Editor’s note: Major spoilers ahead for Spider-Man: Homecoming
Near the beginning of Spider-Man: Homecoming, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is invited to a house party by his school crush, Liz (Laura Harrier), the kind of party you’d expect when the parents are out of town. He’s apprehensive and awkward, as any 15-year-old would be — though as the audience knows, he’s hiding a bit more than most kids his age. The viewer might also take a moment to appreciate Liz’s house, a sleek, opulent structure with sky-high ceilings and large glass windows. It’s easy to surmise: Liz’s family is loaded.
What we don’t know — at least not at that point in the film — is that Liz’s wealth is afforded to her by the film’s villain. It’s a stunning, climactic twist: In the film’s third act, Peter’s returning to Liz’s house to take her to the homecoming dance, and discovers that her father is Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), aka the Vulture. When he’s not at home with his wife and daughter, Toomes is busy being the mastermind behind the arms-trafficking ring that Peter spends most of Homecoming trying to foil.
Over the course of small talk while he’s driving Peter and Liz to the dance, Toomes realizes that his daughter’s date is actually Spider-Man. So when he asks Peter to stay in the car for a minute once they arrive at the school dance, he doesn’t dispense with the typical “dad talk” you might expect (like, get her back home by 10 p.m. and don’t try anything funny!). Instead, Toomes coolly tells Peter to step back from messing with his business, otherwise he’ll kill him and everyone he loves. It’s a chilling exchange and the defining moment of Homecoming. Instead of an explosive, CGI-filled third act battle or tie-in to Marvel’s ever-expanding cinematic universe, it’s two people talking in a car parked outside the entrance to a school dance.
Homecoming works because the stakes are smaller, and in that sense, Vulture — who’s basically just a dude with mechanical wings and the occasional alien super-gun — is the perfect villain. That’s not meant as a slight; it’s actually extremely refreshing. Keaton’s Vulture might be Marvel’s best on-screen antagonist to date, one whose ambitions are perfect in scale, and, as is the case with many of the best villains, they’re also quite relatable.
The opening scene to Homecoming — which is a flashback to the aftermath of the showdown in New York from the first Avengers film — reveals that Toomes was a contractor trying to make an honest living out of the wreckage from the battle. But before he and his crew can get to work, they’re stopped by the newly formed Department of Damage Control, partially funded by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). He put a ton of money and resources into this particular job, and fears what would happen to his family if he has nothing to show for it. So he opts to keep some of the alien technology he and his team have recovered, instead of returning it. Fast forward eight years to the events of Homecoming, and Toomes’ decision certainly paid off financially — again, the ceilings and windows in his house don’t look like they came cheap.
A blue-collar guy made good (by doing bad) is a nice change from the typical villains in the MCU. Usually, they’re corporate elites (Obadiah Stane in Iron Man, Yellowjacket in Ant-Man), literal gods (Loki in Thor and The Avengers) or super-powered aliens (Ronan the Accuser in Guardians of the Galaxy, and eventually, Thanos in the upcoming Infinity War). But Toomes isn’t vying for global domination: He just wants to support his wife and daughter, and won’t let someone like Tony Stark — himself a corporate elite — screw him out of a job.
It’s long felt as if Marvel simply hasn’t been able to grasp what makes a villain truly compelling — the obvious exception being Loki, who has become such a fan-favorite and Tumblr bae that they’ve overused him by having him reappear in a slew of MCU flicks. But what Marvel hasn’t really understood is that people don’t connect with villains just because of how outwardly evil or dastardly they can be; typically, it’s way more frightening when a villain feels uncomfortably familiar and relatable. Toomes achieves both: You’re likely shocked that someone as coldblooded as him turns out to be Liz’s smiling father, but it doesn’t feel unrealistic. It’s the little details in the character — like how one of his henchman tells him his wife is texting him, or how anguished he is when he loses that contracting job in the opening scene — that keep him grounded, even as he flies around with metal wings stealing alien tech from the Department of Damage Control.
Certainly, there should be some skepticism about making a blue-collar worker a bad guy — it could come off as a classist move, like the filmmakers are demonizing the kinds of people who work day jobs and take their kids to the movies on the weekend. But Homecoming is sympathetic to Toomes’ plight — he’s got his reasons for what he’s doing — but we still never lose sight of how terrifying an adversary he is. This is a guy who’s willing to kill a 15-year-old kid just to keep his business afloat and his family financially secure.
Crucially, though, Toomes never really feels too over-the-top or like he’s unnecessarily evil. In a mid-credits scene, after Toomes is defeated, arrested and in prison, he meets a former business associate, played by Better Call Saul’s Michael Mando, who’s looking to kill Spider-Man with some help from the outside. But when asked if he knows Spider-Man’s true identity, Toomes lies. He could give up Peter’s identity, but he doesn’t — perhaps he feels like he owes Peter, who saved his life at the end of the film, even after he tried to kill the kid several times.
In that moment, Toomes’ priority is meeting up with his wife and daughter during visiting hours. It may be the last time he sees them for a while — we learn Liz and her mom are moving to Oregon, because Toomes doesn’t want them in New York to bear witness to his trial. Even in the smallest moments, even after he’s lost everything, Vulture isn’t like other Marvel villains. He’s human.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is currently in theaters.