Did you know, he’s something of a scientist himself?


Some 20 years after Willem Dafoe jumped on his Goblin glider and soared into Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, the star’s terrifying turn as Norman Osborn and his unhinged alter ego still stands as one of the best superhero movie performances of all time.

And as we mark two decades since the May 2002 release of the seminal superhero flick, it's easy to see how his version of the character stood the test of time. Opposite Tobey Maguire’s goofy Peter Parker, Dafoe brought Spidey’s arch-nemesis to life with just the right balance of chilling and camp. We might have not got “The Night Gwen Stacy Died”, but arguably, we got something even better.

Long before Earth’s Mightiest Heroes were taking on Thanos, or even Tony Stark was facing Obadiah Stane, Sony wasn’t worried about post-credit scenes and Easter eggs connecting to a wider world. The Raimiverse was its own entity that was simply set on entertaining.

Plans to get a Spider-Man movie off the ground had been struggling since the ‘90s, with James Cameron pitching his own take that would’ve supposedly cast Leonardo DiCaprio as the wall-crawling hero, Arnold Schwarzenegger as Doctor Otto Octavius, and Kevin Spacey as Green Goblin.

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While some of the script was salvaged for David Koepp’s version, Raimi saved Doc Ock for Spider-Man 2 and let Green Goblin take centre stage. Like pitting Captain America against Red Skull or Black Panther against Killmonger, Green Goblin was an easy sell for Spidey’s first outing.

Decades ahead of Multiverse of Madness pitching itself as the MCU’s first horror-hero hybrid, Raimi was doing what he does best in the 2002 Spidey movie. Green Goblin’s metallic mask oozed horror – and even though it wouldn’t have looked out of place in Power Rangers, it was a 21st century revamp of his cartoonish (and hardly intimidating) look from the comics.

Green Goblin from Columbia Pictures' Spider-Man: No Way Home.

Although most think of Spider-Man 2's tentacle surgery scene as Raimi's nod to his earlier horror work, the first Spider-Man was nothing if not full of the director's familiar flourishes.

Dafoe’s double duty as Osborn and Green Goblin gives similar vibes to Bruce Campbell as Ash/Evil Ash in Evil Dead 2, and although names like John Malkovich and Jim Carrey were once in the mix for the role, it's hard to imagine someone other than Dafoe squeezing into the green battlesuit.

Decades before Oscar Isaac won plaudits for switching between characters in Moon Knight, Dafoe was a master at flipping between the sometimes sympathetic Norman and the chaos of the Green Goblin. The star himself said that filming Spider-Man’s penthouse scene – where we first got a sense of Osborn losing his sanity – was one of his favourites, and fans were reminded of this dual performance more recently in the smash-hit multiversal adventure Spider-Man: No Way Home.

Two decades after Norm was impaled by his own glider, Dafoe was back in action and once again on fine form. In fact, the 66-year-old only agreed to return to face Tom Holland's webhead if he could do his own stunts. Director Jon Watts might have ditched the classic Goblin costume, but even as an older man in a purple hoodie Norman still cut an imposing figure.

Arriving as a sympathetic and dishevelled Osborn who’d been displaced from his own reality, audiences quickly realised the Green Goblin was still bubbling beneath the surface. More Jekyll and Hyde than his previous appearance, we even saw Osborn try to smash the Goblin mask to free himself from the villain’s tormenting grip.

Holland’s 'Home' trilogy has pulled off great twists before (Liz's dad! Mysterio!), but the now-iconic condo scene – where Gobby smashed the MCU Spidey through various walls and floors and inspired a revolt by his fellow baddies – also included a villainous act Osborn didn't manage with Rosemary Harris' Aunt May in 2002.

Giving fans one of the MCU’s most shocking deaths, Peter Parker's aunt May (Marisa Tomei) kicked the bucket on the wrong end of a pumpkin bomb. Like Osborn’s epic “you chose the way of the hero” speech, Green Goblin delivered an oddly poignant reminder to Peter when he said: “Peter, you're struggling to have everything you want while the world tries to make you choose.”

It’s easy to forget that Holland isn’t even his Peter Parker, and yet, we were watching a true continuation of Raimi's story. Somehow, Willem Dafoe is so good a villain that he managed to be the nemesis of two different Spider-Men from two different realities.

If it wasn’t for Sir Patrick Stewart reprising his role as Charles Xavier for Multiverse of Madness, Dafoe would have the honour of being the longest-running actor in a superhero movie role. Similar to Stewart, his performance as Green Goblin is one that’s hard to beat, leaving big boots to fill. Now that there have been two eras of Dafoe’s Green Goblin (and a failed reboot of sorts with Dane DeHaan during the Andrew Garfield years), there’s a question mark about what’s next for the character.

Willem Dafoe as Norman Osborn in SPIDER-MAN (2002)
Willem Dafoe as Norman Osborn in Spider-Man (2002) Sky

Considering how much of a major player Norman Osborn is in Marvel Comics – and his potential to lead something like the Dark Avengers – we doubt he'll be MIA for long. Fan castings have already championed names like Patrick Wilson and Bryan Cranston to play the MCU’s “true” Norman Osborn, but seeing as Holland’s web-head hasn’t met Harry or Norman yet, we imagine it’s a way off yet.

In recent years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has regularly been called out for its 'villain problem' (aka forgettable, bland antagonists) and by-the-numbers punch-ups in films' final acts. This makes it all the more impressive that Dafoe's version of Green Goblin remains a scene-stealing icon decades after his debut. When the first No Way Home trailers were released, all it took was a simple Dafoe cackle to let us know we were in safe hands.

Overall, Dafoe has transcended the Raimiverse to become one of the MCU’s best villains. And with Sam Raimi himself saying he’s “completely open” to the idea of directing Spider-Man 4, who knows? Maybe we haven't seen the last of Norman, and there’s still some fuel left in the goblin glider yet.

Spider-Man (2002) is streaming on Netflix UK. Spider-Man: No Way Home is available for digital download, plus Blu-ray, DVD and 4K. For more, check out our dedicated Sci-Fi page or our full TV Guide.


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