Green Goblin or The Joker? Doctor Octopus or The Riddler? Black Cat or Catwoman? Kingpin or Penguin? The thing most iconic superheroes share is that they have the best rogues’ gallery in comics. Casual fans are familiar with Batman and Spider-Man’s origins — dead parents and a radioactive spider — but many are also familiar with the origins of their villains. A good hero is only as good as the villain they go up against, mostly because a great villain should provide a window into a darker side of the hero’s identity; something they struggle with internally. For Joker, it’s Batman’s realization that he is slowly spiraling into insanity. For Doctor Octopus, it’s Spider-Man’s realization that he could have ended up using his intelligence for selfish gain. The best superhero films are the ones that pay equal weight to its villains, which is why the stylized Batman Returns and Spider-Man 2 have remained top-tier in the genre — and why Spider-Man: Homecoming is one of Marvel’s best films.
There’s been a myriad of villains in the Spider-Man films. Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man flick featured the Green Goblin. Spider-Man 2 had Doc Ock. Spider-Man 3 boasted Venom and the Sandman. The Amazing Spider-Man gave us The Lizard. Electro and Rhino were in Amazing Spider-Man 2, along with another Green Goblin appearance. But most of these films, barring Spider-Man 2, have felt stuffed to the brim with villains harboring no other motivation than to fight with Spider-Man and sell action figures. The reason Spider-Man 2 is such a beautiful adaptation of the Spider-Man mythos is because Dr. Otto Octavius is treated like a real human being. He’s a genius who thinks he’s the smartest man in the room at all times and becomes enamored with Peter Parker, a potential mentee. When Otto’s wife dies and he blames Spider-Man, it turns his relationship with Peter on its head — a vendetta that drives the bulk of the film. Raimi’s visual style, popularized by the Evil Dead films, lent itself to a darker exploration of Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus’ psyches.
It’s the same flourish employed by Tim Burton in Batman Returns, which celebrates 25 years this year and still remains a gold standard for superhero flicks. It earns this by treating comic books as they were intended: human stories populated with larger-than-life characters. It’s a superhero story by virtue of Bruce Wayne dressing in costume to take down Penguin and Catwoman, but it’s mostly a dark saga about people who’ve been abandoned by their parents and society, and how they cope with that loss. But bear in mind: these films aren’t ashamed of being comic book movies. In fact, their visuals and ostentatious costumes leap off the screen, radiating a comic book feel from scene to scene. No film with bombs strapped to an army of penguins or Spider-Man getting pummeled with a ye olde bag of coins during a bank heist could ever claim to be embarrassed by their source material.
Spider-Man: Homecoming opts to skip Spider-Man’s origin story — because the villains in those prior cinematic iterations are rarely memorable as they take a backseat to franchise exposition. There’s nothing particularly wrong with, say, Spider-Man or Batman Begins, but those stories feel weaker since the villain appears tacked on to the third act. By contrast, The Dark Knight truly sings as it pits Batman against the diabolical Joker. Burton’s Batman also succeeds in this regard, it just has the unfortunate distinction of not being as grand as Batman Returns and exhibiting some of its helmer’s superhero genre growing pains. It’s a problem that even the excellent Wonder Woman faces, with undefined villains like Ares and Dr. Poison shoehorned into a film that’s largely unconcerned with them. But filmmaker Jon Watts has learned from previous Spider-Man failures on Homecoming, and this film largely works because of how it treats Michael Keaton’s Vulture.
Keaton is finally given the chance to embody one of the well-crafted villains he went up against in Burton’s films. He plays Adrian Toomes, a down on his luck contractor who has a job snatched away from him by Tony Stark. It prompts Toomes to use stolen alien technology from the site of the Avengers’ headquarters so he can build himself a flying suit and go by the name Vulture. He also peddles some of this stolen tech on the streets for profit. It comes as little surprise when the Vulture delivers a speech similar to the Forgotten Man mantra that permeated much of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. He feels stepped on by the 1% and his illegal activity is a way to not only exact his revenge, but to profit just like them.
This stands in direct contrast to Tom Holland’s Peter Parker/Spider-Man, who lives in the diverse, working class neighborhood of Queens and looks up to men like Tony. There’s little sense of where Toomes lived before he decamped to the suburbs, but it’s certainly not a home he could’ve afforded in the film’s prologue. His hawking of hot armaments to help himself and those around him flee their circumstances clashes with Tony Starks’ past as a merchant of death who created and sold cutting edge weapons to governments. It’s the choice between being a man for his community and being selfish; working class people who just want to do right by one another instead of stepping on people every chance they get. What Vulture fails to realize is that by selling weapons, he’s creating more turmoil for the people he purports to be helping. Spider-Man sees this, but he also recognizes that same personality trait in Tony — and how he himself could stumble down that path by relying on the high-tech suit that Tony built him.
Spider-Man’s feat of strength late in the film, stripped of his multimillion-dollar suit and lifting pounds of rubble that have fallen onto him (mirroring the classic Spider-Man story “The Final Chapter!”), is where he discovers his fortitude of spirit and how he is different from Vulture. Vulture is a slave to his suit — to his technology — but Spider-Man doesn’t need bells and whistles to save the day, he just needs his resolve. It’s an internal conflict that’s folded into a coming of age high school story of the John Hughes variety. Without the fancy costumes, you have the same story of a hero realizing their mentor isn’t all he’s cracked up to be, and how they could lead him down a dark path… much like Spider-Man 2. By returning pathos to the Spider-Man universe and focusing on villains that reflect Peter Parker’s darker impulses, Homecoming succeeds just like its genre forefathers.