Marvel’s Spider-Man films have done plenty right, but it’s the villains that continue to grab our attention. Why are Mysterio and Vulture so compelling?
*Major spoilers ahead for Spider-Man: Far From Home
Two weeks after its release, Spider-Man: Far From Home is being touted as the number one Marvel film of the year. While that moniker may be debatable, there’s no arguing that the highlight of the film was Jake Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio.
As we at Bam Smack Pow have mentioned elsewhere, most fans were not surprised to learn that Mysterio was a villain. After all, he has been one of the web-slinger’s nemeses in comic books for a while. What has captured the imaginations of many viewers isn’t Mysterio, however. It’s Quentin Beck, and the person he is revealed to be.
Unlike yesteryear genre films that relied on larger-than-life villains, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s best villains have been the characters who are the most relatable. And that’s where Spider-Man: Far From Home, and it’s predecessor, Spider-Man: Homecoming, have excelled. In both Quentin Beck and Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes, Marvel Studios gave viewers a different perspective of Earth-616. We were looking at this insane world of iron men, super-soldiers, and hulks through the eyes of the average Joe desperate to stay afloat and put food on the table. But opportunities were becoming scarce thanks to powerful heroes like Tony Stark.Credit: Sony and Marvel Studios for Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) — Adrian Toomes/Vulture (Michael Keaton) Photo by Chuck Zlotnick
In Spider-Man: Homecoming, Toomes’ business almost went under when Stark Industries’ salvage department – Damage Control – took away his livelihood. It’s only when Toomes and his colleagues discovered the hidden value of selling alien tech on the black market, that they were able to make any money as arms dealers. Unfortunately, Toomes turned out to be a greedy, evil villain, but one can’t fault him for wanting to “take it to the man.” Toomes was just a regular guy with a regular job, until a giant conglomerate bamboozled him out of it.
Like Toomes, Beck and his colleagues were also part of the working class. They all worked at Stark Industries and watched while Tony Stark became Iron Man, a hero, a legend, and a genius, while their achievements were co-opted without them receiving any credit. Is it any wonder that Beck snaps when his creation – the illusion tech we first saw in Captain America: Civil War – is underutilized by Tony and renamed B.A.R.F.? Each and every person on Beck’s team has suffered at their day jobs, and have been quashed under greedy senior management. Of course, Beck then turns into exactly the same kind of villain, so that’s more proof that with “great power, comes great responsibility.”
Economics as a barrier to greatness has always been a subtext in comic books, given that many of the superheroes we read about are people (often men) of means and affluence, and those who aren’t usually have benefactors who can outfit them with the best gear in town (think Dick Grayson and Bruce Wayne). Just last year, we discussed ditching superhero costumes altogether on screen to make fictional characters more akin to real-life ones. It’s not like we can walk into the corner store and afford a custom super-suit with added gadgets. Which is why neither Toomes nor Beck act immediately after being wronged – they both need to gather the resources to create their personae, and that takes time and money.
The Spider-Man films are the best place for these working-class villains. Peter Parker has always been the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man – his motto is to fight for the little guy, and these villains are the embodiment of the little guy that got ground into the dust too often.
The only criticism one would have of both these villains is that they were disproportionately violent towards Spider-Man. Toomes goes from accidentally killing his minion, to dropping an entire building on the hero he knows is a teenager. Beck takes his need for revenge on Tony Stark out on Spider-Man by throwing him onto train tracks, and then shooting him point blank in the face. We realize that this is the writers’ way of showing that these men were justifiably wronged by Tony Stark and the Avengers, but it comes across as an extreme, albeit understandable, reaction. Especially since both MCU Spider-Man films portray a young, teenaged hero with a realistic goal – to keep his neighborhood safe. The MCU’s Peter Parker is likeable because, despite his great power, he is aware of his limited responsibilities. When Peter goes outside his bounds, he suffers as a result. Such a relatable hero deserves equally relatable villains, and Marvel’s Spider-Man films manages to deliver them well, for the majority of the time.Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Holland star in Columbia Pictures’ SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME.
Whatever way you look at it, Spider-Man’s villains in the MCU resonate better with audiences than their predecessors. Sam Raimi’s films were straight up comic book homages that long-standing Spider-Man fans connected with. The less said about Marc Webb’s misfires, the better. The MCU, on the other hand, has given audiences villains that are relevant to the times.
Bringing Spider-Man into the MCU was always going to be a challenge but the creative teams continue to outdo themselves by reflecting the experiences of a segment of society often overlooked by Hollywood.
This is particularly of note, because Hollywood creators are so focused on their craft, they tend to forget that the world outside isn’t full of aspiring writers, artists, and filmmakers. Most people have day jobs; we have bosses who we love, and some that we hate. We have colleagues who we get along with and those we don’t. When a character on screen goes through similar workday experiences like the rest of us, they represent the average day of regular people – a.k.a the majority of the film-viewing population.
Pop culture as a medium is not only a reflection of society as is, but informs our opinion of what society could and should be. The latter is a particularly overwhelming responsibility that is so often misused by creators. Whatever other flaws that Spider-Man: Far From Home has, the fact that it remains a striking indictment of the power and influence of the 1% cannot be denied.
On the one hand, the film never ceases to be an homage to Tony Stark – Peter’s mentor and the father figure he dearly loved and lost. Yet through Quentin Beck and his team, we see a wholly different side to Tony, one that most of us worker bees are acutely familiar with. Let’s face it, Tony as an egotistical, credit-stealing, glory hog is far more in line with the character.
As Beck astutely observes, it is far more believable for him to be a man from another dimension flying around in a cape, than to be a regular guy, with a regular job, who got shafted by an uncaring boss. In the world of the MCU, the men in capes have given audiences hope and inspiration, but once the credits roll, we still need to go back to the desk job we know and love/hate. This is precisely why viewers have resonated with these two Spider-Man films, more so than the rest.