Michael Keaton deserves tremendous credit for delivering a brilliant on-screen interpretation of Adrian Toomes, The Vulture, from The Amazing Spider-Man comics. The Vulture debuted all the way back many decades ago in The Amazing Spider Man issue #2, and the villain appeared quite atypical in comparison to traditional comic book villains. This was due to his advanced age. The Vulture was probably the only super-villain whose mania derived from being a cantankerous curmudgeon. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko choose not to hide neither The Vulture’s face and age. The villain didn’t wear a mask and sought not to protect his identity. As noted in a previous hub, villains created during the early run of Spider-Man seem to highlight the generation gap between alienated comic book readers and an older generation. The Vulture, like Dr. Octopus, personified this antagonistic generational gap. Superficially, the bitter nature of the Vulture seemed to play to "angry old man" stereotypes. Neither stereotyping nor superficial explanation get to the true core of his anger.
Michael Keaton’s cinematic version of The Vulture is certainly much older than Peter Parker, but he does not totally reflect the 70-something age of the villain as presented in the Silver and Bronze Age of Comic Books. 66-year-old Keaton clearly worked out very hard for the role as he is lean and trim. Keaton could easily pass for someone 15 years younger even with his gray hair.
While there may be physical differences between Keaton’s Vulture and the early comic book version, angry nature of “The Winged Menace” remains. There is a sense of bitterness found of the character that is missing from the more traditionally egomaniacal super villains of comic book lore. As was the case in the comic books, motivation was given for the roots of the character’s rage.
Amazing Spider-Man Vol 1 Issues 240 & 241 Reveal Rage
In Amazing Spider-Man #240 (May 1982) writer Roger Stern started a two-part story arc with "Wings of Vengeance!" The issue begins with the revelation that Adrian Toomes now Comfortably reside in a retirement community. The Vulture still continues his criminal activities, but on a much smaller scale. He has, in essence, truly retired from a full-time life of crime. One day, his daily routine of casually reading a newspaper leads to a discover that sets him off in a literal flying rage. A man named Gregory Bestman has launched a new startup titled Bestmen Electronics. The Vulture holds some mysterious grudge against Bestman and returns to NYC to kidnap the mogul.
In Amazing Spider-Man #241 (June 1983) delves into the origin of The Vulture with the story “In the Beginning….” The background of the mysterious Vulture reveals he was a designer -- and partner -- in an electronic company alongside Bestman. Bestman cheated Toomes out of millions leading to the once placid Toomes to use his newly-discovered gravity defying harness to launch a life of crime.
The origin of The Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming shares only similarities to the origin presented in the 1980s story arc. Michael Keaton's character was cheated by the government, a government that bankrupted his construction company by voiding a legitimate contract. Angered at the government's malfeasance, Keaton's Adrian Toomes chooses to create advanced weapons out of stolen alien equipment.
Regardless of the differences, both Vultures share legitimate grievances against their origin tale oppressors. A certain level of sympathy exists for their justifiable rage against powerful persons who act in a cold, uncaring, greedy, and unjust manner.
Spider-Man Villains: Justifiable Rage and Unjustifiable Acts
To dismiss the anger both Vultures feel would be a heartless act on the viewer. In the Roger Stern origin tale, Adrian Toomes becomes a victim of ageism and greed. His kindly nature has been brutally taken advantage of by someone who lied and cheated to outright steal money from an honest man. Theft, dressed up as corporatism, remains theft.
In the film version, Keaton's honest working man only wants to provide an equally honest living for his family and construction crew. An uncaring government bureaucracy makes a snap decision and Homecoming's Adrian Toomes is out of business. Toomes discovers corporatists and politicians conspired against him to become wealthier and more powerful. Seeing the system to be horribly corrupt and uncaring, Toomes lashes out against it. The rules have changed. They no longer exist.
Neither version of the villain were merely cheated. They were disrespected and denied a chance at honestly living the deserved "high life." Neither did anything wrong. Both were entitled to the fruits of their profitable ventures. Both were horrifically cheated. Audiences and readers likely find the resultant anger and rage justifiable. Not so justifiable is the clouded judgment deriving from the rage.
A perverted full-circle character change comes into effect when both Toomes become villains. Originally, both existed as innocent parties harmed by the corrupt. Upon throwing their morals away, both discard their empathy as well. Innocent people become harmed by their actions and they care not. Sympathy from audiences and readers diminish as these tragic characters morph into mirror-images of those who transgressed them.
The tragic villain may be the result of justifiable rage, but a villain is still a bad guy.