In 2014, Michael Keaton satirized his most famous big screen role with Birdman, an ambitious showbiz satire in which his character is followed around by the superhero he played in a film trilogy 20 years earlier. An obvious nod to Keaton’s own association with Batman, the film was a massive critical and commercial success, winning the Academy Award for Best Picture and netting Keaton his first Oscar nomination. For the sixty-something star, this played like a triumphant, if belated, bookend to his superhero career. Then, less than two years later, he was cast in Spider-Man: Homecoming. (And there’s much more to read about that project here.)
But Keaton isn’t playing a superhero this time around – or even a hero, for that matter. Rather, the reboot will see him playing the role of Adrian Toomes, a.k.a. Vulture, a classic Spider-Man villain who first appeared on the page in the second issue of The Amazing Spider-Man. Consistent with the original portrayal of that character, in Homecoming Toomes isn’t even super – or at least not endowed with superhuman abilities that allow him to perform seemingly impossible physical feats. Instead, much like billionaire playboy Tony Stark, Toomes is a technical genius whose brilliant mind (and illegally-scavenged Chitauri technology) allows him to mount a potentially lucrative criminal enterprise.
The talks that led to Keaton’s eventual casting suffered from something of a false start. In April of last year, it was reported in that early negotiations with the actor had deteriorated. Some speculated that Keaton was wary of retreading familiar ground so soon after finally putting his superhero past to bed onscreen. Other reports suggested that the studios (unlike past Spider-Man installments, Homecoming is a co-production between Sony and Marvel-Disney, effectively placing the hero in the MCU for the first time) had trouble accommodating the salary demands of both Keaton and Robert Downey Jr., whose Tony Stark plays a major role in the film.
We may never know the real story. When I visited the set back in August, accounts differed as to the reason why talks stalled out. Amy Pascal, the former Sony Pictures co-chair who serves as a producer on the film, was adamant that unspecified reservations by Keaton were the main sticking point. “Any convincing, are you joking?” she cried when asked if Keaton had been reticent about taking on the role. “Are you joking? Any convincing? He was the person that we wanted from the time that we knew we were doing this character. And he took from the time we decided it ’til the time we closed the deal to convince him, yes.”
Meanwhile, Keaton claimed that the culprit was a scheduling issue – not qualms with the project itself. “Honestly, it wasn’t working out at the time schedule-wise, cause I didThe Founder and there’ll probably be a little promotion for that, and I’m starting to work on American Assassin,” he told reporters during a break in filming. “And we thought The Founder was coming out now [August 2016], and then Harvey [Weinstein] wanted to move it more towards awards season… You know, if something’s good and it works in my life schedule or work schedule, I’m open to it. It just wasn’t working that way when it was originally set.”
Whatever the case, on the day in question any reticence Keaton may have been feeling initially was besides the point. When we arrived, he and co-star Tom Holland were deep into filming the scene in which Holland’s Peter Parker first meets Toomes in his laboratory. The cavernous, cluttered workshop set was full of strange machinery (some of it likely Chitauri in origin) that also boasted some humanizing details, including a refrigerator partially decorated with family photos and children’s drawings. This seemingly minor detail points to the script’s efforts to paint Toomes as a relatably-flawed bad guy. In the words of Marvel Director of Development and Homecoming co-producer Eric Carroll, he’s a “family man” who “just wants his shot at the good life.”
As the film opens, Toomes – the owner of a New York City salvage company who benefits from some less-than-scrupulous political connections – has landed a major contract to clean up after the infamous Battle of New York depicted in 2012’s The Avengers. But a day into his work on the project, which has required a heavy financial expenditure on Toomes’ part, a heretofore unknown organization called the Department of Damage Control shows up on the scene and shuts him down. The reason? Alien technology left behind by the Chitauri is deemed too sensitive for any ordinary cleanup crew to handle.
This incident sends Toomes into a downward spiral and eventually leads him down a brazenly criminal path. Using some alien detritus he scavenged on site, he builds a wing suit that aids in a high-stakes heist operation focused on raiding Damage Control trucks for more Chitauri technology. This operation in turn catches the attention of Peter, who returned from his adventures Germany with a burning desire to prove himself to Stark and his teammates.
