Working-Class Woes in Spider-Man: Homecoming

One of my musings after watching Captain America: Civil War was who cleans up after all these superhero battles. While Civil War was the first time Marvel Studio’s touched on the collateral loss of life caused by superheroes fighting villains, it still used big spectacles of destruction and mayhem as superheroes beat down each other in an abandoned airport, tossing planes and destroying buildings in the process.

Someone at Marvel Studios wondered about this as well because Spider-Man: Homecoming answers that question. The story begins right after the events of The Avengers. New York City is now a hodgepodge of half-destroyed skyscrapers and broken alien crafts. Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) leads his salvage crew in clearing out the rubble after getting a contract with the city.

But these blue collar workers are shoved aside when Damage Control, a company started by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), shows up as a federally supported business with exclusive access to all the rubble and associated technology left in the aftermath of the climax of The Avengers. Adrian is upset and decides to use some of the alien technology they’ve salvaged before Damage Control appeared to build and sell their own technology. And while that first salvage can sustain them for only a while, they need a new supply of alien salvage.

But since they don’t have access to the salvage sites, they “salvage” from Damage Control shipments, using alien technology to be nearly undetectable. The crew fashions a flying device that resembles a vulture that Adrian uses in heists for alien technology. It’s a perfect symbol for the crew: a group of scavengers picking off scraps recovered from the dead aliens left in the wake of battles.

For a film with Spider-Man in the title, a good chunk of this film is an origin story for Adrian/Vulture and the best dramatic beats involve his character. And Michael Keaton definitely steals every scene he is in. It’s refreshing to have a villain who is a high-tech criminal and gun-runner instead of some power-hungry being who wants to dominate or destroy the world. Everything about Toomes exhibits a blue-collar fantasy of sticking it to the powers that be after being screwed out of his livelihood.

Finally a Marvel villain is given a surprising amount of humanity. Adrian is tired of being on the bottom rung of society and when both corporate and government interests continue to screw him over, he decides to go outside the law to make a living. Instead of some maniacal plan for violent revenge or an ideological movement, Adrian resorts to steal from those who put him in this situation.

Adrian justifies stealing as a way to provide for his friends and family. Faced with unemployment, theft gives these men a livelihood and a way to support their families. And he also wants to best for his wife and child, as do all working-class people. In an America increasing its economic oppression of the working-class through corporate and government expansions of power, Adrian’s perspective is understandable.

It’s a shame the film is unable to contrast Adrian’s ascension by theft against a Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) who understands financial struggle.  Even beyond the high-tech suit he gets from Tony Stark, there’s never a sense that Peter Parker is scraping by or has any connection to the blue collar woes that mold Adrian. Peter lives in a nice apartment with Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and she never expresses any financial woes.

The film tries to rectify this problem in the final act, but it functions more as a way to raise the stakes than to create an interesting commentary about economic division in America. Spider-Man: Homecoming is first and foremost about putting on an entertaining show.

Adrian Toomes/Vulture is the best realized villain Marvel Studios has crafted to date. His ideology is understandable and expresses the real-world economic angst of working-class Americans. Like most great villains, his ideology becomes twisted and immoral along the way. Villains rarely think of themselves as bad people. They’re misunderstood, a victim of circumstance, or the arbiters of their own personal justice. Adrian does lots of bad things for what he considers good reasons, but the end never justify the means.

© James Blake Ewing 2017