Last weekend, Spider-Man: Homecoming opened to huge box office returns. In the film, Spiderman battles the supervillain Vulture, played by Michael Keaton. Keaton’s version of Vulture has received high praise from critics. It is somewhat unusual for a Marvel villain to get favorable reviews because Marvel’s reputation is that its villains are usually the weak point in its movies.
But the critics are wrong about Marvel’s villains. The Marvel Cinematic Universe actually has one of the most compelling antagonists in cinema: Malibu’s own Anthony Edward Stark, aka Iron Man.
Stark’s motives may not be bad but his actions often are. He is arrogant, reckless, and egotistical. The fact that Stark usually means well doesn’t change the fact that he is the cause of a startling number of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s supervillain related problems. His flaws are so apparent that SHIELD initially refuses to bring him into the Avengers initiative because their psychological profile of him finds he “displays compulsive behavior, prone to self-destructive tendencies, and textbook narcissism.”
Stark’s role as a villain is set up from the start of the franchise. In the first Iron Man movie, Stark is the owner of the world’s leading weapons manufacturer, Stark Industries, but he is an absentee landlord. He appoints the deceitful and greedy Obadiah Stain to run day to day operations and Stain takes advantage of Stark’s inattention to sell advanced weapons to terrorists. Stain also uses the company’s resources to become a supervillain and build his own Iron Man suit. Stark’s Iron Man ultimately defeats Stain but Stain would never have been in a position to endanger so many people if Stark hadn’t put him there.
The pattern of Stark’s reckless decision making leading to great harm repeats in a startling number of Marvel films. For example, in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Stark redesigns SHIELD’s helicarriers to make them more lethal. It turns out SHIELD has been taken over by Hydra and intends to use the helicarriers to kill millions of innocent people. Stark has effectively armed Hydra and it is left to Captain America to clean up the mess Stark made.
Stark’s involvement in giving Hydra superweapons is even more remarkable because Stark shut down his company’s weapons division after his weapons were sold to terrorists. Instead of just exercising proper oversight over his company Stark makes a characteristically impulsive choice to shut down weapons production entirely. Stark chooses to stop providing quality weapons to the U.S. military but finds time to build advanced weapons for Hydra.
Stark’s decision leaves the U.S. military reliant for its equipment on Hammer Industriesm whose weapons are inferior and unreliable. Stark is fully aware of the inadequacy of Hammer’s technology. In Iron Man 2, Stark openly mocks Hammer’s attempts to build an Iron Man suit during Congressional testimony by showing a video where a Hammer prototype malfunctions and nearly kills its test pilot. Later in the movie, a Hammer-designed missile (that Hammer has hilariously named “the ex-wife”) malfunctions at a critical moment in the final battle against the main villain. Leaving the US military reliant on Hammer’s technology put America’s national security in danger.
In The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Stark does probably the worst thing he has ever done when he builds Ultron, an advanced artificial intelligence system. He does this over the objections of Bruce Banner, whose prescient warnings Stark ignores. Stark goes ahead and builds Ultron, who almost immediately turns evil and tries to wipe out humanity. The Avengers must assemble to put an end to the menace Stark created.
In Captain America: Civil War, Stark starts, well, a civil war that tears the Avengers apart. Stark is haunted by a woman whose son died during the Avengers’ final battle with Ultron. Instead of recognizing this tragedy happened because of Stark’s own mistake in creating Ultron he comes to the bizarre conclusion that the problem is the Avengers themselves. He pushes the Avengers to sign the Sokovia Accords, which tears the team apart. Captain America has to go into exile and half the team ends up locked in an underwater prison.
This brings us to Spider-Man: Homecoming. The movie is a continuation of the Spider-Man subplot in Civil War where Stark kidnaps a 14-year-old boy, smuggles him to Germany under false pretenses, and makes him fight Captain America. The 14-year-old is Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man. Stark does this even though he knows Spider-Man has no chance in a fight with Captain America and in Homecoming he admits to Parker that Captain America was holding back in his battle with Spider-Man and “If Cap wanted to lay you out, he would have.” He also admits to Parker that everyone else thought it was crazy to recruit a 14-year old kid to be on a team of superheroes. Well, everyone was right! It was crazy!
Upon his return home to New York City, Spider-Man battles petty criminals until he is forced to reckon with the film’s main villain, the Vulture. The Vulture’s motivation is simple: He was driven to supervillainy by Tony Stark. The Vulture was once Adrian Toomes, owner of a construction firm that was hired to do cleanup work in Manhattan as the city tried to recover from the damage done by an alien invasion depicted in The Avengers.
Toomes’ company is pushed aside and their city contract unceremoniously terminated when the federal government takes over all cleanup efforts and hires a firm owned by Tony Stark to complete the job. This continues a long tradition of Stark Industries using political connections to undermine competitors and gain an unfair advantage in government contracting. With his company on the brink of failure after the powerful Stark uses his insider connections to push him aside, Toomes becomes the Vulture and begins selling recovered alien weapons to criminals.
This should all sound very familiar because it is exactly what happened in Iron Man 2 and Iron Man 3. In those movies Stark’s arrogance and ego drives the film’s antagonists to supervillainy. In Iron Man 2, Stark Industries steals design components for the arc reactor from Ivan Venko’s father. Venko turns into the supervillain Whiplash to seek revenge. In Iron Man 3, Stark arrogantly insults a research scientist named Aldrich Killian. This serves as the impetus for Killian to become a supervillain. The Vulture is not the first supervillain created by Tony Stark’s imperious treatment of others.
And let’s be honest, Tony also isn’t very nice to Pepper Potts.
It’s time to stop giving short shrift to Marvel’s stable of villains. After all, they have one of the most compelling, well developed villains in all of cinema, a villain so compelling you can’t help but root for him. He is made all the more compelling by Robert Downey, Jr.’s undeniable charisma and the fact that, from time to time, he is the only one with the genius to figure out how to save the day. Stark himself may have said it best in making his argument to Bruce Banner that they needed to create Vision to defeat Ultron, “I know what everyone’s going to say, but they’re already saying it. We’re mad scientists. We’re monsters, buddy. You gotta own it.”