Searching for a Real Working-Class Villain in 'Spider-Man: Homecoming'

The film gives voice to blue-collar frustration, but not from workers themselves.
November 6, 2017, 5:21pm
Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures, by Chuck Zlotnick / CTMG

During a recent family visit, on one of those cold and damp November days that make everyone decide it's a good idea to have food delivered and maybe pass the day indoors, we watched Spider-Man: Homecoming. Marvel movies are usually a safe bet for an inoffensive crowd-pleaser. Safer, certainly, than any of the anime that I have on hand.

What I wasn't expecting was for Homecoming to by catalyzed by a dangerous and undirected working-class rage and fear. And as pleased as I was by the fact that Homecoming seemed like it was "going there," I was equally disappointed at how sharply it veered away from its own themes. As with so many superhero movies—particularly those from Marvel Studios—Homecoming wants to show that it is aware of its moment, but is equally committed to avoiding saying anything about that context.

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Now you can say that the movies are intended and escapism and, God knows, everyone deserves to sit in a dark room and be free from the news for a couple hours. But if you're going to bring that elephant into the room, you're kind of obligated to say something about its presence. And boy does Homecoming park that elephant front-and-center in its opening minutes.

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At the outset, we see the origin story for our villain, a high-tech bandit who uses salvaged and stolen superhero artifacts to conduct a black market arms and technology business. Unlike a lot of the alien warlords, corrupt industrial titans, secret societies, and evil gods who populate Marvel's stories, our villain here is the ringleader of a bunch of blue-collar, hard-hatted workers gone rogue. If the world has changed and the old rules no longer apply, Michael Keaton's Adrian Toomes says, then he and his crew will make their own irresponsible lunge for the brass ring.

There are a few things I love about this set-up. The first is that Toomes is not really a worker—he's a pretty well-to-do but financially insecure business owner—but he nevertheless nurses a profound sense of grievance as a "little guy" who keeps getting stepped-on. I grew up surrounded by variations on this character, and the mix of responsible decency and jaw-dropping self-pity and entitlement that Keaton presents rings 100% true.

Lastly, as he's confronting losing a job whose costs he's already taken on, some functionary piously tells him, "Maybe you shouldn't have overextended yourself." It's a line I can't hear without my blood boiling. It's something that anyone who has ever been screwed on a contract—or had their strings jerked over a pay dispute—has heard at least a few times before, and makes Toomes' impulsive jump to the Dark Side more understandable.

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But the movie never really calls Toomes on his self-pity. When he confronts Peter Parker toward the end of the movie and gives him the old, "We're not so different, you and I" number, neither Parker nor the movie itself has any response to Toomes' pretensions to being society's injured victim. At no point does it make explicit that "people like us" should be inclusive beyond comfortable suburban/ outer borough white guys. It's smart of the film to show that Toomes is breathtakingly lacking in self-awareness, but it's frustrating that nobody in the movie can articulate why he's full of shit.

Nor does it have anything to say about Toomes' central argument that the Tony Starks of the world have left everyone around them fighting over table scraps, when indeed Peter Parker's chief motivation until the last moments of the film is the hope that Stark will grant him both personal recognition and professional status. Indeed, the surrogate father-son relationship between Stark and Parker obscures the fact that Parker is effectively working without a contract in the hopes of becoming a full-time employee with the Avengers, which implies that Toomes might be onto something about the rules of this new, post-superhero world.

Maybe a character like Toomes has to be thoroughly compromised. If he were staring down the barrel of 60 or 70 with nothing to his name after a lifetime of low-wage labor, could he really be the villain of the story? Would we really be rooting for Peter Parker and his ultra-rich mentor to stop him?

Picture Toomes' words coming out of someone else's mouth, someone without his obvious means, and I suspect Homecoming becomes a much more ambiguous picture. It becomes a story about the haves, their gifted chosen, and the people they leave behind out of neglect, malice, or carelessness. Does that story still have a villain? Is Peter Parker still its hero?

What media have pulled-off the "working-class villain" well? I'm hard pressed to name any, especially when it comes to comics, though obviously the list gets longer if you open it to more adult drama. But I'm wondering if there are any examples of truly blue-collar antagonists who manage to maintain both their class identity and their "villain" status.

Let me know in today's open thread!