The Vulture is one of Spider-Man’s oldest foes, in both the literal and figurative senses of the word. He’s most prominently portrayed as a geriatric old codger with a large, hook-beak nose, and he was literally the second costumed villain (after the Chameleon) that Spidey faced when the young man started his heroic career. Vulture has remained a consistent and crafty nemesis for the wallcrawler over the his five-decade publication history, both as a solo villain and when teaming up with Spidey’s other foes as a member Sinister Six.
With recent news that award-winning actor Michael Keaton is in final talks to play the character in the upcoming “Spider-Man: Homecoming” movie across from Tom Holland, it looks like the Vulture will finally get the live-action screen treatment Spider-fans can get behind. Knowing as we do the tendency of the films to draw from the comics for inspiration regarding their character’s motives and actions, now is an ideal time to examine some of the Vulture’s most significant arcs from the comics.
It’s a strange, and sometimes convoluted history–understandable when you factor in 50 years of continuity–but of the many arcs in which he’s been featured, here are some that are most likely to be mined for character inspiration in the film.
Adrian Toomes’s Origin (Amazing Spider-Man, vol. 1, #240-241)
It took over 200 issues of ASM, but readers finally got an origin story about how Adrian Toomes became the Vulture under the deft pen of Roger Stern. Having escaped Spider-Man during their last encounter, Toomes is living a relatively good life in the southwest until he reads about his former business partner, Gregory Bestman, who is coming to an electronics show in New York. Unable to let this stand, Toomes books a flight to New York to take revenge on him.
Arriving at the show, Toomes finds and captures Bestman, despite interference from Spider-Man. When he takes him to his hideout, Toomes recalls how Bestman cheated him out of the business they’d started together, giving Toomes no legal recourse and causing him to use the flight harness he invented to wreck Bestman’s office and make off with some of his money. It’s a believable tale that gives depth to a character who had until that point been a fairly forgettable villain.
“Duel to the Death With the Vulture!” (Amazing Spider-Man, vol. 1, #2)
Vulture’s first appearance makes him out to be a fairly two-dimensional, if somewhat eccentric, villain character in the elderly Adrian Toomes. In their first encounter, Spidey gets knocked out by the Vulture and dropped into a water tower. It proves to be a learning experience for him, and he develops an anti-magnetic inverter to short out Vulture’s harness in their next fight, gaining him a victory over the elder foe.
Amusingly, Spider-Man takes on the Tinkerer (rumored to be appearing in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” another villain of advanced age, in the second half of this issue. Maybe Stan Lee was saying something about a new teenage superhero seeing all his adversaries as ancient?
Also of amusement: the Vulture gets called “Birdman” as the police are carting him off to prison. Michael Keaton fans should love that one.
The Blackie Drago Saga (Amazing Spider-Man, vol. 1, #48-49 and #63)
There have been at least two attempts to de-age the Vulture, and this would be the first one, courtesy of Stan Lee. While near death in prison, Toomes tells his cellmate Black Drago where one of his pairs of wings are, hoping he’ll take Spider-Man down after he’s gone. Drago immediately gloats that he’d set up the shop accident to manipulate Toomes into telling him where his wings were, and leaves him to die in prison.
Drago is more interested in using the powers of the Vulture to make easy money, but encounters and fights Spider-Man, leaving him behind after carelessly assuming he’d easily kicked him off a wall to his doom. The next time they meet, it’s a three way fight between them and Kraven, which Spidey eventually wins. Drago is stripped of the wings, and sent back to prison. Toomes returns to the spotlight some time later, and frees Drago, giving him another pair of wings, specifically for the purpose of fighting and beating Drago in public, reclaiming his mantle as the Vulture and making it known that he’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
“Life Theft” (Amazing Spider-Man, vol. 1, #386-388)
The second attempt to de-age the Vulture was a little more direct. David Michelinie simply crafted a “rejuvenator” apparatus that Toomes has read about, and escapes prison for the express purpose of using it to drain the life and youth from others to make himself young again. Peter, having doubts about his Aunt May’s mental state due to her distrust of Peter’s recently arrived “parents,” visits the doctor developing this technology to ask if she’ll run some tests on her. As is the norm in comics timing, Vulture attacks the doctor while Peter is there, and a fight ensues between him and Spider-Man.