It was just this set of complicated motivations that attracted Keaton to the role. Wrongheaded as he is, Toomes is presented as less megalomaniacal villain than misguided victim, who loses his way in the face of a major (and majorly unfair) professional and financial setback. For the actor, Toomes’ arc dovetailed nicely with the current political climate, in which a renegade presidential candidate with no political experience surged to the forefront of American politics on a wave of anti-establishment rage. (It should be noted that at the time of our visit, Donald Trump had just been anointed the Republican nominee but had not yet won the presidency.)
“I’m sympathetic and empathetic and curious about what’s going on in the world, and more so right now in the country. This is an evident situation, it’s existed for a long time… I think it’s a really interesting approach,” said Keaton, who at 65 retains the arch, boyish charm that made him such a compelling onscreen presence to begin with. Given the political moment, he also seemed cognizant of the potential for Toomes’ humanizing qualities to be misrepresented by those with a stake in further stoking anti-establishment fervor for their own ends.
“We know there’s a clear gap, and in fairness, in justice, in equity. In a lot of ways, economically, racially… so then you say, well, that can be interpreted and misinterpreted and used by a lot of different people,” he continued. “It’s just that which one’s the person that is accurately turning that dial, and which one’s using it as bullshit and lies?… I hope this isn’t interpreted by people who misrepresent this stuff.”
Regardless of the political subtext, it’s a staple of the Marvel universe to present villains whose motivations are grounded in recognizable human emotion. Think Loki – i.e. the man indirectly responsible for said Chitauri technology falling into Toomes’ hands – whose desire to, uh, subjugate the entire human race sprang from his sadness and rage at discovering that his sense of identity and belonging was based on a lie. Here, Vulture’s resentment transforms him into a more “everyman” type of supervillain – albeit one brilliant enough to build a sophisticated wing suit out of advanced, otherworldly technology.
In Homecoming, the wing suit in question has received a Super-Sized upgrade in Vulture’s first big screen outing. In fact, Carroll noted that the suit is closer to a wing vehicle – a craft the size of a “small plane” that is powered by Chitauri technology. Not only did this make for a grander visual, it allowed the studios to differentiate Vulture from other winged characters in the MCU.
“One of the things [we decided] when we landed on Vulture being the bad guy was we wanted to make sure it wasn’t just evil Falcon, or another guy with a backpack with wings on it,” said Carroll, framed by a wall of storyboards laying out the film’s entire plot. “So we thought one of the cool ways to do that was to really make this more of a vehicle than a costume. It’s massive…and it does a couple of neat things to help him with his raids. It has these alien turbines. So he doesn’t have to be flying forward, and he doesn’t have to do any goofy flapping his wings to get off the ground.”
These kinds of details will no doubt be of interest to hardcore fans who appreciate the more technical aspects of the Marvel universe. But for Keaton – whose knowledge of superhero lore is, by his own admission, negligible – Toomes’ inner workings remain the primary concern. So when the character’s arc was drastically overhauled in rewrites partially scripted by director Jon Watts, the actor was caught off guard.
“I adjusted to [Jon] I think a little more than him adjusting to me,” said Keaton when asked about his working relationship with Watts. He then cracked: “I think a lot of it gets adjusted in the writing. I didn’t know that I was being adjusted more than anybody else.”
It remains to be seen whether audiences take to Vulture’s big screen interpretation, but with Homecoming in the can and a sequel already on the release slate, speculation is rampant about which Spider-Man villain is slated to get the MCU treatment next. While on set, those involved were understandably mum on any future plans, other than to tell us which baddies aren’t in the running. This list includes the likes of the Green Goblin, who Pascal all but knocked out of contention. “I don’t know how many more times we can do the Green Goblin. I certainly tried to do it 50 [times],” quipped the producer, who as Sony Pictures co-president greenlit two different versions of the character onscreen.
Watts, meanwhile, remained cryptic. “We have some ideas of who could fit in in an interesting way,” said the director, who jokingly shot down the possibility of obvious “no-gos” like Big Wheel (a vengeful businessman who literally rides around in a giant wheel) and Gideon Mace, whose right hand has been replaced with a titanium mace that also shoots chemical Mace. “But we’re just trying to build Spider-Man’s side of the world in a rich way that could organically lead to some of the great [ones] – like, get into that rogue’s gallery.”
As for Keaton, his guess is as good as yours. Deadpanned the actor: “I barely know who the Joker is.”