Why SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING's Menacing Yet Merciful Vulture Is Such A Great Villain

Why SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING's Menacing Yet Merciful Vulture Is Such A Great Villain

With Spider-Man Homecoming, the MCU has shown it can solve one of its most common criticisms: the villains. Here's why Michael Keaton's Vulture solidifies his spot among the best MCU villains.

By now, you've probably seen Spider-Man Homecoming, and, if you haven't, you need to fix that ASAP. Don't worry; this article will still be here when you get back, and you'll be avoiding some heavy spoilers about the film if you come back to it later. 

Among the most common complaints about the MCU has been its portrayal of villains. That isn't to say that the villains have necessarily been poor interpretations of the source material because, with a few exceptions, they have stayed true to comics' vast histories. However, where the bad guys seem to be lacking is actual substance to their characters. To truly understand why the Vulture works so well, let's first take a look at the types of villains the MCU has used so far.

Generally, the MCU plays it relatively safe with their villains. They tend to be one of three types of characters. For the first, the audience is usually presented with someone who has a similar background as the hero, but their intentions are the opposite. This archetype has been done often in the Iron Man movies: Obadiah Stane, Justin Hammer, Whiplash, and Aldrich Killian all fit this mold. It is also seen in the relationship between Thor and Loki, in Ant-Man with Yellowjacket, and in Kaecilius in Dr. Strange. This is a common villain trope in writing of all kinds, and it is used so often because it's so easy to establish that relationship and create a foil for the heroes. It tends to suffer, however, when there just is not enough time to really develop the characters. Instead, the villain seems like an obstacle for the hero to get past to achieve his or her goal. We as an audience never get to see the villains challenge the heroes on a personal level, and their motivations become flimsy in the process.

For the second villain type, the MCU movies tend to utilize characters who are the epitome of evil--think Red Skull from the first Captain America, Ultron, or Malekith in Thor: The Dark World. These are villains who stand as an opposing ideology to the hero; they want to destroy everything the hero stands for, and it's up to the chief characters to stop them because that's their duty. Unfortunately, this makes the villain unrelatable. It's hard to humanize a character who exists only to be an opposite representation of the heroes' beliefs. It's great to see The Avengers triumph, but there never is much reason to doubt they would. The stakes don't ever seem high enough.

Finally, the third kind of villain is someone the hero thought was good but either turns out to be or becomes bad. Prior to the release of Spider-Man Homecoming, these were the MCU's best villains. The Winter Soldier is a great example of this, especially after being introduced as Cap's pal in The First Avenger. Ego's heel turn midway through Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 is one of the most emotional pieces of the entire film series so far. And, of course, Iron Man, while not actually being evil, is represented as a villain in Civil War. These characters get to develop over time, and to see them turn bad is satisfying. 

But why does the Vulture standout? The Vulture is really none of these character types. Early into the movie, we're introduced to him as Adrian Toomes, a regular construction worker--a blue collar American just trying to provide for his family. He loses a large contract to Damage Control, a government agency dedicated to cleaning up The Avengers' messes after their battles. In his eyes, this means that superheroes are taking food from his family's table while they don't even know he exists. His reasons to hate The Avengers, SHIELD, and Damage Control are totally justified and relatable.

However, what makes Toomes interesting is how he uses that motivation. He doesn't even bother trying to attack The Avengers. He re-purposes Chitari technology and sells it to criminals in New York for personal gain, effectively filling the void that The Avengers took from him. He's not an evil ideology personified; he's just a shady businessman. He feels real. Swap out the alien laser cannons for real guns, and Michael Keaton could easily be playing a gangster in a regular crime movie. We see all of this develop on screen from the opening prologue to the ending, and it makes for a much more interesting villain.

He's also not a peer of our protagonist, Spider-Man. While Peter is a 15-year-old high school student with superpowers, Toomes is a considerably older family man with a mechanical flight suit. Of course, their stories become much more intertwined when, at the end of the second act, it's revealed that Toomes is actually the father of Liz, Peter's high school senior crush. The stakes are raised when Toomes recognizes Peter as Spider-Man, and it makes the viewer genuinely unsure what will happen to our hero. It feels real, organic, and it makes for what may be the best exchange of dialogue in the whole movie.

Good villains challenge our heroes, and the Vulture does that wonderfully on both a physical and philosophical level. In this movie, Spider-Man is new to the whole hero thing. We see this not only in his lack of experience but also in how little he knows about his own costume. Adrian Toomes, on the other hand, has been playing the villain act for eight years by the events of Homecoming. His experience already outweighs Spider-Man's, and Peter becomes exponentially more outclassed when Tony Stark takes back the Spider-Man suit. Suddenly, Peter has to learn if the suit makes him the hero. Vulture is the perfect test for that. It becomes a battle of experience vs. skill, of doing the right thing because it's the right thing vs. acting in your own personal interests against the world that left you behind. This is the core of the Spider-Man/Vulture relationship, and it works so well. 

By the time Spider-Man Homecoming ends, Toomes' story feels complete. In a very basic sense, he serves his purpose of providing an opposition to the hero, but the details allow for much more. Toomes feels real; we understand who he is and what he wants. He's not pure evil, nor is he someone ruined by Spider-Man, nor is he a good buy who becomes a bad guy. He's just a guy trying to make a better life for his wife and daughter. It makes him much more interesting and compelling than some of the other MCU villains, and, hopefully, it marks an upturn for Marvel movie bad guys.

Who do you think is the best MCU villain, and how does the Vulture compare? Sound off in the comments!
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