**Spoilers ahead for Spider-Man: Homecoming**
Tom Holland is a great Spider-Man, no doubt about that. After the moping romance of Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire’s iteration forever tinged with Spider-Man 3’s emo dancing, Holland restores the wide-eyed, vulnerable nature of the wallcrawler – and that’s in no small part down to Marvel injecting their own brand of storytelling into a series that had become bloated and disappointing under Sony’s sole guidance.
But aside from a more streamlined plot, and a better lead, Spider-Man: Homecoming owes much of its success to the fact it has a genuinely well crafted and menacing villain. Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes makes Holland’s Spider-Man all the more credible, because of the former Batman’s superb performance as the layered, terrifying antagonist.
You never, ever forget that this is an inexperienced crime-fighter, who all of a sudden bites off more than he can chew against and older opponent with technology that exceeds his own. Keaton though, is equally as effective as Toomes the workman, father and engineer, as he is the winged thief who threatens those closest to the hero.
In truth though, it’s Keaton’s past forays into the superhero genre that can be glimpsed with Toomes is as his best. His two turns as Batman delve into a part of the character that other Dark Knights have rarely touched on: the fact that Batman himself is more than a little unhinged. The idea that DC’s most popular character is a paranoid, violent psychopath doesn’t fit well into the marketing strategy, but it’s a key part of what makes Batman so successful, and Keaton incorporated it into his portrayal well.
In the first Batman movie, his pointed conversation with Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale where she accuses him of being no different to The Joker – after saying he was psychotic – he fully embraces the concept of not being “normal”, and admits that the world around him is far from conventional, so why should he behave any different?
But his conversation with Jack Nicholson’s evil clown at the finale fully demonstrates the more disturbed nature of Keaton’s Batman – that eventually transitions to his portrayal of The Vulture. The showdown in the belfry at the end of the movie gives a glaring insight into how Keaton encapsulated the psychosis of Gotham’s vigilante.
Batman: Excuse me. You ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight? I’m going to kill you.
Joker: You idiot! You made me, remember? You dropped me into that vat of chemicals. That wasn’t easy to get over, and don’t think that I didn’t try!
Batman: I know you did. You killed my parents.
Joker: Wha-what? What are you talking about?
Batman: I made you; you made me first.
That type of dialogue, while acceptable to audiences then, goes down like a lead balloon now for some overly-critical purists, particularly those who lambasted Ben Affleck’s brutal depiction of Batman. Keaton though, sells those words not like a brute – but like a quiet, methodical surgeon. He makes you feel the threat emotionally rather than physically.
His Vulture works in the same way. Keaton’s villain isn’t about punching his way to success – he works under the radar, actively eschewing drawing attention to himself in order to get the job done. His outfit isn’t to scare or intimidate, it’s to allow him access to the technology he wants to steal in as quick and quiet a way possible.
That’s all because Keaton’s Toomes is a family man – and he’ll do anything he can to protect them. From the opening of the film where Tony Stark’s Damage Control team steal away his business, to him embarking on a life of crime to pay the bills, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for him. That makes him one of the better Marvel villains in as much that you can actually understand where he’s coming from, he doesn’t want to conquer the world, or the galaxy, he just wants to get some money so his family are looked after. It might be an old cliche, but it’s still one of the best – and most believable.
But it is pretty hard to see Toomes as a loving father and inventor at times, particularly when he doesn’t blink at vaporising one of his comrades, and then threatens to murder Spider-Man later on in the movie. The twist towards the end of the story where Toomes is revealed as the father of Peter Parker’s love interest takes many people by surprise – indeed, first reactions were that he had kidnapped Spider-Man’s girl, rather than being the father who opens the door to him on prom night.
That moment leads to perhaps the biggest reinvestment of Keaton’s dark side that he first dipped into with Batman. Toomes takes his daughter Liz and Parker to the Homecoming Ball, and over the course of the trip, slowly realises that the nervous young boy sitting in the back seat of his car is actually the masked hero who’s been thwarting his attempts to steal recovered alien technology throughout the story. His delivery of the subsequent dialogue is enough to send chills up the spine of even the most determined crimefighter.
You need to understand, I will do anything to protect my family. I know you know what I’m talking about. So don’t mess with me. Don’t interfere in my business again. Because I will kill you and anyone you care about.
But Spider-Man doesn’t listen, and still tries to take on his nemesis with near disastrous results. Racing to try and stop Toomes from ambushing a plane full of weapons, The Vulture goads his immature opponent into a trap, burying him under a pile of rubble at his abandoned headquarters. To bear in mind as well, Keaton’s character at this point knows Spider-Man is actually a child – not a man – and still has no qualms about killing him in cold blood. A fact reiterated during the finale, where more than once he tries to throw the wallcrawler into a jet engine.
But Toomes isn’t a man without a slight redemption arc – and when he is incarcerated at the end of the movie, refuses to give away Spider-Man’s secret identity to the cadre of villains who would pay dearly for such information. It shows that the character is not entirely without merit, and while he remains in prison as a result of Spider-Man foiling his scheme, he won’t condemn him – or his family – to death with his knowledge. In bridging this gap, Keaton demonstrates what a great actor he is – where towards the end, even after all the heinous things he’s done, you still admire him for not throwing Peter Parker to the wolves – or scorpions.
Keaton can fluctuate between self parody and genuine menace, but make no mistake, The Vulture is not a send-up of his past superhero life, as Birdman was. In that movie, where he plays an actor who was once popular as a costumed crimefighter but has long since slipped into obscurity, he rails against a system where actors are typecast as celebrities, and aren’t capable of producing genuine, believable acting performances. Keaton’s character savages a critic who thinks his Broadway play is nothing more than trash, despite never having seen it. The opinion is based on the fact Keaton’s character is a limited actor, better known for playing a superhero, when he’s actually capable of much more:
There’s nothing here about technique! There’s nothing in here about structure! There’s nothing in here about intentions! It’s just a bunch of crappy opinions, backed up by even crappier comparisons… You write a couple of paragraphs and you know what? None of this cost you fuckin’ anything! The f***! You risk nothing! Nothing! Nothing! Nothing! I’m a f****** actor! This play cost me everything… So I tell you what, you take this f****** malicious cowardly shitty written review and you shove that right the f*** up your wrinkly tight ass.
Now Keaton doesn’t get that potty mouthed in Homecoming, but it once again is an effective illustration of how he can portray driven characters, ones who risk everything to get what they want. That comes to the fore when he plays Toomes, if anything replacing the anger of Birdman’s Riggan Thomson with the silent venom of his Bruce Wayne.
Keaton though, has always been a cut above, with roles like the title character in Beetlejuice and the chilling psychopath Carter Hayes in Pacific Heights (released the year after Batman), often forgotten when showcasing exactly how good he really is. When Birdman played with real life in reflecting the supposed public view of Keaton as being “just a guy who played a superhero”, his renaissance in Robocop, Spotlight and The Founder suggest something different. Despite his role in Spider-Man: Homecoming being “just a guy who plays a supervillain”, it is, in reality, much much more. It proves Marvel can do more than just throwaway villains who want to blow things up, but moreover, shows that Michael Keaton is an actor of the highest repute. Much more than just a former Batman.