Warning: This story contains spoilers for "Spider-Man: Far From Home."
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Consider the notion of a multiverse - and within it, an alternate reality in which Jake Gyllenhaal played Spider-Man. In what will forever remain a "what if" scenario in our reality, the alt-Gyllenhaal would have accepted Columbia Pictures's offer to play the geeky web-slinger in 2004′s "Spider-Man 2" after messy contract negotiations led executives to consider booting Tobey Maguire from the franchise.
But we live in a universe where Maguire wound up reprising his role in the Sam Raimi-directed sequel - and good for him, as many consider it to be a top-tier Spider-Man movie. Gyllenhaal took another route in his post-"Donnie Darko" years, opting for dynamic, often eccentric roles in films such as "Brokeback Mountain," "Zodiac" and, more recently, "Nightcrawler," "Okja" and "Velvet Buzzsaw." The Oscar nominee has increasingly become, as a casting director once said of Jude Law's similarly intriguing career, a "character actor in a leading man's body."
It's not that Gyllenhaal would've done poorly as Peter Parker, but rather that the role wouldn't have made full use of his penchant for peculiarity. Perhaps thanks to his odd sense of humor, he's proved adept at playing sometimes-charming wackadoodles with a darkness to them. If he were to appear in a Spider-Man movie, director Jon Watts and Marvel executives realized, it would have to be as someone more cunning and deceptive. Someone like Quentin Beck, known to the masses as Mysterio.
Watts's "Spider-Man: Far From Home," the Marvel Cinematic Universe's second Spidey flick, introduces Beck as a caped, fishbowl-helmeted hero who aids S.H.I.E.L.D.'s efforts to thwart destructive monsters called the Elementals. Beck tells the agents he's the lone survivor of an alternate reality where the Elementals annihilated everyone, including his family, so he has arrived to prevent them from wreaking the same havoc on this Earth. S.H.I.E.L.D. loops in Spider-Man (Tom Holland), and he teams up with Beck, whom Peter and his classmates later nickname Mysterio, to fight the Elementals throughout Europe.
From reading the comics or just the character's name alone, most viewers know going in that Mysterio isn't who he claims to be. The big twist arrives swiftly, set in a Prague bar where a clueless Peter decides to entrust Beck with E.D.I.T.H., an advanced virtual assistant embedded in a pair of Tony Stark's sunglasses.
After Peter leaves, Beck hops up on the bar and discloses his true identity as a former Stark Industries engineer who felt unappreciated by the billionaire and who was eventually let go after being deemed unstable. His eyes wide and outstretched arms like a showman's, Beck turns to the other bar patrons, who are actually other disgruntled Stark Industries employees, and explains how they used drones and special-effects technology to create the Elementals so Mysterio can fight them, make himself out to be the world's next greatest superhero (R.I.P. Tony) and receive the attention he so desperately craves.
No longer masquerading as a cryptic hero, Beck establishes himself to the audience as a manipulative maniac. Gyllenhaal fully leans into this personality, exaggerating his mannerisms and speaking in a frenzy as the actor playing another actor playing a superhero so different from himself.
Beck oscillates between stepping in as an older brother figure to Peter - not unlike the dynamic between the two actors during the wacky "Far From Home" press tour - and being a villain whose neuroticism is reminiscent of Gyllenhaal's disturbed stringer from "Nightcrawler," flamboyant TV zoologist from "Okja" and Peloton-and-Pilates-alternating art critic from "Velvet Buzzsaw." He plays both the very best and the absolute worst guy in the room as Beck, flip-flopping between the personas with ease.
Elsewhere in the multiverse, alt-Gyllenhaal ended up doing whatever it is that Tobey Maguire is currently doing. (Playing tons of poker, or something?) But we got the version of the versatile actor who wound up on the press tour with Holland and a trusty gold chain, singing hearty praise of Care Bears and passionately claiming that Jamaican rapper Sean Paul improves every song on which he appears. How lucky we are!