the vulture best marvel villain

Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) is the very first character we meet in Spider-Man: Homecoming. If this were any other movie (i.e. were the movie’s title not Spider-Man), it wouldn’t be hard to imagine him as a protagonist. But as the saying goes, a story is only as good as its villain. Spider-Man has always felt particularly human in a genre filled with superhumans; luckily, the Vulture is similarly grounded (despite having a custom-built set of wings), and Homecoming is all the better for it.

Major spoilers follow.

Sympathy for the Devil

The opening — which already allots Toomes with more screen time than most other villains in recent superhero movies — clearly defines his motivations as well as lending him a certain amount of sympathy. After part of New York is destroyed during the events of the first Avengers, his salvage crew prepares to deal with the fallout. But before they can really get to work, they’re kicked off the case by Tony Stark and the newly formed Department of Damage Control. Losing the contract means shuttering the company, and it’s not just his colleagues that Toomes is worried about. He has a family to care for, too. To his eyes, the clean-up effort is unfair. The very people who caused all of that destruction are now getting to profit off of it, and putting him out of a job.

For all that his motives are understandable, there’s an edge to the character, too. Toomes gets into an altercation with one of the government agents at the salvage site, and later on, there’s no compunction to his threat to Peter Parker (Tom Holland) that he’ll kill everyone Peter cares about if he doesn’t stop interfering. He also reduces one of his peers to ash with the alien technology that he and his crew have spent the last several years adapting. It’s something that happens by accident — he only means to stun him — but it’s telling that he’s utterly nonchalant at what happened instead. The ends may be good, but the means, and his attitude towards them, are what make him a villain.

michael keaton as the vulture in spiderman homecoming

In Praise of Michael Keaton

It’s a menace that’s accentuated by Keaton’s physical performance. He’s always been capable of projecting a certain kind of mania; just think of the “let’s get nuts” scene in Batman, or the entirety of his performance in Beetlejuice. It’s half in how malleable his physicality seems to be, and half in the simple set of his brow, with the arch permanently suggesting just a hair’s width from one mood to the next. Both are used to full effect in Homecoming. Keaton practically swaggers his way through the whole movie, stepping in and out of the Vulture wings without even the slightest hesitation, and aided sans-wings by the exaggerated collar on his leather jacket. The Vulture costume itself is also pretty cool, a far cry from the leotard and feathery wings usually sported by the character in the comics. There are prehensile attachments on his boots (which he digs into Peter’s chest in the fairly brutal final fight), and the metal “feathers” on his wings are blades that open and close like oversized scissors. Watching him in action, it’s easy to forget that the Vulture isn’t a real monster.

It’s a testament to Keaton’s performance that this supremely self-assured quality also reads when Toomes is simply in civilian wear, as when Peter comes to the home of his prom date only to discover that her father is the criminal he’s been pursuing. The moment is perfect as an example of the very thin line Keaton treads in balancing the domestic and the fantastic. Toomes doesn’t piece together what’s going on until a little later, so when he first sees Peter (which he later tells him to his face), all of that intensity is coming from a place of concern for his daughter. It’s as simple as that. Even after he figures out what’s going on, his way of dealing with it comes once more from a place of family. He tells Peter he’ll let him go this time because he saved his daughter’s life, but that’s as far as his goodwill extends.

Spider-Man Homecoming

The Best Villain of the MCU?

At least, that’s as far as it goes in the moment. Homecoming is a movie that believes in inherent good, and it’s a belief that extends to its villains, too. Toomes ultimately goes to jail, and when he’s given the opportunity to rat out Spider-Man’s true identity, he bluffs, saying that if he knew, Spider-Man would be dead already. It’s somehow the more striking part of a scene that sets up a possible Sinister Six in future installments; Toomes’ story isn’t black and white, and the best parts of the story all exploit that. The way he deals with Peter — as well as the fact that he sends his wife and daughter away at the end of the film because he’d rather they not bear witness to his trial — provides a glimpse at just how complicated the character is.

Homecoming is a charming movie and remarkable for many reasons, though arguably predominantly due to its villain. He’s positioned, written, and performed to be understood, if not necessarily rooted for. He’s featured prominently enough that he can’t be forgotten the way some other villains have, and Michael Keaton’s performance in particular helps to convey the difficulty in balancing the weight of responsibility and the pull of pride. He’s doing what he’s doing for a sweet reason, but Toomes’ unscrupulousness when it comes to business is frightening. It all comes together to make Toomes a strong villain, if not the strongest villain that Marvel has seen so far.

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