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 decades ago in The Amazing Spider-Man issue #2, and the villain appeared quite atypical compared to traditional comic book villains. One trait setting The Vulture apart was his advanced age. The Vulture was probably the only super-villain whose mania derived from being a cantankerous, part-retirement 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 gets 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 reflect the 70-something age of the villain as presented in the Silver and Bronze Age of Comic Books. 66-year-old Keaton 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, the angry nature of "The Winged Menace" remains. There is a sense of bitterness found in the character missing from the more traditionally egomaniacal super villains of comic book lore. As was the case in the comic books, the roots of the character's rage come with motivation.
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 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 discovery that sets him off in a literal flying rage. A man named Gregory Bestman has launched a new startup titled Best Electronics. The Vulture holds some mysterious grudge against Bestman and returns to NYC to kidnap the mogul.
Amazing Spider-Man #241 (June 1983) delves into the origin of The Vulture with the story "In the Beginning…." The mysterious Vulture's background reveals he was a designer -- and partner -- in an electronic company alongside Bestman. Bestman cheated Toomes out of millions leading the once placid Toomes to use his newly-discovered gravity-defying harness to launch a life of crime. After 20 years, readers finally learn The Vulture's backstory.
The origin of The Vulture depicted in Spider-Man: Homecoming shares only slight similarities to the origin presented in the 1980s story arc. The government created Michael Keaton's character, a government that bankrupted his construction company by voiding a legitimate contract. Angered at the government's misconduct, 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 the sequential art and cinematic Vultures feel would be a heartless act on the viewer. In Roger Stern's 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 steal money from an honest man outright. 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 suffered the "mere" indignity of being 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 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 diminishes as these tragic characters morph into mirror-images of those who transgressed them.
The tragic villain may result from justifiable rage, but a villain is still a bad guy.