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This past May, United Airlines released a new airline safety video. It teaches viewers how to fasten seatbelts, locate emergency exits, and prepare for a potential emergency landing, but with a twist: the entire video is themed around the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Spider-Man. Sets include Peter Parker’s favorite bodega and the New York Botanical Garden, and stars include Spider-Man cast members Jacob Batalon (Ned Leeds) and Tony Revolori (Flash Thompson). In the video’s final shot, a movie theater full of United workers is shown applauding as the Far From Home logo play across the big screen. “Catch United in Spider-Man: Far From Home,” a caption reads.
This safety video, which played on United flights from May all the way through August, was only a small part of a massive advertising campaign. United first-class passengers received amenity bags with Spider-Man-themed sleeping masks, socks, and napkins. Travelers at United-heavy airports were bombarded with Spider-Man-themed billboard ads. And all United passengers, in addition to the Spider-Man safety video, were shown the Spider-Man: Far From Home trailer before, during, and after their flights. (This writer, sadly, speaks from personal experience.)
After being held as a captive audience as that trailer plays for the tenth time in two hours, one has to wonder if the marketing was determined by the actual content of the film, or the other way around. Is Spider-Man: Far From Home a movie about Peter finding new responsibility on a global scale after becoming an Avenger, or is it about how he just had to fly United for his summer vacation?
The money poured into this movie, at least, suggests the latter. Spider-Man: Far From Home had a record-breaking $288 million promotional campaign. That’s more than three times the entire budget of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse ($90 million). According to Deadline, the campaign included more than 40 television spots, Papa John’s pizza boxes, Dr. Pepper cans, a themed Burger King kids menu, and an online “Spidey Sense Challenge” game sponsored by Doritos. But the most visible “promotional partners” are those brands that earned product placement in the movie: Audi, which had cars featured in Spider-Man: Homecoming and Avengers: Endgame as well as Far From Home; and, of course, United. A United plane was used for filming the movie, and United employees and customers appeared as extras.
All of United’s ads, from the billboards to the safety video, suggest that to fly with this airline is to “fly like a superhero.” The airline is tying its branding inexorably to Spider-Man, to the point where a ticket to see Far From Home is practically a ticket to a two-hour United commercial. To the point where I can almost picture an airline executive striding into Marvel headquarters and offering Kevin Feige a gold-encrusted model airplane in exchange for America’s favorite teenage superhero giving United some good press.
So, the money suggests that United pitched the premise for Far From Home. But what about the film’s content? Spider-Man’s second MCU stand-alone is, at its core, a story about power vacuums and reputation. Tony Stark has died, and we are reminded by every deranged Mysterio speech and every shot of commemorative Iron Man graffiti that this death has left a space in the world’s heroic canon. As the movie progresses, it presents two options for who can fill this space: Mysterio, a brilliant but deranged engineer who manufactures heroic opportunities by endangering innocent people; and Spider-Man, an impulsive teenage boy who just isn’t sure if he’s ready. Peter is terrified by the prospect of filling Iron Man’s shoes, even though everyone in his life, from his aunt to his best friend to Nick Fury, insists that it’s his responsibility. In fact, the only character who suggests that maybe Peter should be allowed to be a teenager turns that hesitation against him. Finally, Peter is forced to step up and into a glorified Iron Man suit with webs so that he can save Tony Stark’s legacy — both the EDITH glasses and the heroic mantle — from someone who saw Stark as a villain.
In an essay shared on Twitter, writer and Spider-Man comics fan Traincat (@hellotraincat) argues that Spider-Man: Homecoming prioritizes things over people. She writes that several of the movie’s action sequences, culminating in the final fight in which Peter saves an airplane full of stolen alien artifacts, have no human lives at stake; Peter’s acts of heroism thus ring hollow, making him a super-powered security guard rather than a superhero. Add this lack of human stakes to Homecoming’s frequent product placement, from Audi cars to the Synchrony Bank location where Peter stops a robbery, and it seems clear that, as Traincat writes, “this movie at every possible opportunity chose to cater the interests of its advertisers over telling a meaningful story.”
