Is the Villain in ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders?

Written for Acculturated

July 13th, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming is full of unexpected, and hilarious, cameos. There is the obligatory Stan Lee cameo, this time as a disgruntled New Yorker shouting at Spider-Man for setting off a car alarm. But the comedian Hannibal Buress also has a role as Peter’s gym teacher. Donald Glover gets screen time as a low-level street criminal. And while Jennifer Connelly never appears on screen, she provides the voice for the Siri-like computer in Spider-Man’s suit. Most curious, however, is that Donald Trump makes an appearance in the movie—or Bernie Sanders, depending on what political viewpoint you bring to the film.

The character in question is the villain of the piece, Adrian Toomes, a man in a mechanical bird suit who uses alien weaponry to turn himself into an arms dealer. He is also an anti-elitist who is himself an unabashed member of the elite. That’s a fairly accurate description of both Trump and Sanders—the bit about being hypocritically anti-elite, not the mechanical bird suit arms dealer, though who knows what CNN is accusing Trump of these days. Spouting revolutionary, anti-establishment sound bites throughout the film—while living in a swanky house in the suburbs—Toomes is the most 2017 film villain of the year so far.

With trust in the government and the elite who run it at an all-time low, it makes sense that the disgruntled sentiments of middle America would start to seep into pop culture. The movie reminds viewers why this feeling of distrust exists in the first place. Toomes turns to a life of crime after the federal government oversteps its bounds and takes away Toomes’ livelihood as a salvager. He had received a contract from New York City to clean up the destruction from the battle in The Avengers, but lost the job after Tony Stark struck a deal with the federal government. The feds swooped in, and Toomes was forced to stop his work, despite the fact he’d already invested in new machinery and trucks for the anticipated heavy lifting. Unable to work because of the government, and with the threat of bankruptcy, Toomes decides to salvage some alien technology from the battle and re-purpose it to create an arsenal of super weapons which he then sells off. His business grows, and soon he’s making a bundle selling the goods to criminals. All the while, he bears a grudge against Tony Stark and the elite class he represents. His resentment is understandable—Stark getting paid to clean up the city he was partially responsible for destroying reeks of cronyism—but Toomes’ response, of course, solves nothing and only results in chaos.

Toomes doesn’t just seek revenge against those he believes wronged him. He strikes a blow against all established order. Unspoken social rules would dictate that he simply accept his lot, perhaps find another job, and certainly never turn to a life of crime. Instead, Toomes disregards the law in his quest to even the score. The decision to forgo standard moral laws—clean language, polite temperament, earnest and civil discussion—is one made by many who share Toomes’ belief that they have been wronged by someone more powerful than them. Just think of the Occupy Wall Street movement, many Trump supporters, and a large portion of liberal college students. Someone, either the government or the patriarchy or traditional views, has “wronged” these groups, and they believe that the only way to solve the problem requires going beyond simple rectification and necessitates tearing it all down. This worldview is as dangerous as it is silly. Just because something is wrong does not mean the entire status quo must be overthrown. As Edmund Burke wrote, “It is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purpose of society.” Burke was referring to the dangers of revolting against a government, but his words are relevant to other structures, such as social codes of conduct, as they, too, help keep society running smoothly. If they work, there is no reason to replace tradition with an unknown quantity that may not achieve the same results, and may actually have an adverse effect on the very individuals the change is meant to help.

There will be debate over whether Homecoming is the best Spider-Man movie. One thing, however, is certain. It’s the most conservative.