Every great hero needs a great villain.

Unfortunately, not every superhero in MCU has a villain that acts as a great foil to the hero, causing the film to feel shallow. We'd rather see characters question their morals and reasoning behind being a hero. 

However, there is one villain that stands—well, hovers—above the rest, cackling as he wreaks havoc across New York City, just because he can.

Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin is one of Spider-Man’s greatest villains, acting as a perfect thematic foil to Peter Parker both in Sam Rami’s 2002 Spider-Man and in 2021’s Spider-Man: No Way Home. 

So what makes the character of Norman Osborn and the way Dafoe plays him so memorable? Let’s break down how Dafoe’s unique energy as an actor and the range of the character creates an iconic villain that sends chills up our spine with a simple, maniacal laugh. 

Why Does the Green Goblin Work as a Villain? 

Given the character’s quirky and macabre history and the horror-comedy tone that Evil Dead Trilogy director Sam Raimi brought to the Spider-Man franchise, the Green Goblin was the perfect fit for the first film. Before Raimi joined the project, Osborn was the film’s co-villain alongside Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), and James Cameron had a different set of villains in his script. 

Ultimately, Raimi decided that the Green Goblin would allow him to tap into his horror movie instincts, and also allow him to tell a story loaded with thematic meaning about fathers and sons, the influence of technology on daily life, and great power and great responsibility. 

The first Spider-Man puts a heavy emphasis on the rise of the digital age and the exclusion of those unable to keep up with modern technology. The film is set in a technological world with technological problems and a technological villain to contrast Spider-Man’s organic powers, a Spider-Man power that the other two versions of the character do not possess. 

Willem_dafoe_green_goblin_Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin in 'Spider-Man'Credit: Sony Pictures

Osborn is the embodiment of the technological and the material, the pursuit Peter (Tobey Maguire) is after that ultimately leads to the death of Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson). Not only does Osborn reflect the ruthless march of industry, but he also reflects the way money and power can lead to a warped sense of exceptionalism. He is defined by a sense of arrogance and superiority, leading Osborn to have a very cold worldview.

The Green Goblin is Osborn’s unchecked power fantasy, an easy turn for any person with superpowers, something that is often explored through the MCU's heroes. It didn’t take much to convert Norman from his self-pitying rant about “how much [he’s] sacrificed” after the government defunded his research just as it didn't take more than a heartfelt note to cause Wanda Maximoff’s (Elizabeth Olsen) grief and sacrifices to imprison an entire town in her grief fantasy

As the Goblin begins to take hold of Osborn's consciousness, Dafoe's ability to switch characters seamlessly through staging or the subtle change in body language becomes an important detail for the audience and camera to notice. The stiffness and confusion of Osborn's body language are swapped for the animalistic body language of Goblin that parallels Spider-Man's body language. 

Willem_defoe_green_goblin_nwh'Spider-Man: No Way Home'Credit: Sony Pictures Releasing

The Green Goblin is a character who wants to devour the world for his own pleasure, a revenge fantasy for Osborn. 

In No Way Home, the Green Goblin is a manifestation of Peter’s (Tom Holland) selfishness. He is the devil on Peter’s shoulder, taunting him by saying, “Peter, you’re struggling to have everything you want.” Peter learns that abusing his superhero connections to satisfy his desires can have dire consequences that he needs to take responsibility for (a theme in all of the MCU Spider-Man films). It only takes another death and a villain beyond saving to teach Peter that he must take responsibility for his actions. 

This establishes Norman Osborn as a counterpoint to Peter Parker. The Green Goblin is a cautionary tale about taking too much power with too little responsibility. Unlike other villains in the MCU, the Green Goblin doesn’t want to diminish Peter’s power. Instead, he represents that fine line between responsibility and megalomania. 

Dafoe’s performance brings humanity to a character who could easily switch into an over-the-top villain from a 1960s comic book. 

The_best_mcu_villain_'Spider-Man'Credit: Sony Pictures Releasing

Dafoe has unique energy as an actor that balances the beauty of the mainstream and arthouse. The whimsical evil of the Green Goblin is portrayed by Dafoe as an animalistic being hungry for power, a perfect parallel to Spider-Man’s visual language and his morals. 

Osborn and the Green Goblin are often viewed as separate characters, one being devoured by the other. It’s not a stretch to say that the Green Goblin simply brings out Osborn’s worst impulses. Dafoe places this idea in the front and center of his performance, never forgetting to have fun blurring the lines between the two characters. 

In a beautifully tragic scene, Dafoe puts Osborn’s humanity on full display as Osborn crawls over to the Green Goblin’s mask, submitting to the darkness of his persona. The audience begs Osborn to rise and smash the mask as he did in No Way Home, but the fire behind Osborn consumes the last bit of empathy and responsibility the character has to offer the film. When Osborn is in full Green Goblin mode, he uses fatherhood as a weapon and tries to mimic sympathy the best he can through an uncanny face that is lit from below like a classic movie monster.

Green_goblin_broken_mask'Spider-Man: No Way Home'Credit: Sony Pictures Releasing

The Green Goblin is terrifying, powerful, and uses humor to intensify an already tense moment. Nothing is serious to the Goblin, yet he wants everything to be his. From Dafoe’s sickly cackle to the way his lines drip with mocking sarcasm, every villain in the franchise and possibly the entire MCU has been trying to recreate Dafoe’s Green Goblin either by repurposing the villain or by trying to recreate the villain’s themes. 

In the end, no one will ever push Spider-Man to the edge more than the Green Goblin. As much as we would like to see Norman Osborn find himself again, we wouldn’t miss the chaotic evil that is the Green Goblin. Seeing him terrorize New York City and Spider-Man again solidified him as the best MCU villain to date. 

Do you disagree? Let me know who the best MCU villain is in the comments below, and why!

Source: Escapist Magazine