Stop reading if you haven’t seen Spider-Man: No Way Home.
It’s not easy to stand out in a movie overflowing with as many characters and backstories as Spider-Man: No Way Home. And it’s certainly not easy for one villain to shine amid a live-action rogues gallery throng. But both Willem Dafoe and Green Goblin did exactly that in their Spider-Man return. With a performance so good and so evil it elevated a great movie baddie into the rarified air of cinema’s superhero villain pantheon.
Despite three Peter Parkers facing off with some of Spider-Man’s most famous foes, only one enemy pushed Tom Holland’s hero to the edge of darkness. The very place Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield’s Peters had warned him about. A place where rage, anger, and regret makes you forget who you are and what you stand for. A place where no heroes exist.
Green Goblin brought this universe’s Peter to the precipice of that place. He murdered Aunt May, taking Peter’s only remaining family from him. Then, because the “greats” don’t just hurt you, they try to destroy you, Norman Osborn’s evil half also put the blame for May’s death on Peter. Green Goblin called Spider-Man’s morality his greatest weakness. Like all the best villains, Goblin’s words hurt because it was easy for Peter to believe them. Had he simply sent all those villains back to their dimensions to die, his aunt would still be alive. Compassion and empathy for others, the very things that make Spider-Man a hero, made his own loved ones vulnerable. A lesson he already knew to be true, though with far less dire consequences until Goblin arrived in his world.
Goblin’s accusation had a perverse, twisted logic. The kind a grieving person full of guilt can fall prey to. What makes Goblin’s actions and words all the more heinous though, is that by making Spider-Man question his own morality he also made Peter question his Aunt May. She raised him to be a real hero. She was the one who refused to take Doctor Strange’s easy way out. By mocking Peter for her death and calling him weak, Goblin also besmirched everything she stood for. After all that, who could blame Peter for standing on the brink of darkness? Who wouldn’t want to drive the Green Goblin’s own blades deep into his monstrous heart?
That act alone was enough to separate Green Goblin from his other sinister baddies. But he wasn’t done. In the end he stood as every Spider-Man’s toughest opponent. The worthiest foe in a field of worthy enemies. He alone almost bested three Peters and a sorcerer. He alone almost tore the very fabric of the multiverse apart. And even when his own dimension’s Peter again showed him compassion and tried to save him—just as May and Holland’s Peter had earlier—Norman Osborn gave in to his worse side and literally stabbed Peter Parker in the back.
And in doing so, he also did something only the very best villains do: he reminded us why we love every Spider-Man. In the end, Peter sacrificed his own identity and life to save everyone. Only by facing the darkness did Spider-Man serve as a beacon of light—as Spider-Man does in every dimension. The webbed slinger is a hero because, unlike Green Goblin, he doesn’t give in to his worst tendencies. He doesn’t seek power and think morality is a weakness. And he doesn’t only do the right thing when it’s easy. He accepts his great responsibility and all that comes with his great powers. By nearly bringing out the worst in Peter Parker, Green Goblin brought out the best of Spider-Man.
To the surprise of no one, Willem Dafoe acted the hell out of all of it. Just like he did in Sam Rami’s first Spider-Man movie. He once more captured the inherent sadness and unforgivable evil of Green Goblin while owning the screen every second he appeared. Dafoe again made us feel bad for the man Osborn wants to be and the monster he allows himself to become in a performance equal parts heartbreaking, infuriating, and entertaining.
But by giving Dafoe a second chance to show us what made his portrayal so memorable in the first place, and by showing why Green Goblin is Spider-Man’s greatest villain, No Way Home lifted his character out of the crowd of exceptional superhero baddies and placed him in a special tier reserved for a select few. It’s where Darth Vader sits with Ian McKellan’s Magneto. The same level reached by Heath Ledger’s Joker and Josh Brolin’s Thanos.
Maybe you thought Dafoe’s Goblin already belonged there. And maybe your list of what other villains deserve a spot is different than ours. But that’s Dafoe’s performance in No Way Home elevated his Green Goblin to that special place in superhero movie history. Now there’s no debating he belongs among the best at being the worst.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.