The villain often makes the movie. This has especially been true of the Spider-Man movies in all their iterations. As Spider-Man’s cinematic villains have dipped in quality, so have his movies. Even if the movies had other redeeming qualities, if the villain sucked, those qualities went out the window. Luckily for this year’s installment, Spider-Man: Homecoming, the newest villain may be the wall-crawler’s best yet.
Michael Keaton, who plays Homecoming’s Vulture, is certainly better than any of the baddies from the last two Spider-Man movies. The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) featured a toothless (not literally) Lizard that failed to get at the inner conflict between the monster and its human alter-ego, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans). The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) featured not one but two lackluster villains. One, Dane DeHaan’s Green Goblin, was a rehash from the older movies. The other…well, the less said about Jamie Foxx’s Electro, the better. The movies themselves were not all bad. Director Marc Webb, previously best known for the inventive (500) Days of Summer), crafted a fun romance between stars Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, who had real chemistry. But that quality relationship was lost in the mess.
Even the original Sam Raimi movies were hit and miss with their villains. The most glaring example of a miss was 2007’s Spider-Man 3, a veritable villain binge with Venom (Topher Grace), Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), and the Green Goblin (James Franco) all competing for screen time. None of them were interesting; all of them were annoying, and all were responsible in some part for Spider-Man 3‘s lasting infamy as a truly terrible superhero movie. However, Spider-Man 3’s flaws often obscure how good Raimi’s first two movies were.
The original Spider-Man in 2002, along with 2000’s X-Men, were basically reinventing the cinematic language of superhero movies. They were reacting against the camp of the 1990s Batman movies and attempting to catch the genre up with the changing tastes of an audience with less patience for cartoonish effects. Bryan Singer was a natural choice to introduce the X-Men into a world that needed a balance between style and realism, after the neo-noir The Usual Suspects had made such an impression a few years before.
Sam Raimi, on the other hand, was a strange choice for the director of the Spider-Man movie. He was best known at the time for directing the Evil Dead horror comedy series, which had just started to reach cult hit status. Other credentials included Darkman, a fantasy movie about revenge; The Quick and the Dead, a Tarantino-penned Western; and For Love of the Game, the Kevin Costner baseball movie that isn’t Bull Durham or Field of Dreams. This is hardly a ground-shaking resume for the potential director of a blockbuster. But Raimi’s love for the Spider-Man comics won him the job over the likes of David Fincher, Ang Lee, and M. Night Shyamalan.
His passion for the comics is evident in how lovingly he treats Peter Parker’s origin story. Re-watching Spider-Man now, it is remarkable how much time Raimi devotes to every detail of the saga. Not only does he cover the radioactive spider-bite and the death of Uncle Ben, but he creates ample space for a hilarious scene of Parker’s short-lived career as a professional wrestler, which is a detail that barely gets a few frames in the original comic. Raimi also spends several scenes with Parker (Tobey Maguire) figuring out just how his powers work, including a clever segment in which Parker tries out a bunch of different hand signals to discover just how his webs shoot from his wrist.
But the true signifier for Raimi’s deep love for the Spider-Man character lies in how he developed the movie’s villain, Norman Osborn, or the original Green Goblin. Osborn is well-cast, with Willem Dafoe finding a happy medium between devilish and fatherly, and Raimi plays out the dynamic between Osborn, Parker, and Harry (Osborn’s son and Peter’s best friend, played by Franco, pre-Goblin), as if he is making a first-class family drama. But Raimi’s commitment to telling every detail of this story is a double-edge sword. The Green Goblin costume, though less silly than the comics’ version, is still pretty dang hokey and not a bit scary. And while the action involving the Goblin on his glider might have played better in 2002, it’s kind of rinky-dink now. If Raimi had not played his chips so heavily on his villain, his first movie may have been a little stronger.
2004’s Spider-Man 2 does not have that problem at all. Alfred Molina’s Otto Octavius (a.k.a. Doctor Octopus) was the best Spider-Man movie villain before this year, and it has not been close. To be fair, Molina’s performance is lifted up by the quality of the movie around it. Spider-Man 2 has a case as the best superhero movie of all time. The first movie set up the “with great power comes great responsibility” theme, but Spider-Man 2 forced Peter to decide between having a good, normal life and truly using his powers for the greater good. The action setpieces are amazing, the themes come out effortlessly through the dialogue, and the movie features several indelible cinematic images, including grateful New Yorkers passing Spider-Man’s limp body to one another as a Christ figure and Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) fleeing her wedding with her white dress bundled up in her arms.
Molina’s performance also does some heavy lifting though. Octavius’s arc, as he moves from hero to villain to martyr, mirrors Peter’s perfectly. He begins the movie as a mentor to Peter, bonding with him over science’s great achievements and over their shared hope for Octavius’s work in fusion. When he becomes Doctor Octopus in a freak accident (which precedes one of the underappreciated horror scenes), his newfound power fills him with a need for revenge and for power. Then (spoiler alert!), as he watches Peter sacrifice himself over and over to save his fellow New Yorkers, Octavius comes to his senses and gives his life to save the city.
The stakes in Spider-Man: Homecoming are not quite so high, and that is part of its charm. Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes is not a genius like Doctor Octavius or a wealthy madman like the Green Goblin. He’s not the victim of a freak accident like so many of Spidey’s villains, and he barely has a bone to pick with Peter Parker, at least at first. Toomes is just a guy looking to make a better life for himself that stumbles across an opportunity in the alien technology left over from the aftermath of the first Avengers movie.
Toomes begins to sell off the technology that he is able to recover, and he uses some of it to create a flying suit to assist his team with both stealing and protecting the goods. Keaton has always had an everyman quality to him, and it works to his advantage as Toomes. Even when Keaton shifts expertly into a more sinister mode in one of the movie’s best scenes, it is frightening, but we understand where he is coming from.
That scene, where Toomes reveals his more sinister side, is the true climax of the movie. Up to that point, Homecoming feels a lot like a John Hughes high school movie, where seeing your crush at the school dance is the scariest part of life. Then Peter Parker ends up alone with Toomes (I will not spoil how), and Keaton’s shift toward threatening pushes Peter to confront that being a hero is more than just trying to be famous as an Avenger; it requires true sacrifice.
Keaton’s Vulture, like Molina’s Doc Ock, did what the other villains could not, even when their directors tried their best to stay true to the comics (like Defoe’s Goblin and Ifans’s Lizard). Toomes and Octavius bridged Peter Parker and Spider-Man in a believable way, so that what we watch in Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming is the story of a person, and not just the spectacle of a comic book character. Some comic book movies are good, even if they maintain a cartoonish quality. But the best ones find a real note to play, and Spider-Man: Homecoming found one in Keaton.