Toomes gains the upper hand and uses the rejuvenator on Spider-Man, instantaneously becoming a young man and healing his cancer, while Peter becomes old and shrunken in his costume. The effects on both men are temporary, much to Toomes’s dismay, but when the Chameleon reveals himself as the orchestrator of Peter Parker’s android parents, Toomes sticks around and awaits his opportunity. He gets it, and drains the life from the Mary Parker android, seeming to become permanently young, even though he is soundly defeated by an enraged Spider-Man immediately afterwards.
This change ultimately didn’t last, but Toomes did make quite a few appearances as his younger self for about three years until the events of Sensational Spider-Man #18. He hung in there!
Nathan Lubensky, Aunt May, and Funeral Arrangements (Amazing Spider-Man, vol. 1, #224, #336, and Spectacular Spider-Man, vol. 1, #186-188)
Nathan Lubensky, who is dating Peter’s Aunt May, befriends Toomes when he visits him in physical therapy, unaware that he is the Vulture. Toomes is inspired by Nathan to live his life to the fullest, and pulls himself out of his malaise to resume his life of crime. When he unwittingly takes Nathan hostage in a struggle with Spider-Man, he releases Nathan rather than risk harming him, and flies away, showing that he considered Nathan his friend.
Unfortunately, Toomes would end up killing Nathan, flying up into the air with Nathan holding on to him, causing him to die of heart failure. It was an act Toomes regretted, one for which he apologized to May when he realized he was dying of cancer brought on by his use of a flight harness over the years. May was eventually sympathetic, but ultimately unable to forgive Toomes, telling him that forgiveness could only come from God now.
I realize I may be cheating a bit here, linking all these disparate issues together, but I feel like they tell a memorable story about someone who affected Toomes in a profound way, and close it out nicely. Oh, and Toomes does finally kill off Bestman during the Spectacular storyline.
A Different Kind of Vulture (Amazing Spider-Man, vol. 1, # 593-594 and #623-624)
After J. Jonah Jameson is elected mayor of New York City, Spidey ends up stumbling upon a more feral, deformed Vulture whose abilities all seem to be integrated into his body. Acid spit, natural wings, and a cannibalistic nature to go with his enhanced strength and speed make this Vulture a visceral take on a familiar old foe. It’s eventually revealed that this Vulture is former mob clean-up man Jimmy Natale, who was subjected to a procedure by his own men to create this new being. It’s a great idea that unfortunately coincided with another similar take on the character, which leads me to…
Spider-Man: Noir (Spider-Man: Noir, vol. 1, #1-4)
Most alternate universe versions of the Vulture aren’t very interesting, but this one is a notable exception. Set in a universe that resembles the gritty, hard-boiled detective films from the 1930s, the Vulture in Spider-Man: Noir is a vicious, bloodthirsty cannibal. In this iteration, Toomes kills and devours Peter’s Uncle Ben, causing Peter to foster an intense hatred for both the Vulture, and the Goblin for ordering the death of his uncle. This visceral, gut-wrenching version of the character is imagined by the writing team of David Hine and Fabrice Sapolsky, and memorably illustrated by Carmine di Giandomenico. The cannibalistic Vulture also made a memorable appearance in the “Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions” video game.
The Vulturions (Web of Spider-Man, vol. 1, #1-3)
Finally, and perhaps strangest, is the Vulturions, a group of Vulture wannabes led by a man named Honcho. Honcho had been a cellmate of Adrian Toomes (does this sound familiar?) and eventually got him to tell him the secrets of his flight harness (does this sound familiar?). He used this knowledge once he got out to create four such costumes, and got several other criminals to help him take down Spider-Man.
When Toomes eventually reads about this, he becomes enraged (does this sound familiar?), designs a new costume, breaks out of prison (does this sound familiar?) and decides to put the pretenders in their place. It caps a mostly forgettable story, and is mostly notable for the visual spectacle of a group of people wearing costumes inspired by this character, but is in just about every other way pretty uninspiring. This story would be repeated, with a new set of kids, in Amazing Spider-Man #674 and #675 in Dan Slott’s “Flying Blind” story.
So there you have it. While certainly not the most popular and visually flashy of Spider-Man’s rogues gallery, the Vulture is nevertheless an important part of Spidey’s history, with a number of important moments in the webslinger’s life. He may typically be an old man, but he’s also proven to be crafty, ruthless, and consistently stronger than he looks, which in concert with his powers from his flight harness, have made him a challenge for Spider-Man on many occasions. In the hands of a good writer and actor, he can and hopefully will be a memorable part of Spider-Man’s film history as well.
Which direction do you think the filmmakers behind “Spider-Man: Homecoming” will take the character?