Just be happy it’s not another portal.
You know about Marvel movies by now, let’s not be coy. It’s hard to avoid them considering there’re toy, TV (streaming and traditional), comic, snack, amusement park, and film properties developing the lucrative universe and all its heroes. But its villains, that’s always the issue. It’s comic rival, DC, has always had the better villains. Joker, Mr. Freeze, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, General Zod, Bizarro, Brainiac, Lex Luthor. I bet you recognized at least one of those names. With Suicide Squad, it proved even its minor leaguers could make a smash (financial) hit. Marvel’s a bit of a different story.
Would fans watch a film starring a team-up of Obadiah Stane, Whiplash, and Thor’s Dark Elves? Probably not. Would some nod their heads knowingly as I made up a name for the weird bugs/robots/aliens that came through the various portals in the Avengers films as long as it had plenty of Ks? Something like “the Kitakuri?” Almost definitely.
Marvel villains, as pointed out by Kofi Outlaw, underwhelm for two main reasons: they’re either not given enough depth or they’re snuffed out to make way for some imposing larger force that never quite gets here. The main reason anyone’s excited for DC movies (and were excited for Civil War) is that they show a clash of characters people actually want to see, not an audience’s action figures bashing a slew of anonymous inhuman fodder.
That’s why The Vulture, particularly Michael Keaton’s grizzled take on the character, could change Spider-Man: Homecoming’s villain game. Spider-Man films have had decent baddies in the past (Venom, Doc Ock, The Green Goblin….basically everyone but Electro), but this is the first time Spidey’s been a bona fide part of the Marvel squad. His villains now have the opportunity to affect activities and characters beyond their single-hero scope, both narratively and in a corporate sense as the company learns works in its franchise. That also may mean their life expectancy shrinks, seeing as they now have a god and some mecha-suited badasses to contend with in addition to a high schooler, but so be it.
We saw Keaton as the Vulture for the first time in the film’s latest trailer, a wrinkled, dusty, angry guy who’s disillusioned with billionaires and wants to protect his family. Who can’t get behind that? Keaton introduced much of America to the brooding side of Batman, then underwent a metatextual evolution in Birdman as a character that once played a superhero and wanted to reclaim his artistic legitimacy. What that movie didn’t expect is for him to go back to superherodom. Thankfully, he picked a good character. Vulture doesn’t ask for any over-the-top theatrics – no Beetlejuice here – but a dark, bitter, intimidating wit that Keaton’s recently performed with an understated ease in movies like Spotlight or even this year’s The Founder.
The character’s backstory, that of Adrian Toomes, is that of an engineer-turned-businessman-turned-criminal with much more of an understandable motive than any purple godlike beings, Hydra Nazis, or robot-building idiots. In this way he fits well with Spider-Man. Especially THIS Spider-Man. They’re very DIY. We see in the trailer that Vulture’s flight suit isn’t flashy or gaudy – it’s unpainted steel and all business. It looks like a winged Battlebot. His few lines of dialogue are there to tell the goofy, uninhibited, hotheaded Peter Parker that he’s way out of his league. It’s what the villain in Guardians of the Galaxy could’ve done if he wasn’t a weird, blue hammer-wielding Kiss reject.
In fact, it’s what the other minor antagonists in Guardians did because they developed a bit of personality: put the jokers in their place.
Speaking of joking, going after weapons and threatening urban-dwellers on boats – these sound like things done by the best cinematic supervillain of all time, The Dark Knight’s Joker. Keaton’s Vulture seems to be taking all of the threatening malice and none of the instability from that character. He threatens Spidey’s loved ones and looks to be the only villain in the film. No larger, franchise-building nonsense here. Just a great actor in a cool suit threatening a teenager.
If he dies, if he’s captured, it won’t matter. We’ll expect it after all. But that the hero faced a real villain and was changed because of the continued encounters? That’s what’s been missing. The Marvel films have been so intertextually reliant (and with Tony Stark’s heavy trailer inclusion, Spider-Man: Homecoming may be no different) that character growth always comes from inter-protagonist discussions and conflicts, leaving the ostensibly main conflict feeling like an afterthought. Keaton’s grounded charisma, and seemingly singular villain status, could be exactly what the film (and company) needs as a foil to its newest hero.