept over Europe. Beck ends his posthumous testimony by revealing to the world that Peter Parker is Spider-Man’s true identity.
Those who’ve read “The Trial” might be reminded of Josef K’s prosecution. Josef, too, is judged by an inaccessible court that appears with little warning and which orders his constant surveillance. Kafka would certainly be horrified by the surveillance state facilitated by drone technology and the ease with which wrongful convictions might be adjudicated in their wake. It appears that the court of public opinion will have a lot to say about the footage in the next film and the first conspirator we see is none other than Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson - J.K. Simmons reprises the role - here reimagined as an InfoWars-style pundit.
These distressing parallels aside, Kafka also really liked the metaphorical potential of large animals, as can be seen in his unfinished stories “The Giant Mole” and “The Burrow” — both of which involve a big mole-like creature. While Spidey’s usual animal-based antagonists, including Doc Ock and Rhino, sat out “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” there’s the off chance he’ll square off with Mole Man when the new one comes out.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.