Whether a super-villain is trying to conquer the world, exact revenge, or just cause some destruction, almost all of them kill to get what they want; it's something we've come to expect from superhero films. However, does their willingness to kill make them a better character, or more of a threat to the protagonist? Sometimes, but sometimes not. Here's a case-study of the Vulture and whether his willingness to kill is a necessary trait.
Why Villains Are Killers By Default
Much like in westerns, showing a character killing someone else allows the audience to quickly identify that character as a bad guy. The bad guys wear black hats and kill people, while the good guys wear white hats and save people. Not only do we recognize the bad guys, we immediately favor of the hero, who we hope will stop the bad guy from killing more people.
Killing can also increase the stakes. If the hero fails, more people will die. So, there's even more pressure on the hero to succeed, and the audience feels more tension in the conflict — at least, in theory. There's nothing inherently wrong with either of these tropes, but they're not always used effectively. If they are redundant or don't reflect the character properly, the effect is weak at best, detrimental at worst. Spider-Man: Homecoming's Adrian Toomes is an example of a character who was worse off for being a killer.
A Closer Look At The Vulture
It's clear by the prologue that Adrian Toomes is supposed to be a sympathetic character. The system wronged him, and now he's working against it. He's a working-class man frustrated with the elite, not a monster. Additionally, the people he surrounds himself with aren't evil, either. They don't even have criminal records; they're just doing their jobs, trying to provide for their families. Sure, these aren't upstanding citizens — they're misguided, somewhat selfish, and have a flawed sense of morality — but the same can be said for many of us (to a lesser extent). If we were pushed too far, and had the opportunity Toomes had, might we have taken a similar path? Hence, sympathy.
At least, that was the intent. The moment they lost me was the moment Toomes accidentally killed the first Shocker and showed no remorse. Since when was he a killer? He's clearly OK with violence, given that he's an arms dealer now, but it's still a big step from that to actually pulling the trigger himself. Everything we had seen from him before painted Toomes as a thief and a corrupt businessman, but working the system is different from killing someone. This seemed to come out of nowhere, from the audience's perspective. Perhaps the filmmakers were interested in the shock-value, but they sacrificed sympathy to achieve it.
Let's back up a bit to see if killing Shocker actually accomplished anything.
- Did it establish Toomes as a villain? No, it was already clear he was the bad guy, with the stealing and arms-dealing and just generally working outside the law.
- Did it make Toomes more of a threat to the hero? Not necessarily. Toomes's lackeys had already made a fool out of Spider-Man, and Toomes himself was clearly superior to his lackeys, so Spider-Man was definitely the underdog.
- Did it make Toomes more of a threat to others? No, Toomes's arms-dealing raised the stakes plenty, and that threat always out-shadowed any possibility that Toomes would kill someone himself.
And what about the climax? The Vulture threatened to kill Spider-Man if he got in his way again. Yet, we all knew Spider-Man wasn't going to die. Even Peter didn't seem to worry about dying during that sequence; he had been more concerned about falling from heights than he was about a man actively trying to kill him. If Spider-Man was never really fighting for his life, then what was the point of the threat?
A Non-Murderous Vulture
Making the Vulture a killer didn't improve his character or add any real tension to the story. So, what if we remove that aspect? Suppose that, after accidentally killing the Shocker, Toomes actually did show remorse. He's initially horrified by what he's done, but calms himself down and tells himself that collateral damage is just a part of his world now (or even that it's a necessary part of his business). Perhaps he becomes a bit more unhinged over his next couple of scenes. Because the audience witnesses this change in him, we retain our sympathy for him.
So, he's not a murderer, but he's even more OK with collateral damage than he was before, and he's a bit mentally unstable. In a way, that makes him even more dangerous.
Conversely, suppose Toomes doesn't accept that he killed his former employee. Maybe he starts to realize that he has become more like the people that he hates, which creates an internal conflict. That, in turn, would change the dynamic between the Toomes and Peter, wouldn't it?
Either way, during his confrontation with Peter, Toomes doesn't threaten to kill him. (Any villain can do that — shouldn't a villain who knows Spider-Man's alter-ego be able to do more?) Instead, he might threaten to expose his identity. Or, he might explain that fewer people will get hurt if Toomes's operation can operate in secret, but if Peter gets in the way or tries to expose him, that'll cause a more active conflict, resulting in higher collateral damage. That should give Peter pause, whereas a threat upon his life hardly phased him at all. Surely, there must be some better setups to the climax than Vulture saying "I'll kill you dead."
Spidey's villain is not better off by being a killer; it's not advantageous to his character development, and does little to enhance the central conflict. On the contrary, his willingness to kill hinders both his character and the story. Simply removing that quality — or even making Toomes feel regret over the deaths that he's caused — would make him more dynamic and sympathetic. This one change could have made Vulture one of the most compelling villains of the #MCU.
Adrian Toomes is just one example. He might be in the minority, but it's still worth considering whether supervillains by default should be murderers. There are plenty of other ways to challenge superheroes, after all.
Agree? Disagree? Let us know!