It has become a cliche to point out that the rich have most of the political power. It has also become a cliche to say that the recent election in America was the result of forgotten people standing up for themselves against the “establishment” (whatever that means). To a certain extent, this revolt of “the forgotten” against the “establishment” is the story that we’re seeing not only in the U.S., but also around the world. The surprising popularity of Marine le Pen in France’s presidential race is an example of this. While there are more moderate (and some would argue more sensible) candidates on the right and the left, le Pen’s surge in the polls seems to represent a loud statement by “the forgotten” that they’re no longer willing to accept politics as usual.
Though populism has its dangers, one can understand why people who feel forgotten would resent those who have a larger voice in society than they do. Mass media constantly barrage us with new political pontifications from the rich and powerful. Entertainers, businesspeople, technocrats, and others have a voice and influence that the average person could never dream of. Sure, the internet promised to radically level the playing field, giving bloggers (like me) and others an equal shot at being heard, but in many ways it has had the opposite effect. When the average person competes with the rich for a voice, we all know who is most likely to win.
In some ways this is our own fault (the rich have a voice mostly because we pay attention to what they say), but there’s no denying that regular people have reasons to feel resentful toward those with privileged voices.
I am sometimes surprised that people across the political spectrum aren’t more often united in opposition to this problem. On both the left and the right, people claim to believe in democracy. But for democracy to work well, there has to be freedom of thought and a free flow of ideas, and right now, the loudest and clearest voices belong to people who come from a very small set of experiences, values, and political convictions. That kind of homogeneity promotes ideology instead of critical thinking.
All of this is why I’m pleased to see the direction that Marvel seems to be taking with
Adrian Toomes (the Vulture; played by Michael Keaton) in Spider-Man: Homecoming. The second trailer for the movie suggests that instead of a brooding villain bent on universal destruction (like Malekith the Accursed or Ronan the Accuser), Toomes will be one of “the forgotten” who sees himself as standing up to the powerful:
The rich, the powerful, like Stark—they don’t care about us. The world’s changed; time we change with it.
Keaton and director Jon Watts have said in interviews that one of the things that excites them about Toomes is the villain’s complexity. No doubt part of that complexity will mean that even though he’s a bad guy, Toomes has a point about the way the world works. The rich—like Tony Stark—have far too much power.
If this is true, then Toomes has the potential to be Marvel’s best villain to date for a couple of reasons:
First, unlike many of their previous villains, Toomes will have motivations that many people in the audience can relate to. We all love Tony Stark, but there’s no denying that people like him him have an oversized voice and influence in society when compared to the single mother who works two jobs or the laid-off coal worker.
Second, Toomes’s story can serve as a warning about the consequences of the chasm that grows between the powerful and the “forgotten.” Resentment and contempt are powerful motivators, and while they can move people to make positive change, they’re more likely to drive people toward recklessness, toward changes that prove destructive rather than restorative.
It’s a good thing, then, that we’ll be seeing Toomes juxtaposed not only with Tony Stark but also with Peter Parker. Spider-Man has the potential to show us a third way, a way between Stark and Toomes, a means of reconciliation for the people that those two men represent. (On that note, I wonder how symbolic the image of Spidey desperately trying to hold together two halves of that ferry is.)
At one point in the trailer, Toomes tells Peter,
You need to understand: I will do anything to protect my family. I know you know what I’m talking about.
Peter does indeed know what Toomes is talking about, but while real grievances can drive people to bad actions, Peter’s moral compass can help him to balance his own interests against the common good, the demands of justice, and the need for mercy and forgiveness.
These are some of the things I hope to see explored in Spider-Man: Homecoming, anyway.