OK, right away I should issue a major SPOILER ALERT because I’m going to talk about specific plot elements of “Spider-Man: Far from Home,” “Spies in Disguise,” “Gemini Man” and “Bad Boys for Life” in some detail.
All stories, according to Christopher Booker’s popular combination of writing guide and literary analysis, “The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories,” can be reduced to seven basic plots (or, according to various other authors, three, five, six or 37). The differences lie in the details. But sometimes even the details can be remarkably similar.
Unless an actor plays a continuing character in a franchise or is Nicolas Cage, who has appeared in 23 films over the last four years, the actor is not too likely to get the sense of repeating something done or said in another production just a few months earlier. In the last couple of months, however, Hollywood released two films whose stars at some point while reading the scripts should have suffered a sense of déjà vu approaching “Groundhog Day” level.
Take Tom Holland’s recent movies. He played Peter Parker/Spider-Man in last year’s “Spider-Man: Far from Home” and provides the voice for Walter Beckett in the animated “Spies in Disguise.” Both Peter and Walter are socially awkward, brilliant young men who design unusual weapons to fight crime. Both are orphans whose lives and career choices have been strongly influenced by a parental figure who died violently (Peter’s uncle, Walter’s police officer mother). Peter is pressured into working with/for secret intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division) while Walter is employed by secret intelligence agency H.T.U.V. (Honor, Trust, Unity and Valor — which seems like a motto rather than a name); each agency has a secret headquarters loaded with highly sophisticated equipment.
Peter works with/for and admires top-level African American S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and Walter works with/for and admires ace African American H.T.U.V. agent Lance Sterling (Will Smith). Both agents experience eye problems. Fury wears an eyepatch after having lost an eye in the 1990s in “Captain Marvel” to a creature he thought was friendly. Sterling becomes disoriented and panics when Walter’s formula turns him into a pigeon and he can see what’s directly in front of him and his own behind simultaneously. (Okay, that parallel may be a bit tenuous.)
In “Spider-Man: Far from Home,” Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal) uses image-projecting technology to further his evil master plan, changes his appearance with it to look like Fury to ambush Spider-Man, and later tries to frame Peter Parker for his own misdeeds. In “Spies in Disguise,” Killian (Ben Mendelsohn) uses illusion-generating tech in his terrorist revenge scheme and makes himself look like Sterling with it to frame him for his own crimes.
In both films, at least some of the action takes place in Venice, and the hero must defeat a flying armada of killer drones (which actually look very similar in size and shape) stolen from the good guys.
And finally, actor Ben Mendelsohn in each film plays a character who disguises himself as the African American agent without actually being African American himself.
Will Smith’s last two live-action films, “Gemini Man” and “Bad Boys for Life,” display even tighter parallels, however. In fact, “Bad Boys for Life” in many ways is “Gemini Man” plus Martin Lawrence and a surprising amount of praying (by the Lawrence character) for an action film.
In “Gemini Man,” Smith plays Henry Brogan, a dead-shot sniper/assassin working for the Defense Intelligence Agency who decides to retire. And in “Bad Boys” he’s Mike Lowrey, a Miami police detective with a reputation for shooting (lots of) people whose partner (Lawrence) retires and urges him to think about it, too. Both Smith characters are adept with weapons and vehicles. Both find themselves being stalked by a ruthless assassin, dressed in black leather with a helmet that hides his face, riding a motorcycle which he also uses as a weapon. In both cases, the assassin eliminates friends and colleagues of the protagonist.
The “Gemini Man” killer turns out to be Henry’s clone (Smith de-aged by software) created secretly by his former mentor Clay Varris (Clive Owen) who controls the younger version of Henry by treating him like his son. The “Bad Boys” killer is Mike’s son Armando (Jacob Scipio). His mother, Isabel Aretas (Kate de Castillo), a drug cartel queen Mike had fallen in love with while undercover as her chauffeur, had him while in prison (Mike had a hand in her arrest) and never let Mike know they had a son.
Neither clone nor son knows his real connection to the man his controller has sent him to kill. Each is totally loyal to that parental authority figure until he discovers that relationship and then immediately shifts allegiance to the source of his Y-chromosome. And each controller of course winds up dead.
Henry reconciles with his clone and sends him to college posing as his younger brother; and the clone seems to have adapted to his new life completely. Mike reconciles with his son, imprisoned in a high security installation, who seems to be remorseful for his multiple murders. In an end credit scene, Mike offers Armando a chance to begin making amends — and presumably a sequel.
(I compiled this inventory in retrospect some time after single viewings of the films — two for the Spider-Man movie. I’m sure closer viewings would turn up more parallels, but that’s someone else’s term paper project.)
“Bad Boys for Life” was in development for at least a decade and “Gemini Man” for two! “Gemini Man” did not fare well at the box office, so a sequel is unlikely, but plans for “Bad Boys 4” have already been announced (back in February 2018!).
One wonders whether Smith and Holland ever noticed the similarities in their respective pairs of films and said something, but then maybe their big paychecks obscure things like that or else perhaps creating distinctly different characters in plots with so many likenesses is appealing in itself.
Perhaps even stranger than the strong similarities I’ve pointed out is the fact that no writer is credited with working on more than one of these screenplays. What these four films do demonstrate, however, is that for Hollywood it doesn’t matter if, as Yogi Berra reportedly observed, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”