When Disney announced Michael Keaton would be joining their Marvel Cinematic Universe for Spider-Man: Homecoming, there was much celebration about welcoming the big screen Batman back into the superhero movie fold. But playing the villain, Keaton brought with him a blue-collar context to the The Vulture that had doubles down on the film’s surprising political statement. And the Democrats should be paying attention, because Keaton has slyly nailed why they lost the last presidential election.
Spoilers for Spider-Man: Homecoming follow.
Rather than kicking off with Spidey’s spirited romp through the finale of Captain America: Civil War, Spider-Man: Homecoming begins in the debris of The Avengers’ Battle For New York. There, Adrian Toomes leads his salvaging crew in cleaning up the fallen Chitauri tech. It’s a thankless job, except for the fat city paycheck he’s been promised, a paycheck so big it urged him to bring on new equipment and new crew. He’s even put his house on the line as collateral. Toomes is a small businessman who works hard and finally has the chance to make a fortune. But then the suits show up. With a curt “thank you for your service, we’ll take it from here” speech, he’s stripped of his contract and this massive job, so that the clean-up can be handed over to a Tony Stark affiliate, Department of Damage Control.
Licking their wounds and fiddling with some snatched alien baubles, Toomes’ team laments the unfairness of it all. This blue collar crew’s livelihood is at risk while Tony Stark will make money cleaning up the very mess he made. Toomes’ right-hand man and tinkerer, Phineas Mason (Michael Chernus), grumbles that the system is “rigged,” a complaint common to the Trump stumpers leading up to the 2016 Presidential election. (It’s no coincidence that Spider-Man: Homecoming was shooting in Atlanta late last summer, when Republican candidate Donald Trump was tossing around “rigged” like a catchphrase.) Now, Toomes is faced with losing his house over the investment that went belly-up because of the Avengers—the so-called heroes of the common man. So he—giving a slight Keaton sneer—growls, “Times are changing. Time we change to.”
Cut to a decade later, Toomes has spun his threatened salvage company into a full-blown criminal enterprise, looking like a steel-working factory, but with some out of this world tech. As Keaton promised from the set of Spider-Man: Homecoming, his Vulture is the Tony Soprano of the MCU.
Yes, he’s a “bad guy,” but one who has motives to which we can relate. Toomes has a family to care for, a crew that depends on him. And the when saving the day, Avengers—specifically Tony Stark—let him slip through the cracks. Sure, they were rescuing the world from an extraterrestrial threat. But along the way, they forgot the little people whose lives were being crushed in the collateral damage. In Captain America: Civil War, we saw some of the Avengers confronting the cold reality of their failures. But in Spider-Man: Homecoming, we get a(nother) villain born from their oversight. Toomes and his team were left out in the cold, and much like in the James Cagney movie The Roaring Twenties—where a WWI vet turns to bootlegging when his old job is snatched away—they go gangster, because society offers them little other option.
“(Toomes) feels like a victim, and some of it is justified actually,” Keaton has said of the character, “He believes that there’s an upper echelon of society of people who are getting away with a lot and have everything. And there’s a whole lot of folks who are working hard, and don’t have much.”
In the climactic speech where Toomes lays out his motivations to a sweat-suited Spider-man, he declares the Avengers “don’t care about us.” He talks about class as a conspiracy, insinuating that the Avengers’ seeming compassion and heroism is all a front for them to seize power and money from average Americans like him. And it sounds very familiar. “They don’t care about us,” Toomes seethes, his funky fury lined jacket seeming to bristle, “We build their roads, pick up their trash, and eat their table scraps.” Toomes dreamed of more. And when he couldn’t get it through the traditional route, he aimed to turn the tables, whatever it meant, whatever it took. Something had to change, because more of the same from The Avengers wasn’t going to be good enough. Of course, he failed to consider its long-term effects.
Much like people who voted for Trump might have been asked by their wives or daughters how they could vote for a many so openly bigoted/reckless/ignorant, Toomes defends his criminal operation to a trembling Peter Parker, saying of his daughter, “I’m not doing this to her, I’m doing this for her.” But of course, when the other shoe drops—or in this case the Chitauri bomb goes off and the Vulture drops—Toomes’ beloved daughter is uprooted from her upper-middle class comfort and shipped far away from the home she knew and the imprisoned father she loves. Outright rebellion against the Avengers was no real solution.
Spider-Man: Homecoming offers us a family man, who is passionate and caring, but whose rage over those in power blinded him to the effect of his revolting actions. Toomes is essentially an American middle-class voter that the DNC scared off by ignoring the concerns he held dear, his family, his business. He is the coal-miner, the steel factory worker, the small businessman spooked by the rumored high costs of Obamacare that could cripple his budget. And so Toomes grew a narrative where he was not just a small businessman doing his damndest to do right by his family, but also a hero in his own right, aiming to take that pompous millionaire Tony Stark down a peg for starters.
Keaton carries with him a context that not only dares the audience to empathize with the villain, but challenges us to recognize how disastrous the effects of good guys’ neglect can be. You could push a small business owner to crime, a family man to murder. You could even push an unhinged reality-star into the White House.