How Spider-Man: Homecoming shows Marvel can have its cake and eat it too
Spider-Man: Homecoming did something (almost) no other Marvel Cinematic Universe film did before it: produced a compelling villain. Vulture is the best villain in the MCU stable (no, seriously), and Kevin Feige and company pulled it off while sticking to the same old formula that’s brought them incredible success.
Let’s back up. First, that formula I’m talking about. Feige has talked about Marvel’s villain problem (my words, not his). Check out this quote from /Film:
“A big criticism of ours is that we focus on the heroes more than the villains, I think that’s probably true. I don’t think it will always be true.”
“In a lot of cases, Ronan’s great, Lee Pace did an awesome job, absolutely serves it, but certainly was there to go up against our heroes and to give our heroes a reason for coming together. And I think it’s, I hesitate to even, in 2008, there are two superhero movies that came out. One focused on the villain, one focused on the hero, and we at Marvel looked at them, like yeah, we focus on the heroes. We don’t mind that. We like that.”
Here’s where that becomes a problem: Films like “Guardians of the Galaxy,” where Ronan the Accuser doesn’t mean anything to the Guardians. Lee Pace acts the shit out of the material, but Ronan, as is too often the case in Marvel films, is treated as a plot device instead of a character. Enter: Why Vulture works.
Michael Keaton brings some humanity to the MCU villain stable. That's been severely lacking up to this point. Escalation is part of the deal here. Captain America, Iron Man and Thor are so damn powerful that they, by necessity, must fight against aliens and gods to make things interesting, right? But there’s something about Keaton’s New York scrapper that’s just so refreshing in a universe that’s been dominated by CGI monsters.
Don’t get me wrong: There’s a compelling way to write alien villains, it just hasn’t happened because Tony Stark hasn’t found a way to piss anyone off outside Earth, yet. Loki’s (sort of) an exception to this rule, but more on that later.
Friendly Neighborhood Villain
Vulture works as a villain for Spider-Man because he’s small time. Sure, he’s selling modified alien weapon technology, but nobody seems to give a shit. He’s been doing this for nearly a decade with no intervention from the Avengers (nice work, everyone) and when Stark finally finds out, all he does is get the FBI involved. Spoiler alert: It doesn't work out so great.
The arrogance of the Avengers is well documented (it might as well be Stark’s middle name), but that they’re too busy with big-time villains (allegedly) gives Marvel a chance to tell a different type of story with Spider-Man. Again, a bigger story doesn’t prevent them from making it personal, but there are advantages to stripping down a superhero story down to its core.
A Villain’s Journey
Marvel gives Vulture the narrative typically reserved for its heroes, because Spider-Man’s origin is already established. We see Keaton wronged, build his suit and ascend to a place of power before meeting his foe for the first time. This isn’t part of the formula they can replicate going forward, but it was a cool twist that worked in “Homecoming.”
How This Works Going Forward
It seems simple, but Marvel struggles with tying its villains stories in with its heroes. This produces fine films about its heroes, which stand next to so-so movies about its villains. “Homecoming” feels likes a cohesive product because its hero and villain share similar values. They’re both hardworking and care about their families; from a certain prospect, it’s not hard to see Vulture as a good guy.
That’s what puts him at the top of the heap in the MCU. While Loki steals scenes in “Thor” and “Avengers," he doesn’t have that same emotional tug with the heroes that Vulture does with Spider-Man. Tom Hiddleston is a showman, but he’s performing in a story separate from the heroes he’s battling. “Homecoming” is the first film in the MCU where both the hero and villain’s stories come together.
The secret to that success? Put dynamic characters on a collision course early. It’s surprising that a studio that has so deftly blended its heroes’ storylines has struggled so mightily to do the same with that of its villains. We’ll see if “Homecoming” was a step in the right direction or a fluke.