In Marvel Comics parlance, Vulture is the Hank Pym of Spider-Man villains. Good old (and we mean OLD) Adrian Toomes is a founding member of the Sinister Six, made his debut all the way back in Amazing Spider-Man #2, and is a bonafide genius inventor. Yet, when it comes to popular Spidey bad guys, Vulture gets absolutely no respect. Peter Parker’s been slinging webs on the big screen for nearly two decades, and despite nearly locking down John Malkovich as the bird of prey for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 4, 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming will mark the first cinematic Vulture appearance ever.
Perhaps this is part of the reason it has been so easy to change the nature and dynamics of the Vulture in various comics and media over the years. The Vulture has never aspired toward the world-conquering status of a Doctor Octopus, or dug his claws into Spider-Man’s heart like the Green Goblin. Sure, he’s been around since the dawn of man, but what exactly is it that makes a good Vulture story work? Or is the villain simply destined for also-ran status alongside the likes of the Sandman, Shocker, and the Rhino?
Here’s a look at the many varieties of The Vulture since his origin in 1962, analyzing the worst and the best takes on the super villain.
15. SUPERIOR SPIDER-MAN
Technically speaking, The Vulture of Superior Spider-Man is the classic Adrian Toomes, but Dan Slott and Ryan Stegman’s interpretation is the most twisted we’ve seen Toomes in recent years. In one of Doc Ock’s first adventures as the Superior Spider-Man, he undercovers an organized crime ring led by The Vulture. Thieving and stealing is far from a surprise, but Otto can’t believe that The Vulture has now resorted to sending children off to do his work.
Simply put, Superior Spider-Man #3 is absolutely one of the creepiest, most malicious Vultures in comics. A Vulture in the sewers lording over street urchins like one of Mephisto’s most debased generals is an effective contrast to Superior Spider-Man’s own grayed morality. Nonetheless, we want nothing to do with this disturbing Vulture again!
14. “CRY VULTURE”
If you don’t know about the late 90s through early 2000s animated series Spider-Man Unlimited, you might want to sit down for a moment. Due to a classic old fashioned comic book licensing rights dilemma, Fox Kids found themselves unable to use the majority of Spider-Man characters as part of a new animated series. So rather than patiently wait, or make a different decision, Fox moved ahead with Spider-Man Unlimited, in which Peter Parker lands on the High Evolutionary’s Counter-Earth and spends 13 episodes in an alternate reality and basically Spider-Man 2099S costume.
On Counter-Earth, it turns out Vulture is actually a repentant hero, but this doesn’t stop him from being the worst. Counter-Vulture is immediately obnoxious, insisting Spider-Man is a “wannabe” like the least articulate junior high bully. Even after helping Spidey free a number of prisoners from sure torture and experimentation, Vulture then turns around to encourage wild mob violence that, of course, Spider-Man has to clean up.
13. BLACKIE DRAGO
In his defense, Blackie Drago can at least claim he’s not the only white guy gangster in 1960s Marvel Comics going by “Blackie.” Highly questionable nickname aside, Drago – whose first name is actually Raniero – is also pretty terrible as The Vulture. In Amazing Spider-Man #48, Drago convinces a dying Adrian Toomes to reveal his secret stash of Vulture wings (because “a man with wings… can do anything!”). Toomes does so from his deathbed, only to have Drago reveal he actually caused Toomes untimely demise and then escaped from prison as the new Vulture.
Drago’s high-flying one-man rampage is cut short after he gets knocked out by Kraven the Hunter while fighting Spider-Man (super-villain team-ups come with so many on the job hazards). Later in Amazing Spider-Man, it’s revealed that Adrian Toomes was so motivated by Drago’s betrayal that he refused to die and returned for his wings and title of the one true Vulture.
12. RED VULTURE (JIMMY NATALE)
The Red Vulture, created by Mark Waid and Mike McKone, is a monstrous twist on the villain. One-time mob henchmen Jimmy Natale is mutated into a human-bird hybrid, with blinding acid spewing from his elongated beak, and a near vampiric need to kill. During their first fight (Amazing Spider-Man #523), Red Vulture does succeed in temporarily impairing Spider-Man’s vision, but his cross between Morlun and Morbius never really delivers a new terrifying villain.
As should happen with all villain spinoffs that don’t quite work, Red Vulture was taken out by The Punisher during the 2011 Greg Rucka run (in Punisher #3, with art from Marco Checchetto). Frank Castle and Red Vulture engage in a brutal, bloody battle above New York, with talons and knives carving out pieces of both brawlers.
