Spoilers for Spider-Man: Homecoming below.
It’s no secret that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has a villain problem. Over the course of 16 films and 200-odd hours of television, the wildly lucrative fictional mythos has offered up an array of baddies to antagonize our do-gooder saviors, but precious few of them really stick in one’s mind. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is delectably slimy in The Avengers and David Tennant’s genteel rapist Kilgrave is blood-freezing in Jessica Jones, but beyond that, it’s hard to get too excited about many of them. Do you have nightmares about Ronan the Accuser? Do you see a lot of Yellowjacket costumes at Halloween? Can you remember any lines spoken by Obadiah Stane?
Part of the problem is that Disney’s Marvel Studios operation is legally barred from making movies featuring Marvel Comics’ richest and most durable antagonists. Thanks to film-rights deals made decades ago, Fox has exclusive access to the rogues galleries of the Fantastic Four and the X-Men. That means no Doctor Doom for the MCU. Ixnay on Magneto. No dice on Mystique. Galactus? Fuhgeddaboudit. The few A-listers that Marvel Studios did have access to have mostly been used up by now. We’ve largely resigned ourselves to enjoyable bits of scenery-chewing from famous actors who pop up for a Marvel picture, give us a little frisson of delight at their presence, and then fade from our memories like a half-remembered stress dream.
How refreshingly terrifying it is, then, to find oneself in the backseat of a car driven by Adrian Toomes. Adrian — also known as the Vulture — is the Big Bad of Spider-Man: Homecoming, and he has instantly entered the top tier of the MCU villain roster. There’s an array of reasons he lands so well, primary among them that Keaton just crushes it. The stellar nature of his performance is never more apparent than in the third-act scene when Spidey’s civilian identity, Peter Parker, gets a menacingly slow ride in Adrian’s automobile. I won’t spoil the surprising circumstances that have brought them together in that moment, but suffice it to say that Adrian has reached a point of supremacy that allows him to credibly threaten Petey with mere words.
As he speaks, he looks backward from the driver’s seat at the child in his midst and says things no youngster should ever have to hear. “Don’t mess with me,” he murmurs at one point, “because I will kill you and everybody you love.” Coming out of a lesser actor’s mouth, the line would read as mere murderous bombast. Keaton, however, uses each consonant and vowel like a master violinist translating bars of Mozart. His inverted-Nike-swoosh eyebrows rise and fall hypnotically; his eyes ooze with malicious intent. His vaguely working-class accent and gravelly hush prevent any of it from feeling over-the-top. This is not a Dark Elf or a fallen sorcerer proclaiming that the world shall be theirs; this is more like an ordinary neighbor abruptly putting a gun to your forehead.
I use that metaphor carefully, because another component that makes the character work is that he’s so ordinary. When we meet him, right before his turn to supervillainy, he’s just a slightly assholish guy who works in salvage and stumbles across some miraculous alien technology, then has an idea for making money off of it.* He’s not a mad scientist or a cosmic fallen angel — he’s a plausible human being you could easily know. At the risk of abusing a much-overused term, the characterization is grounded in a way that even the Netflix shows often don’t go for. (Is there anything truly “street-level” about an army of ninjas?) As Keaton put it at a pre-premiere press conference, “It was a really unique approach, and kind of obvious, when you think about it: To make this person someone who’s approachable and has a legitimate gripe and a legitimate argument.”
But what, exactly, is that argument? This is where the most surprising — and gleefully thrilling — aspect of the character’s success kicks in. In short, the Vulture is the first supervillain who seems like he voted for Trump. Hear me out. He’s a guy with a working-class past, but who long ago obtained a substantial amount of wealth — and nevertheless continues to act like he’s a put-upon, blue-collar prole. His blood foes? Government bureaucrats and bleeding-heart elitists. As he puts it at one point, “The rich and the powerful, like Stark, they don’t care about us.” I’m not saying Trump voters are supervillains, just that Adrian’s motivations have been demonstrated to be all too narratively and experientially potent in the months preceding the movie’s release. His grievances pack a believable wallop.
His motivations are fascinating for another reason, one that underpins the movie’s most valuable lesson for filmic adapters of superhero comics: Be willing to jettison the source material. In the Marvel comics, Adrian is generally depicted as an elderly man who sucks up the life forces of the young and commits crimes mostly out of mustache-twirling avarice. He isn’t the world’s most compelling villain, to be honest, nor would he have been an interesting — or even just non-laughable — baddie on celluloid in his comics form. Luckily, the six writers of Homecoming looked on those traits with no apparent reverence.
Instead, they boiled the Vulture down to the components that work best: He’s greedy, he flies on mechanical wings, he doesn’t like Spider-Man, and he’s called the Vulture. Everything else was demolished like a midtown building during the Battle of New York. He’s a more or less brand-new character that nods admiringly at the fun parts of the existing character and moves on into a thrilling and chilling new aesthetic and narrative space. Plus, the “Vulture” name takes on a new meaning when the guy’s roots are in picking apart the corpses of buildings. It all works, and you won’t see hardly anyone complaining about a betrayal of the classic Vulture brand, because few people actually care about where the guy came from.
That’s the key fact to pay attention to: It’s okay to make new villains. That can mean doing an Adrian-style brass-tacks translation, but it could also theoretically mean just coming up with a baddie from whole cloth. It’s a little trickier to rethink the heroes, of course, as they’re more likely to be adored by groups of fans. But when it comes to the nasties, you have far less to lose. In fact, original creations may start to become essential sooner rather than later. As Marvel Studios’ supply of marketable villains dwindles, scarcity can act as an opportunity for future filmmakers to pull a Vulture and build their future projects with fresh stone.
This goes double for Sony. They’re the ones who own the rights to Spidey and his supporting cast, and they only got to use Iron Man and the MCU because this and forthcoming Spider-Man-starring movies are made in partnership with Marvel. They’re trying to build a new cinematic universe with the remaining Spider-Man characters, but there are only so many genuinely interesting, Spider-specific bad guys and gals. Sooner or later, they’re going to have to get truly inventive — or they’re going to have to tear down most of an existing character and rebuild them anew. Adrian’s roots may lie in demolished buildings, but he also provides a blueprint for reconstruction.
*This post has been updated to reflect the fact that Adrian works in salvage, not demolition.