How 'Spider-Man: Homecoming' Avoids One Of Pop Culture's Most Sexist Tropes
Superhero fiction is a larger than life genre that pits good against evil and often deals in archetypes. That said, it's easy for archetypes to turn into stereotypes, which can be harmful. So I'm always pleased when a superhero movie smashes problematic depictions, as well as bad guys. And in Spider-Man: Homecoming, one major troubling trope that gets twisted relates to the identity of the film's villain. Spoiles ahead! Adrian Toomes, also known as the Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming, is not an overprotective dad, which does a bigger service to his daughter, Liz, as a female character than you might imagine.
For one thing, the fact that the Michael Keaton's Vulture is Liz's dad, and not her captor or some other man in charge, is a major step. When I saw Toomes open the door on the night of the dance, my expectations as an audience member were immediately subverted as, like many other people probably did, I initially assumed that he had found out Spider-Man's identity, and was holding the kid's Homecoming date hostage as a result. But because Liz is his daughter, whom he clearly loves, she's never in danger of being kidnapped or threatened, like so many female characters are.
Then it gets better. Adrian drives Liz and Peter to the dance, and slowly figures out that his daughter is on a date with the not-quite-Avenger he has just sworn to kill. He asks to speak to Peter privately, to give him the dreaded "Dad talk." Liz rolls her eyes. Here we go again, my trope-primed brain thought when I watched this unfold. Toomes is going to tell Peter to stay away from his little girl, and threaten more violence on him if he so much as touches her. Blah blah blah. I've heard it all before. Even my father, who is otherwise a feminist, used to joke around with other dads in the neighborhood about sitting on the porch, chasing away potential suitors with a shotgun. (Joke's on you, pops, I chased them away myself with my own dorky teenage lack of appeal. Ha!)
But that's not what ol' Toomes does. Nope. Instead, he practically encourages the relationship, and gives Peter a chance to live because of his daughter. The Vulture protects his family, while understanding Liz and her choices. A male supervillain who respects women — how nice, and how rare.
It's great to see Tomes not decide Liz's life for her, and it's unfortunate that he's one of the few on-screen dads to act like this. Hollywood, and real life, tend to romanticize overprotective fathers; just look at the dad-daughter relationships in 10 Things I Hate About You, Dirty Dancing, The Little Mermaid — there's a joke about it in Clueless, and it's the entire plot of Taken. But this behavior promotes slut shaming and purity culture, and takes agency away from the young women themselves. It also supports the idea that heterosexual men will never understand sexism unless or until they have a daughter of their own. So, I applaud Homecoming for not taking the easy route, and instead successfully sidestepping a harmful stereotype.
That said, the movie's treatment of female characters isn't all great. None of the women are particularly integral to the plot. They're not prizes to be won, and have lives outside of Peter's orbit, but they rarely get to take action or have arcs. But the fact that Toomes' relationship with Liz stands out so much from the norm is worth highlighting. Homecoming is a needed reminder that the villain doesn't have to kidnap the hero's love interest and threaten to kill or rape her in order to prove that they are evil. The Vulture is a great antagonist and a great character for that reason.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe may not always be gritty and/or realistic, but it does play with audiences and the "rules" of the genre every so often. Spider-Man: Homecoming continues this tradition in a sneakily feminist way, making the film and it's flying antagonist that much better.