11. CLIFTON SHALLOT
The set-up story for poor, pitiful Clifton Shallot is so much better than the actual reveal of Dr. Shallot as The Vulture. Amazing Spider-Man #127 is a murder mystery in which Mary Jane is the only eye witness who can point the finger at The Vulture as the killer. Despite the fact that murder hasn’t been the grand larcenist’s MO, MJ is certain The Vulture’s the culprit, but doesn’t want to risk her life to take that info to the authorities.
This leads to Peter Parker acting like a total jerk to MJ and the eventual reveal that this murderer is an all-new Vulture locked in a bloody cycle of covering his tracks. Clifton Shallot became so enamored with The Vulture that he concocted a serum to give himself the power of flight. Shallot winds up mutated and murderous, and confirms the age old adage to never get high on your own supply.
10. ULTIMATE COMICS VULTURE
Vulture plays a comparatively minor role in the lengthy Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley 2000’s run on Ultimate Spider-Man. The character makes his debut as an ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. agent (and Jason Statham lookalike) in Ultimate Spider-Man #90, as the Blackie Drago of the Ultimate Universe. Honestly, Ultimate Vulture isn’t even that interested in Spider-Man until Peter Parker runs across his plans to assassinate the head of Roxxon oil.
To culminate his descent into outright villainy, The Ultimate Vulture also helps The Green Goblin, Norman Osborn, during the Death of Spider-Man story arc. Befitting of his secondary status in the Ultimate Universe, Vulture is taken out in the death of story arc when Aunt May shoots Electro, a wonderful reminder that comics are the greatest.
9. IRON VULTURE
If you’re into modern goth style, you’re going to love the Disney XD animated Ultimate Spider-Man Vulture. If you’re not, run – don’t walk – away from your TV. Visually, the animated USM Vulture is a bit too Edward Scissor Hands meets Orin from Parks and Recreation, but I’m all for a Spider-Man villain spouting Nietzschean philosophy about the futility of life.
The best version of this Vulture – and the one most likely to influence some aspects of Spider-Man: Homecoming – comes during Spider-Man’s team-ups with The Web Warriors. Doctor Octopus and Hydra outfit a (largely) brainwashed Vulture into wearing their Iron Vulture armor and fighting the Spider-Men. It’s still not enough to actually get The Vulture a win (it rarely is), but he sure looks good doing it.
8. MICHAEL KEATON
There are wonderful odds that when all’s said and done, the Spider-Man: Homecoming villain goes down as one of the all-time Spider-Man movie greats. Michael Keaton’s recent turn as Birdman has launched a full on renaissance for the Burton Batman, finally returning to superhero cinema as a vicious, high-tech Adrian Toomes (from one Avian psychosis to another).
Obviously at this early stage, Keaton’s Vulture is only accessible through trailers and speculation. To date, the new Vulture has menacingly threatened everyone Spider-Man loves, and exhibited the most high-tech Vulture suit we’ve seen in some time. Whereas the classic Vulture look is an open-faced cloth look, Keaton’s Vulture is a full-on Iron Man enthusiast (or, more likely, rival) with armor reminiscent of The Beetle.
The Vulturions seem like an absurdly silly idea that’s actually a lot of fun in practice. Much like Blackie Drago’s turn as Vulture, The Vulturions arise after Vulture shows his mechanical suit design to his cellmate in prison. In Louise Simonson and Greg LaRocque’s Web of Spider-Man #1, the inmate memorizes the design (like you do) and then shares flying suits with the all-new Vulturions: Gripes, Pigeon, and Sugar-Face.
True to form, when Adrian Toomes finds out his designs and branding are being used without him, he furiously attacks The Vulturions. Toomes likely would have killed The Vulture fan club without the intervention of Spider-Man, who defeats all players and ties them up with a bow for local law enforcement.
6. SPIDER-MAN NOIR
Spider-Man Noir‘s disturbing take on Vulture as a ravenous, half-human cannibal is the best scary Vulture out there, as fully displayed in the video game Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions. A fair number of creative teams have attempted to pull the inherent violence out of the character, but few have illustrated it quite so memorably. If you haven’t desperately smashed a controller trying to keep Noir Vulture’s dagger-teeth out of your face, you may never understand the menace of this design.
Appropriately, Noir Vulture is a lackey of Norman Osborn, even here serving the whims of others as a sort of pet monster. Nonetheless, this is The Vulture most deserving of striking fear into the hearts of men and women, and perhaps also the most satisfying to punch right in the mouth.
