Hero Nation Index: Jake Gyllenhaal, Toy Story 4, Child’s Play, Morgan Freeman

The just-opened Columbia Pictures film Spider-Man: Far From Home imports a newcomer to the ever-expanding superhero sector: Jake Gyllenhaal, the 38-year-old Oscar nominee who has a wildly eclectic body of work but somehow managed to avoid the now-pervasive superhero genre until Far From Home became his 38th feature film.

Gyllenhaal portrays the cryptic character called Mysterio, who presents himself to Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man) as the worldly survivor and heroic refuge who has arrived from a different dimension. Gyllenhaal, with a chuckle, says had no problem connecting with the fish-out-of-water aspects of his character’s alienated backstory.

“I was thrown for a loop when I first got to the set and we started filming,” Gyllenhaal said. “The way Marvel makes movies is something I wasn’t fully prepared to handle. At the beginning I was really wondering what I had got myself into.”

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It was in England one year ago this week that filming began on Sony’s newest Spider-Man adventure and the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe saga that began with Iron Man in 2008 and now spans 23 films (all of which have opened No. 1 at the box office). One hallmark of the MCU success story has been the humor, spontaneity, and emotion of the films, all attributes that were rarely associated with CG spectacle franchises before Iron Man captured lighting in a bottle. How? By rewriting the script daily and embracing improvisation throughout (except in the CG-heavy action sequences that must remain somewhat locked in due to months of digital labor).

“It’s a high-risk, high-reward approach and they’ve made an art out of it,” Gyllenhaal said. “It starts with [Marvel Studios President] Kevin Feige and his command of the material. He understands the [Marvel Comics source material] so well and trusts his instincts in the moment. But it’s different than the filmmaking approach I know.”

Gyllenhaal isn’t the first veteran actor to be vexed by the high-wire approach of the Marvel method. Hugo Weaving was so flummoxed by the make-it-up-as-we-go approach on the first Captain America film he abandoned the Red Skull role and promising himself he would never do another Marvel project. Jeff Bridges was equally stressed out on Iron Man until he embraced a zen-like view of the job: “I just told myself to think of it as the world’s most expensive student film and then everything was cool. ”

Far From Home is by far the biggest opening of Gyllenhaal’s career and the reviews have been strong (unlike the critical response nine years ago to Disney’s Prince of Persia, the last time Gyllenhaal took on an “action figure” character). Gyllenhaal has shown a fearlessness in choosing his roles over the years with bold choices like Brokeback Mountain, Donnie Darko, Jarhead, and The Nightcrawler, to name just a few. This is the actor, after all, who agreed to be tased while preparing  for his role in End of Watch. But he admits his heart was beating fast when he stepped into the Marvel Universe

“The stakes are so high and the margin of error is so tight,” Gyllenhaal said with some lingering  traces of anxiety in his voice.  “Coming up with character and dialogue on the set of a movie with that kind of [$160 million] budget? That’s walking on the edge.”

WELL HELLO DOLLY: This is a top-shelf summer for fans of toy-box cinema.  The Disney Pixar sequel Toy Story 4 finished No. 1 at the box office for the second consecutive week while the No 2 spot belongs to a very different sentient plaything with the title character in the Warner Bros. horror sequel Annabelle Comes Home. It doesn’t end there: Orion’s reimagined update of Child’s Play opened June 21 (this time with Mark Hamill of Star Wars fame voicing the malevolent doll from the Reagan Era). The two horror films didn’t light it up at the box office and the latest Toy Story edition hasn’t quite matched the brand’s previous box office performance, suggesting that supernatural plastic is not as indestructible as advertised.

STEALING CHUCKY:  One fan of the old-school Child’s Play films is Gigi Saul Guerrero, who makes her feature -length directorial debut on July 4 with the release of Hulu’s Culture Shock, a Blumhouse thriller about illegal immigrants that has social messages baked into its unsettling tale (not unlike Get Out! also from Blumhouse). Guerrero told me that as a sheltered 8-year-old church girl in Mexico she became so fascinated by the Chucky image on a VHS box that she stole the movie, Child’s Play 2, and found a career in the process, suggesting that sometimes crime does pay.  She explains: “It was the cover, it was the cover of the video. When I would always walk down the aisle at Blockbuster Video,  down the horror aisle, that was the one cover that I couldn’t walk past. I was like: “There is no way but that doll is alive and it has giant scissors and it’s cutting off another doll’s head!” The video cover was so visceral. I just stared at it. What is that?! And, as you and anybody who’s gone to Mexico knows, it’s a place that has so much powerful imagery everywhere. It’s on the the street, in the art, in the religion, and in the traditions, there’s a lot. But when I saw Chucky I was seeing something that could instantly impact me more than all those things I was already seeing every day outside of my house. For me, Chucky was the one. Chucky changed it all. But, you know, my mom will never forgive me for stealing that movie.”

SPIDEY FLASHBACK: Tom Holland has logged six films now as Spider-Man and, in my opinion, has established his wall-crawler as the most engaging screen version of the hero. Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield have portrayed Peter Parker in film while The Sound of Music costar Nicholas Hammond played the part on television in the 1970s, but this year marks the 25th anniversary of the first live-action screen portrayal of Spidey. Danny Seagren portrayed the character for three years on The  Electric Company but never uttered a line. The show’s producers at the Children’s Television Workshop wanted to encourage kids at home to read along instead. Well, that’s one way to eliminate improvisation. Here’s the first Seagren appearance on the show from 1974. You might also notice a famous Hollywood actor using the scene to sink his teeth into an early career role.

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