High flying, winged heroes and villains have long been a staple of comic books. Starting with Marvel’s Red Raven in 1940 and continuing with classic characters like DC’s Hawkman and Hawkgirl, not to mention Marvel’s feathery mutant Angel, heroes with bird themes and wings have circled the skies of many a comic. But not all of these winged beings have been angelic. Meet the Vulture, a creepy, aged killer that has bedeviled Spider-Man since the beginning of the Wall Crawler’s great career.
The Vulture, a green clad bird-suited crook has been one of Spider-Man’s most persistent and deadliest foe since the villain first appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man #2 (May 1963). Created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Vulture was the second costumed foe Spidey ever faced (the first was the Chameleon, and boy, is he overdue from a film debut!), but now, Vulture is set to take the world by the tail feathers as the avian menace is set to make his big screen introduction in Spider-Man: Homecoming. If that ain’t enough, Vulture is played by comic book film icon Michael Keaton.
But just who is the Vulture? To find that answer we have to stretch back to the dawn of Marvel’s Silver Age. Uncle Ben’s body was still warm (Was that too dark? I kinda feel like that was too dark) when Peter Parker first fought the Vulture. Vulture really isn’t the most powerful evildoer Spidey ever faced, but the old coot has perseverance and has returned countless times to once again take up the classic bird versus arachnid battle for supremacy of the skies. In fact, for many reasons the first Spider-Man Vulture battle is downright historic.
Vulture’s real name is Adrian Toomes and right away, Vulture stands out visually from other comic book nasties. First off, check out Steve Ditko’s off-putting design. Toomes looks like a desiccated, vampiric version of Larry David. Toomes’ origins are rather fascinating as well. Toomes was a brilliant engineer and avionics expert who designed a special harness that not only allowed its wearer the ability to fly and navigate the skies, it also gave its wearer great speed and agility. The unscrupulous business owner that Toomes’ worked for tried to steal Toomes’ work, which naturally enraged him so he wrecked the offices and labs he tirelessly worked in for years. From there, Toomes donned the Vulture garb for the first time and set upon a life of crime.
Of course, this brought Toomes into conflict with the neophyte Spider-Man. This early conflict is so important because it was while he tangling with the Vulture that Parker figured out the gimmick of taking pictures of himself as Spider-Man and selling them to J. Jonah Jameson and the Daily Bugle. In fact, Parker was so preoccupied with his camera, that Vulture defeated Spidey in their first battle. Toomes overpowered Spidey again and trapped him in a water tower, but finally, Spidey used his brains instead of his brawn to defeat Vulture by rigging up a device that would disrupt Toomes’ flight harness.
But that wasn’t the end of the Vulture. Toomes was the second Spider rogue to make a return appearance for a rematch (Amazing Spider-Man #7 by Lee and Ditko 1963) and joined Doctor Octopus’ first Sinister Six (Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1, again by Lee and Ditko 1964). Vulture may look like Montgomery Burns but he has always come very close to taking down his web swinging foe time and time again.
Vulture has become such an iconic villain identity that a number of other villains have tried to steal the mantle from Toomes. Blackie Drago (listen, if your name is Blackie Drago, you’re probably not a good person) was one of Toomes prison confidantes. When Toomes was injured in a prison workshop accident, the bald avian menace thought he was dying. He revealed the hidden location of a Vulture harness and suit to Drago who then revealed that he caused Toomes’ accident. Drago found the suit and escaped and became to second Vulture (Amazing Spider-Man #48 1967 by Lee and John Romita Sr.). Drago kick started his Vulture career quickly and teamed with Kraven the Hunter against Spider-Man, but a fighting mad Toomes also escaped prison and took revenge on Drago proving that he may be old (really, really old), but the OG Vulture ain’t nobody to cluck with.
For a while, Toomes battled cancer. He was just as vicious and cantankerous with the deadly disease. Vulture even sort of beat cancer when he absorbed the artificial life-force from an android of Peter Parker’s mother Mary built by Harry Osborn and Chameleon! (don’t ask). This odd encounter cured Vulture’s deadly ailment and restored Adrian Toomes to full youth and vigor. Fans of the 1990s Spider-Man cartoon will be familiar with this young armored version of the Vulture. (Amazing Spider-Man #388 by David Michelinie and Mark Bagley).
A new Vulture made his debut in Amazing Spider-Man #593 (2009) by Mark Waid and Mike McKone. This Vulture was a mutated vigilante that (ulp) devoured criminals. He would puke digestive fluids on his prey and devour its melting flesh because…ummm…yikes. This Vulture fought Spider-Man a few times before being taken down by the Punisher. Frank Castle may have killed this cannibalistic Vulture, but this very disturbing birdman managed to severely injure one of Punisher’s eyes. How many villains can say they caused traumatic injury to Marvel’s greatest killing machine?
Even with the ultra-violent cannibal eating his way through the New York underworld, Adrian Toomes is still flying high and is a constant menace over the skies of the Big Apple. Marvel might poke fun at Toomes’ advanced age, but despite cancer, constant beatings, and Vulture knockoffs, the avian threat is still going strong and about to fly high in his film debut. Most guys Toomes’ age are mall walking and devouring Denny’s breakfast specials, but not Toomes, a villain that is about to sink his talons into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.