5. 90’S ANIMATED SERIES
The 1990’s Spider-Man Animated Series introduces The Vulture during the final chapters of the long-running season two story arc “Neogenic Nightmare,” in which Spider-Man desperately seeks a cure for his mutation into a man-spider. Like most villains on the show, Vulture is a greatest hits collection of elements that have worked across his comic book appearances. As a result, Adrian Toomes is the founder of Toomes Aerodymanic, and under threat of corporate takeover from Norman Osborn.
To avoid losing his life’s work to Osborn, Toomes mirrors the approach of Amazing Spider-Man #386 to #388, channeling the tablet of life and time into a vampiric youth-stealing weapon. Vulture is successful in stealing Spider-Man’s youth, leading to both the excellent sequences of geriatric Spider-Man and Vulture’s ultimate transformation into a man-vulture-spider!
Vulture is one of the earliest classic Spider-villain concepts introduced in Spider-Gwen. Under the swirling kaleidoscope of Robbi Rodriguez’s pen, Vulture helps set the high-energy tone of Spider-Gwen and the reimagined Earth-65 Marvel Universe. Spider-Gwen‘s Vulture is an effective blend of bestial and human, initially arriving to battle Gwen with a swarm of hungry vultures at his side. Admittedly, the best parts of Earth-65 Vulture come from Spider-Gwen’s amazing/horrible bird-puns used to draw him out into the open.
Even after Vulture nearly kills Spider-Gwen, his apparent “success” is squashed by a furious Matt Murdock who promises Toomes the Kingpin wants Spider-Gwen for himself. This leads to Vulture attempting to capture Spider-Gwen (conveniently by interrogating Captain Stacy as to her whereabouts), and ultimately his arrest.
3. ADRIAN TOOMES (ORIGINAL)
Admittedly, the original Vulture, Adrian Toomes, gets off to a strong start in his debut issue by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee. In Amazing Spider-Man #2, Vulture is seen as an unstoppable threat, robbing banks with impunity and trapping Spider-Man in a water tower during their first battle. Plus, clever Adrian Toomes has one of the best sequences in early 60s Ditko, sneaking up through the sewers to intercept a jewelry transport after literally throwing the police a note that he’d do just such a thing!
Toomes has had an inconsistent road since then. Some of our favorites include Roger Stern’s takes on the character during his 1980s tenure on Spidey, including Vulture joining a nursing home with Aunt May and Nathan Lubensky. More recently, creators like Darwyn Cooke and Peter David have delivered high quality Vulture stories, such as Vulture’s assault on Peter Parker’s ex, Deb Whitman, after Peter revealed his identity to the world in Civil War. Through it all Toomes has remained a villain consumed by his jealousy, desperate for credit he feels he has earned.
2. IDENTITY DISC
*Spoilers for Identity Disc Follow*
As a general rule of thumb, The Vulture is never the most threatening figure in the room. Whether it’s Adrian and Spider-Man, or Adrian and the Sinister Six, Vulture typically feels like a tag-along, and an inevitable notch in the loss column. When Vulture teams up with the likes of Deadpool, Bullseye, and Juggernaut in Identity Disc, you’d be forgiven for overlooking the winged menace once again. In fact, that’s what he’s counting on.
Robert Rodi’s and John Higgin’s 2004 ode to The Usual Suspects casts Adrian Toomes as the Marvel Universe Keyser Soze, which is simply one of the most brilliant uses of the unassuming villain in Marvel history. In addition to diabolical plotting, Identity Disc also expands Vulture’s familial narrative, as he works to protect his daughter’s identity (spoiler: she’s an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.!).
1. SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN (ANIMATED)
There’s a fantastic chance this top spot is just an excuse to rave about the 2008 to 2009 animated series Spectacular Spider-Man, and we’re more than ok with that. Spectacular Spider-Man showcased an amazing ability to reinterpret Spider-Man’s rogue’s gallery, and The Vulture – here voiced by Robert Englund – proved no exception to the rule. Spectacular‘s Vulture borrows from the 90s animated series intro with Adrian Toomes furious at Norman Osborn for stealing his technology, but couples that rage with a sleek red and black costume equipped with a laser turret.
Spectacular Spider-Man‘s Vulture is so great, he’s featured as the first true super villain of the series in season one, episode one “Survival of the Fittest.” The essence of The Vulture is distilled down to jealousy over his genius being misappropriated and under-credited, followed by a fixation on squashing Spider-Man. The Vulture returns in “Group Therapy,” this time alongside the Sinister Six, to take on Spider-Man in his alien symbiote costume.
Which version of The Vulture resonates most with you? Let us know!
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