Warning: Major ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ spoilers ahead!
Screenwriters John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein knew right off the bat they wanted Adrian Toomes, the technically savvy, wing-wearing heist man otherwise known as the Vulture, to be the chief villain of Spider-Man: Homecoming. But they also knew they had to make him one of the most sympathetic antagonists we’ve ever seen battle a superhero.
“I think our intention was always to keep him a not-terrible guy,” said Daley, the Freaks and Geeks and Bones actor who has since teamed with Goldstein to write studio comedies like Horrible Bosses (2011) and Vacation (2015), which they also directed. “What I can never relate to or even root against is the mustache-twirly villain [where it’s unclear] why they’re evil, and they’re just evil for evil’s sake.”
We understand why Toomes (Michael Keaton) goes rogue in Homecoming. As the film’s prelude shows, the blue-collar New Yorker leading cleanup efforts in the wake of the Avengers-Loki clash of 2012 gets supplanted by the Tony Stark-financed Department of Damage Control. To make ends meet, Toomes and his crew begin trafficking in salvaged alien technology and weaponry, which ultimately leads him to create his iconic avian suit.
For Daley and Goldstein, who plucked Vulture from Marvel’s comic-book canon after being given a choice of some 40 baddies, Toomes would do more than transcend a hackneyed archetype. He would also prove invaluable in bridging the film’s two disparate worlds.
With the MCU using each new installment as a superhero spin on an established Hollywood genre (Winter Soldier is the political thriller, Guardians of the Galaxy a space opera, Ant-Man a heist film, etc.), Daley and Goldstein gave Homecoming the feel of a high school comedy in the vein of ’80s John Hughes movie. That provides two alternating storylines: Peter Parker (Tom Holland) navigating life as an awkward Queens teen competing on the academic team and crushing on a beautiful classmate (Laura Harrier as Liz) while moonlighting as a vigilante desperate to rejoin the ranks of the Avengers he met in Captain America: Civil War.
“The biggest challenge,” Daley explained, “is finding equal levels of stakes in both of those worlds, because obviously the stakes of high school are inherently lower than life-or-death stakes of being a superhero and potentially dying.”
So Vulture became the linchpin: “We found a way to combine those two plot threads and in a way that we hope pays off. You think you’re in the high school movie story, and then you’re shocked to find out this relationship,” Goldstein said of the film’s biggest twist, where Peter is greeted at the door of Liz’s house by Mr. Toomes… her father.
The tense cat-and-mouse game that ensues between Parker and Toomes is one of the reasons Vulture is being hailed as one of the MCU’s best villains yet. (Others, though, have maybe over-analyzed his role in contemporary politics.) It doesn’t hurt that Toomes is played by the lovable Keaton, gamely countering his most iconic role as Batman, which he more recently spoofed in the Oscar-winning Birdman.
Vulture had his own shape-shifting character arc in the screenwriting process itself. In the comics, Toomes is much different. “Once we started talking about Vulture, it was clear that the version in the comics wouldn’t do, where he was this bald old man,” Goldstein laughed. “It just never felt terribly scary on film to us. So we thought, ‘All right, let’s make him more of a middle-aged guy.‘”
The writers initially imagined Vulture would be a science teacher at Peter’s school (no word on whether that would have been a new version of biology professor Clifton Shallot, one of four men to wear the feathered supervillain suit in the comics). “He was still stealing from Damage Control,” but we had a different way into it,” Daley said. “It was going to be his teacher, and then we were like, ‘No, let’s separate him fully from the school — or at least so it seems.’ And that’s I think when we decided to make it the love interest’s dad.”
As Goldstein added, “We wanted to make it to personal to Peter. This is a guy whose ambitions are not world domination, they’re fairly small and limited. So how do we make it mean something more to Peter than just being a random bad guy?”
In the end, there’s nothing random about this version of Vulture.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is in theaters now.
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