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Citizen Goblin: paying respect to Marvel’s first truly great on-screen villain

Dafoe’s Green Goblin is a masterclass in super villainy

In celebration of everyone’s favorite web-head, July is Spectacular Spider-Month at AiPT! We have a series of amazing articles in store for the month. Movies, television, gaming, and of course comics will all be covered with great responsibility as we honor one of comics’ greatest heroes. 

This week, Dan McMahon of the Supersons podcast, joins AiPT! to dish on one of his all time favorite on-screen villains, the inimitable Willem Dafoe as Green Goblin in Raimi’s Spider-Man: 

Growing up, I had a cornucopia of action figures from X-Men to Star Wars to Batman. One that sticks out the most is Green Goblin from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, played by Willem Dafoe. I remember specifically how excited I was when I finally found the Green Goblin. For awhile all I had was the toy of Norman Osborn which was just a Willem Dafoe action figure. I didn’t think at 26 that I would still be thinking about just how cool that Green Goblin was.

It’s almost been 18 years and I am still thinking about that first Spider-Man movie. Spider-Man was the first of an endless line of superhero movies in my life; I would go so far as to call it the Citizen Kane of superhero films for me. The movie introduced a villain that felt so much like the comic book villain that I loved to read so much. Super villains were so in your face, loud, and spectacular. They were bigger than life and I think the Green Goblin is the first time I really felt like I saw that on the big screen. Everything about him in the film screams comic book. Even today, amidst the MCU and the DCEU and all the other comic book adaptations hitting screens, both big and small, I think that Green Goblin holds up as one of the greatest villain performances of all time. Why? Let’s see:

A killer look is a must have if you want your super villain to stick in the mind’s of your audience. How can you sell merchandise if it isn’t visually stunning? Even though the suit itself has more of an industrial look to it, it doesn’t compromise it’s comic book roots. The suit itself is comprised of two pieces: the exoskeleton coupled with the glider and the mask that Norman added himself. The exoskeleton is just that; a protective outer shell that can withstand great damage and high altitudes in order to fly with the glider. The second and more visually striking piece is that masterpiece of a mask. I’ve seen some people online call it a motorcycle helmet which actually isn’t so much of an insult, as it does have to protect the rider’s head. The mask proved that the movie isn’t afraid to deviate from the source material as Norman replaced the classic helmet with an intensively detailed new take on it. It felt like it improved the design to look like something that could exist in the real world without losing it’s own charm.

Credit: Sony

One of the most striking features of the mask are the long, pointed goblin ears, which beautifully accentuate the sides of the mask. I don’t believe they have any practical reason to be there other than the fact that they are amazing. The elongated tip on the back of the helmet is a more practical allusion to Green Goblin’s weird, long potato sack hat from the comics, while also providing some aerodynamic purpose. Something else about this mask that makes it one of the best designs in superhero films: the eyes’ ability to open. The mask itself has no movement or expressions but when the glass opens to reveal Norman’s eyes, it only gives more weight to how incredible Willem Dafoe’s performance as the villain was.

Not many actors can be scary without special effects, but Willem sells every bit of his evil with his performance. One of my favorite parts of his performance is his ability to portray emotions through only his eyes, as previously mentioned. A scene where this is on full display is one of the most awkward thanksgiving scenes of all time; Norman shows up covered in sweat and twitching in the elevator. It’s clear that Norman has been lost to the Goblin with these simple mannerisms and once again through those eyes rolling from the back of his head. From how he looks at Mary Jane to his daggers when he glares at Aunt May who stops him from eating with his hands, the subtle eyes are windows into what he’s become. When he spots the blood on Peter’s arm, you can see the shock in his eyes as the metaphorical lightbulb lights up above his head.

You know, I’m something of a scientist myself | Credit: Sony

While a lot of the brilliance of Dafoe’s performance is in the subtle mannerisms and facial cues, there is a lot of bombastic physicality to his performance as well. Willem makes us believe Norman is one of the good guys, until he becomes anything but that. After the humbled and humorous introduction of “I’m something of a scientist myself”, we see the slide into the hallowed halls of villainy and his true nature brought upon by the serum. When Norman first uses the superhuman formula, the convulsing that Willem performs makes you believe he’s in actual physical pain. It exemplifies that something is terribly wrong inside him. At one point, the Goblin is “speaking” to him through the mask about how they must punish Spider-Man. Dafoe gets on his hands and knees to grovel to the mask’s whim, which is where we see the full transformation into the monster. I can only bring myself to compare the performance into the Green Goblin to that of Al Pacino’s transformation into the Don in The Godfather, as they both start out with the best of intentions before turning into monsters, hungry for power with blood stained hands.

When you think of super villains in comics or other media, two things that often come to mind are their nemesis and their speeches. What kind of super villain doesn’t give rousing speeches to their arch nemesis? It’s pretty much villainy 101. The dynamics and dialogue between Green Goblin and Spider-Man in the film outmatch any back and forth we’ve seen from similar relationships. Goblin doesn’t just start out thirsting for Spider-Man’s blood, he actually offers him to join him. The scene on the rooftop gives me the airs of Darth Vader and Luke in the bowels of Cloud City. The masked super-villain standing over our hero, offering them their hand to work together as father and son. Well pseudo-father and son in our case. Goblin tells Spidey that the people love a hero but what they love more is to see a hero fail. Goblin could have killed him while he was knocked out but here he is, offering his hand. I will die on the hill that there has never been a dynamic like the one displayed in this scene in any other superhero film. As the Goblin falls into his own madness, Spider-Man rises to the ranks of hero. The shift in their structure is a hero’s journey that would have felt flimsy if not for every word, movement, and glance from Willem Dafoe as his greatest enemy.

The famous rooftop scene | Credit: Sony

Even now, as I see one superhero movie after the next, the biggest threats, like Thanos, fall flat against Willem Dafoe’s performance as the Green Goblin. With all of the CGI, we don’t get to look into the true eyes like we did with Dafoe. In my quietest moments, I cannot help but think about how the Green Goblin set the stage for every villain in a Marvel film after. No one can hold a pumpkin bomb to him in my heart and I hope you too can accept the truth that the Green Goblin will always live on as the GOAT of super villains on screen.

Thank you for joining AiPT! during Spectacular Spider-Month! Be sure to check back in every day for more Spider-Man content including interviews, features, opinions, and more!

Credit: Marvel

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