If, in Homecoming, Spider-Man is protecting Tony Stark’s stuff, what is he protecting in Far From Home? Tony Stark’s reputation. Peter Parker needs to prove himself once again, not so much because the world needs to be saved but because Mysterio’s very presence tarnishes Stark’s good name. The EDITH glasses externalize this conflict, as Peter first gives them to Mysterio and then has to fight an army of drones controlled by those glasses to get them back. And every moment of inspiration for Peter, from Fury saying, “[Stark] made you an Avenger” to Happy blasting AC/DC while Peter builds a new suit, marks him as Iron Man Lite. Rather than struggling to find his own identity, he struggles to follow Stark’s posthumous orders.
A Spider-Man movie about power vacuums and hesitation, about the challenges of protecting the world while maintaining relationships with your friends, could be inspirational. The movie could have tied Peter’s disparate goals together, pushing him to become a new kind of superhero who can save his friends and the world. But instead, Far From Home separates Peter’s friends out as comic relief or romantic fluff, and flattens Peter into another piece of technology created by Tony Stark. This Peter is not a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. He has no neighborhood and no personal responsibility, only a series of increasingly fancy suits and a prescribed role in global superhero politics. He’s the capitalist rich man’s hero version of Spider-Man, if he can even be called Spider-Man at all.
With this flattening of Spider-Man’s character in mind, let’s return to the hundred-thousand-pound metal bird in the room: United. This airline has faced one of the worst public relations nightmares of the twenty-first century so far. After a United passenger was dragged off a plane screaming in April 2017 and footage of the event went viral on social media, Forbes writer Davia Temin called the company “the world’s most hated airline.” Airline executives’ responses ignited further backlash around the world, yet United continued to make headlines for months as passengers were mistreated and pets perished in overhead bins. United faced a drop in market value of over $1 billion in a year. And yet, in comments on the Spider-Man safety video, Marvel fans praised the airline for “stepping up [its] game” and “getting [viewers] to willingly watch a five-minute ad.”
In other words, Tony Stark is not the only figure in Spider-Man: Far From Home who needs Spider-Man to defend his reputation. In a press release announcing the United/Spider-Man partnership, United’s Vice President of Marketing praised Spider-Man for showing “the importance of using power to do good and keep the public safe,” and aligned those values with United’s own. On top of showing the audience United’s comfy seats and plethora of in-flight entertainment options, the film turns a United airplane into a safe, charming location full of the kind of teen drama scenes that, in Homecoming and other Spider-Man movies, occur in New York City high schools. Peter tries to sit next to MJ. Peter obsessively combs his hair in the bathroom mirror. Ned and Betty start dating on the flight to Europe and break up on the flight home. And all of this is scored by pop music and lit by United logos. One of the final scenes of the movie, in fact, includes Peter and MJ holding hands in Newark Airport, one of United’s biggest hubs in the U.S. The immense dissonance between United as it is portrayed in this movie and United as it has treated its customers in the real world is a terrifying sign of how far product placement can now go.
In today’s corporation-driven media landscape, superheroes can be sold to the highest bidder. Take Spider-Man out of New York City, put him on an airplane, and it is so easy to flatten him into a barely-sentient Iron Man suit that guards great men and great corporations. It is so easy to let him defend billionaires and their worldwide drone networks instead of fighting for working-class people. It is so easy to tell him his great responsibility instead of letting him discover it for himself.
I’m not saying that an airline executive strode into Marvel headquarters and offered Kevin Feige a gold-encrusted model airplane. But it’s not too ridiculous. And every time one of these movies breaks a box office record or inspires a multi-million-dollar franchise deal, we get closer to a world in which a corporate pitch is just the first step in writing every superhero screenplay.
Betsy Ladyzhets is a science writer and data journalist who loves to overanalyze everything from tree succession patterns to movie soundtracks. Once, an Avengers fanfiction she wrote helped a reader ace an intro biology exam. Find her on Twitter yelling somewhat professionally at @betsyladyzhets, or yelling somewhat less professionally at @owlinaminor.