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Flying the Unfriendly Skies

With all kinds of news about returning Spidey villains in the upcoming new Spider-Man film, it seems like the perfect time to dust off this entry from a few years back about one of my favorite rogues: The Vulture!

It’s been a while since we’ve had a really good Spider-Man movie (if you don’t count CIVIL WAR, which I don’t – not because it isn’t great, which it is, and certainly has maybe one of the best Spider-Man fight scenes ever put to film – but you could lift Spidey right out of that movie and still pretty much have the same movie), so I’m eagerly awaiting the release of Marvel Studios’ Spider-Man: Homecoming next week. And while I liked Tom Hollanbd’s portrayal of Peter Parker in CW just fine, and am also very cool with the notion of adding RDJ’s Tony Stark to make this a teamup movie, I have to admit, what I’m really excited about this time is the addition of the legendary Michael Keaton as the film’s Big Bad: Adrian Toombs, a.k.a. The Vulture. The Vulture is one of my favorites, but he’s never really gotten his due outside the pages of the comics, with only a few television or merchandising appearances over the years.

One of the earliest of Spider-Man’s costumed rogues (only the Chameleon can claim an earlier debut), the Vulture first appeared over five decades ago, all the way back in May of 1963, in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man #2, in “Duel to the Death with the Vulture!”, written by Stan Lee and illustrated by Steve Ditko.

In only his third outing with the character, Steve Ditko is already coming into his own on Spider-Man – just look at that splash page, with the midair confrontation between Spidey and the Vulture. The distended anatomy, the dynamic poses – it’s great stuff.

As was not uncommon in those days, there’s no origin for the Vulture. Our story opens with Vulchy already on a crime spree, and it’s right out there on Front Street. He’s just an old dude in a flying suit.

The most backstory we get is this fleeting thought from the Vulture as he passes by a searching Spider-Man:

And even for Peter Parker, his interest in catching the Vulture was a little less altruistic and a little more commercial:

After a first encounter with the Vulture goes south due to Spider-Man’s inexperience and overconfidence, Spidey retools his gear and gets to work on a doohickey to interfere with the magnetic forces that the Vulture’s suit generates to allow him to fly.

This, of course, was before Spidey figured out the tried-and-true method of stopping the Vulture: leaping on his back and ripping out his suit’s powerpack at the shoulder blades, a trick Spidey did so often over the years that even as a kid I wondered why Vulture didn’t correct this obvious design flaw (which, admittedly, he finally did, but not until the mid-‘80s at least).

Anyway, sure enough, Spidey’s magno-gadget works, and the Vulture is soon spiraling to the streets below, grounded.

For a creepy-looking old man, the Vulture must have some incredible charisma, because it seems like every single time he’s in jail, he sweet-talks the warden into letting him work in the machine shop, and with in a matter of hours he’s made new wings out of freaking trash bags and coat hangers and is flying over the wall, as here in Amazing Spider-Man #7.

Don’t believe me? Here he is doing it again about two decades later:

More than most villains, the Vulture seemed to always have a problem with other crooks trying to steal his gimmick, whether it was guys like his former cellmate Blackie Drago…

…or young upstart punks the Vulturians:

Vulch needs to look into a good copyright lawyer.

My favorite Vulture story came in the 1990s in the pages of J.M. DeMatteis and Sal Buscema’s outstanding Spectacular Spider-Man run, in “Funeral Arrangements,” in which a dying Vulture (riddled with cancer from too many years of wearing his flightsuit) is looking to settle his affairs, both by murdering those he believed had wronged him and seeking forgiveness from Spider-Man’s Aunt May for the accidental death of her fiancé Nathan Lubensky at his hands years prior.

It’s the character at his creepiest and at the same time his most human.

I don’t expect Keaton’s Vulture to follow any of these portrayals too closely, to be honest, but with an actor of his caliber in the role, we finally just might get a Willem DaFoe- or Alfred Molina-level Spidey-villain once more. Here’s hoping.

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