If Spider-Man: Homecoming does anything right (which is a lot), it’s in giving us a villain we can totally understand
After watching the Marvel / Sony production of Spiderman: Homecoming, I was reminded of an abandoned video essay remix project from the great Jonathan McIntosh called Occupy Gotham, I believe. It would’ve used Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy as a way to dismantle the notion that Bruce Wayne — billionaire many times over — as the vigilante Batman is purely good, flipping his rogue’s gallery into protestors / activists and setting it all around the movement of the 99%. I disagree with the material chosen to express this thought as, eventually, there would be “better” content to come years later. If you watched the opening to Batman v Superman, you would’ve seen the origins of Bruce’s disturbing philosophy towards fighting “evil” in a most accurate light. No matter how much he donates to charity or how often he throws punches, he’s not really cleaning up Gotham, but maintaining its status quo. Really, his battle is not one of making the city better, but giving him a reason to exist as he wants. And, in turn, giving those he hunts a reason to be hunted. A reason to occupy. Such a violent cycle shouldn’t occur.
Batman is the hero and that’s that. Maybe, in the Snyder-Verse, this incarnation of the Caped Crusader is supposed to make us question, or rethink our heroes (to quote Trans5mers). Whatever the case, the new Spider-Man movie got me on this kick about what makes a villain truly bad nowadays, and what it says about the times if that character is an accurate reflection. What does it mean to relate, to empathize, with someone doing “wrong”?
Homecoming features the great former Batman, Michael Keaton, as its main personified obstacle to Spider-Man, The Vulture. Had this been a Sam Raimi helmed film, I suspect a much campier character with an elongated nose — it could’ve worked back before the 2010’s. In a post Dark Knight territory, however, studios gravitate toward what has worked well, and that is grit. This notion or element of “realism” is sort of harming the genre as a whole, forgetting that comics are fantasy plays, and that movies of this ilk are an escape. Not to suggest these stories can’t relate or involve some bits of the non reel world, but it has to be embedded and woven in delicately. It can’t and shouldn’t over power the over powered. Keaton doesn’t become The Vulture out of jealousy, a scientific experiment gone haywire or insanity, but rather from losing work. From losing income. From banking his families future on a job that’s just been taken away by the government. And by Tony Stark AKA Iron Man.
It’s not difficult to suggest that many small business owners and workers have been affected poorly by surges in privatization and laws that favor the already wealthy over everyone else. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there are few wealthier than Tony Stark. The now good hearted billionaire, by virtue of his money and his super heroics, has a monopoly of sorts on certain tech and construction work, especially after the events of The Avengers. In Iron Man 2, he — a good guy — infamously stated before a congressional committee, “I have just privatized peace.” To thunderous applause from the crowd, Tony smirked at his accomplishment much like a certain businessman turned President might (though with more swagger and less jerkish intent). In fact, while one might compare Stark to Elon Musk at first, many wouldn’t hesitate to draw a line from him to Trump.
What does it mean to relate, to empathize, with someone doing “wrong”?
Imagining Trump in a jet powered super suit is awfully comical, but the implications are as massive as his ego, and truer than we’d like to think. Precedent has already been set by previous administrations, pre-emptive striking is all too frequent and borderless war is something we’re neck deep in. Iron Man 3 presented many a challenge for Stark and company, but not one of them was interference in international law. When his friend War Machine (the Iron Patriot) busts down the door of a poor family in another country, he scans the room for “bad guys” and leaves with a shrug when finding nobody of interest. He does apologize, but is he gonna fix that door? Will he pay for the therapy sessions of the children he frightened?
This is the point I’m trying to establish: While Tony Stark and friends may be doing good in general, there are consequences and adverse reactions to their “victories”, usually involving the harm of regular people. Like Michael Keaton’s Vulture. Anything can inspire someone to do good or bad, but the reasoning isn’t always simple. For Vulture, who feels disenfranchised and left to crawl in the gutter, operating a tech / weapons ring on the black market is his way of getting back what was his. It’s his way of thriving. It’s his way of assuring the survival of his family.
It was confirmed recently that Homecoming’s Spider-Man was the kid in the Iron Man mask in Iron Man 2. The one that Stark saved and interacted with briefly. This little moment didn’t mean much at the time, but it meant everything for the little Peter Parker. His growth into maturity has been filled with tales and escapades of heroes all over the world, so it’s no wonder that he’d want to become one himself. He tangles with burglars and petty criminals mostly, but its Vulture who gives him his first real fight. And nothing about it is easy on the soul.
For Parker, fighting evil has been pretty sweet, especially since his view of good vs bad is narrow. When Vulture comes into frame, Spidey sees the full picture for the first time. He sees a guy trying to make his way. He sees a parent and a husband. He sees, maybe, his hardly spoken of Uncle. But the man is doing wrong, no matter the circumstances that lead to it. Keaton gives such an honest performance (even when charismatic) of someone against the ropes, painted into a corner and fighting to live. Someone willing to threaten and, yes, even kill if it means his family will be alright. Kill a teen? Absolutely. It’s scary the lengths someone will go to protect those they love. It’s noble the lengths someone will go to protect even the worst of us. At the climax of Homecoming, Spider-Man shows compassionate colors, without giving up on his ideals. It’s a change of pace, as many super flicks end with destruction and death. This one goes for sympathy / empathy and justice. Not revenge, but justice. It’s refreshing, very much so.
Like what Karen Page says in Daredevil season 2, regarding the antagonistic Punisher, “He could be anyone of us.” If Keaton’s Vulture hadn’t decided to steal alien hardware and begin an illegal sales ring, he may have started a GoFundMe page instead which, sadly, would get lost in the void of other donation campaigns. Americans are hurting, and have been for some time. It’s a wonder that a Marvel movie would reflect this as motivation for a villain, challenging our ideas of what is bad. It’s a wonder that a Marvel movie would reflect this as a quandary for a hero, throwing different emotions into an action scenario. In feeling something other than cathartic blood lust, we as an audience have a chance to not only change individually, but demand more out of our films collectively. Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark still have a lot to learn; let’s give them some help.