(Warning: This post contains spoilers)
Hey, Spider-Man, if you really believe your bullshit credo about great responsibility coming with great power, take off those red pajamas, submit to an independent superhero-review board, and stop playing web-slinging vigilante policeman.
Seriously, take a break from beating up petty thieves and evil masterminds, kid. Think bigger and help solve our nation’s systemic ills by twisting the Dakota Access pipeline into knots or by shooting webs at Paul Ryan’s mouth to silence him during congressional debates about Obamacare. Even better, arrest the real villain of the Marvel Universe—Iron Man.
I’m aware that watching the wall crawler thumb through Goldman Sachs’s IRS files would make for some tedious viewing, and that Marvel would never truly turn Robert Downey Jr.’s roguishly charming superhero into a full-fledged supervillain. And maybe it’s ridiculous to over intellectualize a summer popcorn flick about a horny teenager who fights crime after being bitten by a radioactive spider. But I blame my fanciful thought experiments on the politics of Spider-Man: Homecoming. The latest in the endless parade of Marvel Comics movies is certainly no All the President’s Men (it dwells longer on the politics of high-school dating than contemporary political culture) but there’s a hidden commentary about socioeconomics and class amid all the spidery Sturm und Drang.
Much of that subtext is expressed through the character of Adrian Toomes—the man behind the metallic mask of Spidey’s nemesis Vulture. No one utters the unholy name of Donald Trump in Homecoming, but Toomes clearly embodies the “white working-class voter” the media has obsessed over ever since the 2016 election—the alienated blue-collar middle-aged white guy we’re told voted for Trump due to economic anxiety, racism, sexism, xenophobia, or some combination of all those attributes.
The media has largely reduced the white working-class people who voted for Trump into an abstraction, a talking point—they’re either victims or villains. To its credit, Homecoming isn’t interested in a one-dimensional depiction of Toomes. He might be what some consider casually racist in his use of non-PC language (“It’s Native Americans now,” he’s told when he romanticizes “cowboys and Indians”) but he’s married to a woman of color, and together they have a mixed-race child he loves. Toomes also clings to his own victimhood even after he accrues wealth from his misdeeds. He’s selfish but lives by a complicated code of honor.
The nuance is surprising considering that the bad guys in Marvel movies don’t feel like real people but rather a lot of unrelatable adolescent fantasies come to life: powerful robots, aliens, or garishly dressed Nordic gods. Toomes flies around in an armored wing suit but he’s grounded by a sense of tragic humanity; due in no small part to the gravitas of Michael Keaton (whose casting is both incredibly appropriate and canny, considering his starring roles as the Caped Crusader in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman reboot and in Birdman as a washed-up actor who’s only famous for his role as a winged superhero).
In Homecoming’s first act, Keaton’s Toomes is an ordinary working-class stiff—the owner of a small salvage company contracted to help with the clean-up of some of the destruction New York suffered after the climactic battle in the first Avengers movie. He’s invested a lot of his own money and resources in preparation for the lucrative gig, but his company is dumped without compensation by the so-called Department of Damage Control, a federal agency partially funded by Tony Stark. Toomes bitterly decides to smuggle some of the alien tech he and his team have recovered instead of leaving empty-handed.
“The rich and the powerful, like Stark, they don’t care about us,” Toomes says. The system is “rigged,” grunts one of Toomes’s crew members. Sound familiar? That’s the word invoked endlessly by Trump (and Bernie Sanders) during the 2016 election season to describe how America has come to be subverted by self-interested bureaucrats and oligarchs. We know now that Trump’s bluster about “draining the swamp” during the campaign was false. Thus far as president, he’s turned the swamp into a proverbial moat that circles his Mar-a-Lago castle to help enact some version of the Republican agenda. But during the campaign, Trump talked like a populist who’d help someone like Toomes.
When we next see Toomes, it’s eight years after he steals the alien technology, and the movie implies he’s already made a healthy living as the Vulture: a thief and black-market arms dealer who’s not afraid to threaten those who stand in his way. His criminality, however, plays out on a much smaller scale than we’re used to seeing in comic book flicks. He’s not interested in committing violent acts (much less world domination) just using his ill-gotten gains to secure the kind of comfortable life that society promised him if he worked hard enough: A happy marriage, a big house in the suburbs, his kid in a good school.
That so-called American Dream? It’s a cultural lie, a convenient one we’re told so that we blame ourselves for our own place in a codified class system. Toomes knows this, and as the Vulture he hungrily strips some of the flesh off the rotting corpse of capitalism for himself and his loved ones. When the broken system works in favor of the rich instead of the little guy, why not pilfer a little piece of the wreckage to help support your family? Young Peter Parker certainly disagrees. He tracks down the Vulture after almost being killed in the act of stopping thieves who use Toomes’s weird alien weapons to slice through ATM machines and steal cash.
Here’s the ironic twist: I’d argue that Iron Man is like a suave billionaire version of the working-class Toomes—right down to the goofy robotic exoskeleton. Just look at his resumé. In the first Iron Man movie, Stark worked as an arms dealer selling missiles in the war-torn Middle East before his epiphany—a come-to-Jesus moment after nearly being killed by his own weapons. Later in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Stark’s plan to build a secret global defense program goes horribly awry when the Ultron A.I. becomes self-aware, leading to the death of 177 people in the fictional town of Sokovia, plus $487 billion in damages.
Nonetheless, Stark is rich and powerful enough (he no doubt has an Avengers-protected tax shelter somewhere) that he’s not truly held accountable for his actions. He’s too big to fail. The opposite, in fact: Iron Man keeps getting new government contracts like the one that knocks Toomes out of work. Yet it’s Stark whom Peter Parker desperately idolizes. He ends up sort of freelancing out of Aunt May’s tiny NYC apartment as Iron Man’s unpaid superhero intern (and in violation of child labor laws because he’s 15) with the home of one day climbing to the top rungs of the meritocracy.
Homecoming slyly implies that the system really is rigged in favor of men like Stark. In a more just world, Spider-Man wouldn’t stop at tossing the Vulture in jail—he’d go after Iron Man next. But maybe Homecoming is just art imitating life. In comic books, just as in real-life America, police go after low-level criminals (and innocent bystanders) in poor neighborhoods with near impunity but rich and powerful white-collar criminals get away scot-free all the time. The Wall Street supervillains who looted the economy during the Great Recession got caught but were awarded millions of dollars instead of jail time. If he were working class, it’s likely that a grifter and a liar like Donald Trump would be in jail like Toomes is at the end of Homecoming. Instead, he’s our president now.