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Demystifying Mysterio: A mentalist looks at Spider-Man: Far From Home’s magical character

Examining the psychology behind his illusions.

In celebration of everyone’s favorite web-head, July is Spectacular Spider-Month at AiPT!. We have a series of amazing articles in store for the month. Movies, television, gaming, and of course comics will all be covered with great responsibility as we honor one of comics’ greatest heroes.

“Never attempt to win by force what can be won by deception.” ― Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince

The latest installment of Marvel/Sony’s Spider-Man film franchise, Spider-Man: Far From Home, in theaters now, features a villain named Mysterio, AKA Quentin Beck, whose backstory (at least in the comics) involves a career as a motion picture stuntman.

Beck’s years in the film industry apparently taught him more than just how to crash through a window or jump from a moving car. Working behind the scenes and seeing how special effects can create convincing illusions gave him a valuable education in the art and science of deception, and in his new career, he successfully applies that knowledge to appropriately villainous ends.

As a professional magician and mentalist myself, I’m acquainted with many of the methods that could be employed by Mysterio to achieve his illusions, and while I don’t intend to reveal any trade secrets relating to magic, I will examine how certain principles within the magician’s arsenal could be applied to achieve illusions comparable to some of those created by Mysterio.

Image credit: Marvel Comics

But before delving into the particulars of Mysterio’s illusions, it’s important to consider that many illusions that can be created in a comic book or motion picture would be impossible to stage or simulate convincingly in real life, even in a controlled, theatrical setting. The writers and illustrators of comic books are encumbered by none of the practical restraints or physical laws that govern the construction and presentation of illusions for a live audience. And the same applies to the creators of action films, who increasingly rely upon CGI to create illusions, environments, and characters that it would be impossible to create for a live audience.

Nonetheless, I will do my best to speculate about how two of Mysterio’s famous illusions might be pulled off in the real world. I’ll also examine the reasons he might have for creating them in the first place.

Multiple Mysterios

In one confrontation, Mysterio creates the illusion of a dozen versions of himself, and Spider-Man must determine which is real, so he can focus on him and not the impostors. This is similar to a trope that’s been a staple of filmmakers for years, in which someone (often the protagonist) finds herself in a hall of mirrors with her nemesis, and she must distinguish the real person from the myriad reflections that surround her.

Image credit: Marvel Comics

This is classic misdirection and a clear attempt to increase Spider-Man’s cognitive load to the point of paralysis. We magicians and mentalists rely heavily on misdirection in our performances, though few go as far as Mysterio, and fewer still misdirect with the intention of doing anything as diabolical as killing Spider-Man.

The point of this stunt doesn’t seem to be to convince Spider-Man there’s actually more than one Mysterio, but to fractionate his attention, so he doesn’t know which “Mysterio” to fight and which ones to ignore, since only the real one poses a threat to him. This multiple Mysterio ruse isn’t so much an illusion as it is a distraction.

Because he wears what appears to be an inverted fishbowl on his head, Mysterio’s face is always obscured. Creating the illusion of multiple versions of himself could thus be a simple matter of hiring 11 men who are approximately his height and build, and putting them in identical costumes. Et voilà, a battalion of Mysterios!

Sudden Appearance/Disappearance

Mysterio is fond of the dramatic entrance and has an equal flare for the mysterious exit, appearing and disappearing in a puff of smoke.

Image credit: Marvel Comics

A word of caution: the smoke that accompanies Mysterio’s departures is often laced with psychotropic substances that induce quite undesirable effects, so if you find yourself in a room with him, it’s advisable to time your exit in such a way that allows you to leave before he does.

Within the realm of stage magic, puffs of smoke of sufficient size and density can provide excellent cover for all kinds of subterfuge, serving much the same function as a foulard, a piece of decorative fabric used for concealment. Under proper lighting, smoke can act as a kind of shield that obscures the audience’s view of the magician or his assistant until just the right moment. The smoke clears and behold — the magician has vanished!

Image credit: Marvel Comics

For Mysterio, the advantages of appearing in a puff of smoke would be twofold. It can sow confusion and even panic among those who notice the smoke in the moments prior to his appearance. Putting his audience in a stressful state of mind before addressing them gives Mysterio a clear tactical advantage, as stress has been shown to impair judgment.

As Mysterio never makes these dramatic entrances simply to have a nice chat over a hot cup of tea, but to make a demand of some kind, breaking down his audience’s defenses before he addresses them can only benefit him. And for those who don’t notice the smoke that precedes Mysterio’s appearance, but instead find that he has suddenly materialized before them, the experience must still be extremely disorienting and confusing.

Whether Mysterio is appearing or disappearing in a puff of smoke, the illusion has the effect of enhancing his mystique and creating in the minds of his audience the feeling that he’s something more than merely human, a specter who can materialize and vanish at will. That perception of a quasi-divine figure who commands the very elements matters more than the mundane spectacle he uses to create it.

You can catch Eric Walton explaining the psychology of magic IN PERSON on Thursday, July 11, at this year’s NECSS conference in New York City!

AiPT! Science is co-presented by AiPT! Comics and the New York City Skeptics.

Thank you for joining AiPT! during Spectacular Spider-Month! Be sure to check back in every day for more Spider-Man content including interviews, features, opinions, and more!

Credit: Marvel

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