‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ Finally Solves Marvel’s Villain Problem Thanks To Michael Keaton’s Vulture

This weekend, the world will answer the question “Do we really want to see another Spider-Man reboot?” Based on the box office tracking, the answer is a resounding “Yes.” And, having seen the film, I can say that those who make the trek to their local cineplex this weekend won’t be disappointed. Bringing Peter Parker into the Marvel Cinematic Universe fold injects new life into what could’ve been the first superhero franchise to truly see that “fatigue” pundits keep swearing is just around the corner. By skipping past the spider bite and Uncle Ben’s death, Spider-Man: Homecoming trusts the audience to understand why this kid from Queens has spider powers and just takes off running.

In fact, the only character who gets an origin story is Michael Keaton’s villainous Vulture. Spider-Man: Homecoming spends a lot of time explaining how a grown man comes to put on giant mechanical wings and engage in a battle royale with a 15-year-old boy. The hat trick? Marvel not only makes this seem reasonable, but in the process solves its ongoing villain problem* by making the Vulture into the most complex and sympathetic antagonist since Loki. Hell, they even give Keaton a good reason to monologue at one point!

*If you’re wondering what the ‘villain problem’ is, Marvel has a tendency to hit it and quit it with villains. They are barely given characterization before being killed off.

I truly enjoy the first two Sam Raimi Spider-Man films, but it’s now easier to see them as products of their time. Along with Blade a few years earlier, Raimi’s 2002 film helped prime the superhero movie pump. But at the time, audiences still needed to superhero films to hit beats that now seem overly familiar; a big chunk of the first Spider-Man focused on Peter Parker’s origin story. And while I believe that movie remains the distillation of how Peter becomes Spider-Man, the Green Goblin is a one-note mustache-twirling villain. Same with Spidey’s other film villains: they’re all either psychopathic scientists or technomagically enhanced against their will. Which makes sense to a degree, because Spider-Man’s rogues’ gallery is really weird (looking at you, Kangaroo and Big Wheel) and there’s only so much you can do with that, right?

Wrong. Apparently.

Discarding pretty much all of the Vulture’s comic story, Spider-Man: Homecoming instead turns Keaton’s character Adrian Toomes into a blue-collar guy just trying to make ends meet. Before succumbing to supervillainy — and I’d argue he never really reaches campy “supervillain” status — Toomes was just a husband and a father trying to keep food on the table and his co-workers gainfully employed. Is he kind of an abrasive hothead? Sure. But Keaton plays Toomes like he could be the gruff guy who lives down the street from you and is overprotective of his daughter. Even once Toomes hits rock bottom and becomes the Vulture, the movie always anchors him in his mission to provide for his family. You don’t have to agree with his methods, but you at least understand where he’s coming from.

Without giving anything away, by the end of Spider-Man: Homecoming Adrian Toomes is the Walter White of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He’s a bad dude, making bad decisions, but you can see where there was once an upstanding citizen. He’s not out to take over the world or destroy the galaxy. He just wants to stick it to The Man and make some cash. What started as a mildly illegal venture to pay the bills spiraled into an empire beyond his control, leading to hard choices Toomes never anticipated having to make. Meanwhile, the person Toomes used to be is still at war with the person Vulture has become, leading to a level of pathos and complexity not usually seen in antagonists in superhero films. If this is the formula Marvel plans to use going forward, Phase IV will have some of the most complex superhero villains ever put to film. It’s about time.