Screenwriting 101: How Spider-Man: Homecoming Nails its Villain

A strong antagonist is a lynchpin to any story, but superheroes especially need to face a good foil in order to truly soar. Michael Keaton in Spider-Man: Homecoming sticks the landing and then some as a working-class family man who discovers a taste for crime and won’t let anyone upset his livelihood. He’s like Breaking Bad’s Walter White, only  with jet-powered wings and a flight helmet, dealing in high-tech weapons instead of dope.

Don’t misunderstand: Tom Holland (The Impossible, In the Heart of the Sea) is delightful as Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man. The 21-year-old Brit, playing a 15-year-old from Queens, is endearing in his flaws and enthusiasm, believably capturing those awkward teen years when we’re itching for more responsibility for which we might not be ready. In Peter’s case, having caught Captain America’s shield and figured out how to topple Giant Man in Captain America: Civil War, he’s dying to prove he can join the Avengers. But unlike Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and even Nicholas Hammond in the 1970s TV series The Amazing Spider-Man, he stumbles plenty along the way. 

His mentor, genius billionaire inventor Tony Stark, aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), tells Peter to be content learning the ropes by stopping muggers and giving directions as a “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.” But Peter can’t help but look for trouble between schoolwork, an academic contest, and a crush on an older girl. When high-tech weapons with an otherworldly glow turn up in his neighborhood, he wants to find the cause and stop it. 

That’s when Keaton enters the story—or rather, reenters it. (Mild spoilers follow.) 

Keaton’s human take on the villainous Vulture recalls Alfred Molina’s acclaimed turn as Doctor Octopus in 2004’s Spider-Man 2

Like 2008’s The Dark KnightSpider-Man: Homecoming opens not with our hero but our antagonist. It’s soon after the climactic Battle of New York in 2012’s The Avengers, and Adrian Toomes (Keaton) and his hardhat-wearing cleanup crew are working inside Grand Central Terminal. But another group arrives from the Department of Damage Control, a new partnership between the government and Stark Industries, and kicks Toomes and company aside, city contract be damned.

“So, those a–holes who made the mess get to clean it up,” one guy mutters. 

Why return the alien tech they’d already taken from the site? They deserve a payday, too, right?

Crafting a strong, three-dimensional motivation for a villain can be difficult. For a story geared to younger audiences like, say, Disney’s Aladdin, it’s enough to have a bad guy want phenomenal cosmic power. But to hit audiences on a deeper level, we need to think about universal needs. 

Loki is a memorable Marvel bad guy because we relate to him, just like we can relate to what drives Toomes. Although Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal certainly helps, the dark-haired, slender Loki is riveting not because he wants world domination and a bunch of sycophants. He’s the adopted son of a father forever looking proudly in another direction: at the golden-haired favorite child. Loki’s father is Odin, ruler of the mystical Asgard, and his brother is Thor (Chris Hemsworth), a demigod who controls lightning. But anyone who has felt slighted by a parent or even in the workplace can identify with this dysfunctional dynamic. The fact that Thor often extends a hand to put this rivalry behind them only adds to Loki’s bile. 

“To hit audiences on a deeper level, we need to think about universal needs.”

It’s a visceral connection in a movie with fantastical elements—the same thing that gives Toomes depth. Spider-Man: Homecoming takes a page from Marvel’s Netflix series Daredevil and Jessica Jones in showing how the alien invasion thwarted in The Avengers only created other problems. In those series, someone might gouge the rent for apartments that weren’t destroyed, placing New York City housing at an even bigger premium.

Here, Toomes and his crew want to keep the piece of the American dream they’ve achieved through years of hard work. “The rich, the powerful, like Stark, they don’t care about us,” Toomes decides. “The world’s changed, boys. Time we change, too.”

A former Batman and Birdman, Keaton invests Toomes with the right mix of empathy and menace. Known in the comics as the Vulture, this Toomes has a wife and a family, a gorgeous house in the suburbs, and the unspoken need to provide them with a better life. That desire, like Loki’s insecurity and envy, strike a chord with us.

The Vulture as he appeared in the original comic book incarnation.

By the time his guys cross Spidey’s path, Toomes and his crew have carved out a profitable niche. They sell weapons they make from alien technology and use other inventions from such tech, like Toomes’s flight suit, to steal more. Toomes might blast one of his henchmen into dust by grabbing the wrong gizmo, but that doesn’t bother him all that much. What does is some upstart in red tights who “thinks he can tear down everything I’ve built” after “those bozos over at Stark Tower” haven’t paid their setup a second thought for years.

The Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D. have been too busy with world-shattering problems, such as the villain’s endgame in 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. Black-market weapons that can slice holes in ATMs and ignite a corner bodega tangibly and visibly affect people – and provide the perfect stakes for a burgeoning superhero.

“I am so beyond high school,” Peter says at one point. 

But he’s not.

Director Jon Watts (2015’s crime thriller Cop Car) and a team of six screenwriters, including Watts, show how Peter inadvertently causes problems as he tries to solve them. His intentions are never in doubt, but his journey is in realizing how important he is on an everyday scale while he learns what he needs to hang with the Avengers.

“Toomes and his crew want to keep the piece of the American dream they’ve achieved through years of hard work.”

Toomes works in another role we can choose for an antagonist: as a mirror, a teacher who offers a sobering lesson. Loki doesn’t fit this mold, but the Joker (Heath Ledger) in The Dark Knight certainly does. He’s pure anarchy, someone so twisted, he just wants “to watch the world burn.” Batman (Christian Bale) learns just what he’ll have to do to catch someone like that and whether he’s willing to go that far. 

Zemo (Daniel Brühl) serves this purpose in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War—at least for one character. Vengeance spurs him to drive the Avengers apart, and vengeance motivates T’Challa, aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), for much of the film. But seeing what this does to Zemo and the Avengers leads T’Challa toward forgiveness. 

In Spider-Man: Homecoming, Tony Stark mentors Peter because he reminds Tony of the whiz kid he used to be. As the story evolves, Toomes, too, recognizes someone who wants respect, even as the youth messes with things he doesn’t understand.

We understand Toomes all too well—and crucially, Peter does, too. Ambition and pride make Toomes blind to the good things he has, just like Walter White, endangering not just the lifestyle he wants to maintain but his own life.

It’s a huge leap for the wall-crawler when Peter is mature enough to see that.

Valerie Kalfrin is an award-winning veteran crime journalist turned entertainment writer. A member of the Florida Film Network, she writes reviews and analysis for The Script Lab, Signature Reads (formerly known as Word and Film), and The Tampa Bay Times, among other publications. She’s also an emerging screenwriter and script consultant. She lives in Florida.