People don’t go to the multiplex to watch a sociological study. (Which is just as well: Big, loud Hollywood blockbusters aren’t usually great with nuance, so it’d be too much to ask them to be remotely politically deft.) And yet, this past weekend’s super-successful Spider-Man: Homecoming contains, perhaps by accident, a rather astute examination of a cultural issue that’s been at the forefront of political debate over the last several years. And it’s expressed in the form of the movie’s excellent villain, the small-business owner-turned-evil mastermind Adrian Toomes, a.k.a. the Vulture. As played by Michael Keaton, the bad guy embodies all the contradictions and anxieties of the so-called alienated, blue-collar, middle-aged white voter – or at least how such folks have been portrayed in the media. In the process, Spidey’s nemesis ends up being Homecoming‘s most complicated and fascinating character.
(Warning: There will be Spider-Man: Homecoming spoilers. Lots of them.)
With the political ascension of Donald Trump, journalists and pundits have spent the last few years publishing a steady stream of think-pieces and investigations into the white working-class male, hoping to understand what makes him tick – and, more importantly, why he’s so ticked off. To the media, this mythical figure is as mysterious and alluring as Sasquatch or the Loch Ness Monster, and just as hard to pin down. Homecoming doesn’t pretend to offer a definitive portrait of blue-collar disillusionment – this is a comic book movie, not Hell or High Water – but it does go out of its way to make the audience feel its bad guy’s pain.
When we first meet Toomes in a flashback, he runs a salvage company hired to clean up New York after the epic final battle in The Avengers. It’s a lucrative gig, so it’s no surprise that our man is shocked and upset when he arrives on the site and is brusquely informed that his services will no longer be needed. (Tony Stark has chosen to oversee the job personally, teaming with the U.S. government to create the Department of Damage Control.) Despite Toomes’ protestations that losing the job will be a crippling financial blow – he’s got a family to support, just like so many other hard-working Americans – the government officials brush him aside. But rather than getting mad, he decides to get even, swiping all the alien technology he can from the site to develop high-tech weapons to sell on the black market. Along the way, he creates the flying suit that will transform him into the Vulture.
Nobody involved with Homecoming has claimed that this Spidey reboot is some sort of political commentary. But in the press notes, director Jon Watts does explain his conception of the Vulture by saying, “I really liked the idea of having villains with problems that people can relate to. It’s not about world domination; it’s not about some crazy revenge plot; it’s about not having enough money to get by and really wanting to have a place in the world.”
Financial stability and pride in one’s work: Those sound like the talking points at a populist candidate’s stump speech, but in Homecoming, they’re also the anxieties that drive a regular Joe to become a supervillain. Just as Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is a relatable high-school kid – he’s no mighty Kryptonian or brooding Gotham billionaire vigilante – so too is Toomes a plainly average guy, lacking the brilliance or outsized menace of Doctor Octopus or the Green Goblin. Instead, his most powerful, dangerous weapon is his belief that he’s been shafted.
His anger has inspired some commentators to see real-world parallels in the bad guy’s beef with the fabulously wealthy Stark. Vulture’s Abraham Riesman has made the argument that Toomes “is the first supervillain who seems like he voted for Trump,” noting that “He’s a guy with a working-class past, but who long ago obtained a substantial amount of wealth [due to selling black-market weapons] – and nevertheless continues to act like he’s a put-upon, blue-collar prole.” Class resentment oozes through the character: When Toomes squares off with Parker late in the movie, he justifies his evil deeds by drawing a connection between himself and the teenager, saying, “The rich and the powerful, like Stark, they don’t care about us.”
It’s best to ignore that post-election conventional wisdom that disenfranchised, blue-collar white men voted for Trump because of economic woes – especially since that conventional wisdom has been debunked by recent studies, which have shown that cultural anxiety and a fear of a changing America were much more potent factors for his constituents. Regardless, whether Toomes is meant to be seen as a prototypical Trump voter matters far less than Homecoming‘s attempts to humanize the media-constructed demographic of the alienated middle-aged white guy.
In the film, Toomes comes across as the quintessential “real American”: an unpretentious regular Joe who just wants to provide for his family and protect his baby girl. And like a lot of workers who’ve watched their industries shrink because of outsourcing, globalization or a shift away from labor-intensive jobs, he is financially hamstrung after Stark takes his livelihood away. That betrayal creates a toxic bitterness within Toomes that’s only amplified when he comes into conflict with the teen superhero – another symbol (in his mind, anyway) of this world of elites who have left people like him behind. In his mind, Spider-Man is some punk kid trying to jeopardize his source of income – just as bad, Parker’s insinuating himself with his daughter Liz (Laura Harrier), even taking her to the homecoming dance. This web-slinger might as well be the nightmare boyfriend that every father fears showing up at his door to squire his precious angel.
In a career that’s included everything from Batman to Spotlight, Keaton is an actor who radiates ordinary-guy vibes, albeit with an edge that makes you wonder what he’s up to. That juxtaposition is crucial for portraying Toomes, who goes from feeling like the wounded, aggrieved party to a potential murderer. Driven by his own self-righteousness, the Vulture thinks he’s been dealt a bad hand. And in a way, he has – in the world of comic-book movies, he doesn’t have the riches of a Stark or the powers of a Spider-Man. He was just trying to make an honest living. And because the infinitely likable Keaton plays the villain, we don’t want to entirely believe that he’s a bad guy. Only the lingering resentment to which Toomes clings destroys his moral compass. What started as a reaction to a slight turns into a plot to spread untold horror around the globe and murder the one guy his daughter really liked.
The popular perception of the anonymous “angry white worker” is such a generalization that it’s dangerous to equate the Vulture with it too closely. (Besides, the simplistic media depiction of this demographic as being across-the-board bigots doesn’t apply to Toomes, who’s in a mixed-race marriage, has a black daughter and a multicultural crew working for him.) But Spider-Man: Homecoming displays real compassion while being clear-eyed about what perils the modern economy has afflicted on men like him.
If things had been different, the Vulture could have had his own superhero movie. Consider: Here’s an underdog who pulls himself up by his bootstraps, using his ingenuity and resourcefulness to give his family a good life despite hardships thrown his way. We see the Vulture as a villain; he sees himself as a victim. There’s a sense of tragedy that you rarely feel when encountering Marvel bad guys. Adrian Toomes is the worst-case scenario of not just the “angry white voter” but anybody who faces hard times and, rather than rising above them, operates out of a need to hit back. The movie’s smart enough to help you realize that, while resentment is an understandable emotion, what you decide to do with it is crucial. With great anger comes great responsibility.