Home Feature news Willem Dafoe is and always was the best Spider-Man movie villain

Willem Dafoe is and always was the best Spider-Man movie villain

Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock got the most fulfilling arc. Jamie Foxx redeemed his maligned take on Electro. But Willem Dafoe? In Spider-Man: No Way Home, he pretty much repeated what he did almost 20 years ago. And it was perfect.

Almost 20 years ago, the moviegoing world got its first real taste of what a big, serious take on Marvel Comics movies could feel like. Director Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was and still is a revelation for the genre, packed with thrills and seat-edging action that feels like it’s ripped directly from the printed page.

Central to that success was Dafoe’s Green Goblin. He owned every single one of his scenes as he charted Norman Osborn’s experimental serum-fueled descent into madness. It’s the voice. And the laugh. He sounds like the comic book villain you hear in your head when you’re reading speech bubbles off the page.

Just revisit this classic scene of Goblin’s big coming-out party moment in Spider-Man. You don’t even have to watch; just listen. The strained throatiness that makes every line read sound like a malevolent cackle is bone-chilling. Even behind that mask and thick armored flight suit, you can feel Dafoe inhabiting the exaggerated proportions of a broken genius driven mad by his own power.

Maguire, a more-than-serviceable Spider-Man himself who mostly just lacked the playful energy of his comic book counterpart, shined brightly next to the foil Dafoe gave him in Osborn. Comic book movies depend just as much on their villains as they do on their heroes, if not more. Most villains are one-and-done propositions who are there to wreak havoc before ultimately being defeated. So the pressure is on to sell that villainy.

It’s not clear until you see the full story unfold, but No Way Home pins so much of its emotional journey on Dafoe and his portrayal of Osborn. He’s the lens through which Tom Holland’s Peter Parker comes to understand that being hero mean not being choosy about who you save. He’s the chaos agent behind Peter’s greatest loss, and his continued existence tests the absolute limits of Spider-Man’s commitment to wielding his “great power” responsibly.

It’s a lot for any one actor to take on, especially when the character in question has been gone for two decades and has no real in-universe to any of the people in his orbit. Dafoe’s Osborn isn’t just a man out of time; he’s in another universe entirely. But the same serum that broke him all those years ago is still powerfully coursing through his veins, and the derangement it creates gives him a potent tool to hang his performance on.


Credit: Moviestore/Shutterstock

So once again, Dafoe goes full Goblin. When Peter’s “tingle” (aka Spidey Sense) outs Norman’s true intentions for the first time, he shows us all what we’ve been missing. His sneering cackle isn’t just a sound; it’s a full-on physical performance. Dafoe’s face transforms with Grinch-ian proportions as the monster within emerges and a thin, malevolent grin that’s instantly more menacing than any mask he’s ever worn spreads across his face.

That cackle is unmistakable, just trademark Dafoe. It’s like he channels the whole history of exaggerated villainy into a single moment. There are less convincing cartoon baddies. He nailed it already way back when in Spider-Man, and No Way Home proved that the man has still got it.

There’s a reason people still go wild in theaters almost 20 years later when Dafoe trots out the Easter egg-y line “You know, I’m something of a scientist myself.” That evil grin, that nefarious cackle. This Goblin made such a huge mark in 2002 that his unlikely appearance in a 2021 movie fully stands out, even with two other famous Spider-Men and an entire rogue’s gallery of bad guys all returning.

So much of the latest Spider-Man feels like it was built to provide closure. Not just for Maguire’s and Andrew Garfield’s respective Spideys, but also for the villains they fight to save. No Way Home could easily be our last dance with most of this crew simply because everyone who was created outside the current timeline finally has a proper ending. I sure hope not, though.

The return of Green Goblin isn’t just a reminder that, hey, Willem Dafoe is really good at this. He also gave Holland-Spidey something he hasn’t yet found in the MCU: a true nemesis. We don’t know what’s next for our latest Spider-Man; all we can do is hope Holland’s dance with the multiverse is far from over.

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