Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a recurring column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we examine Willem Dafoe’s performance as Green Goblin in the Spider-Man franchise.
Here’s some comic book history you may have forgotten: Frankenstein’s Monster is technically a Marvel supervillain. Introduced in a 1953 Stan Lee comic called Your Name Is Frankenstein, the Monster went on to make a splash in a 1969 issue of Silver Surfer titled The Heir of Frankenstein. This would eventually give way to his own dedicated series in the early 1970s, the appropriately titled The Monster of Frankenstein.
Frankenstein’s Monster wasn’t the only creature from horror history to rear its ugly head in Marvel Comics. In 1972, Bram Stoker’s famous vampire was the star of The Tomb of Dracula, notably featuring the first appearance of everyone’s favorite daywalker, Blade. That same year, Werewolf by Night came out. This spin on the Wolfman would eventually debut another one of Marvel’s most beloved heroes, Moon Knight.
Marvel was consciously translating classic titans of terror into a medium more palatable to younger audiences. It only makes sense they would then try their hand at creating their own villains influenced by these classic monsters. Just look at Morbius, a popular antagonist turned antihero in the Spider-Man comics. You can argue that he’s inspired by both Stoker’s famous bloodsucker and F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu.
Another villain arguably inspired by classic horror monsters? Norman Osborn in the Spider-Man series. After being exposed to an experimental formula, Osborn develops superhuman abilities beyond his wildest imagination. But it splinters his personality in the process. This leads him down a path of destruction as his demented alter ego, Green Goblin.
If Norman Osborn’s origin story sounds familiar, it should. That’s because it was brazenly influenced by Robert Louis Stevenson’s seminal horror tragedy, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
It should come as no surprise that horror director Sam Raimi would give this book to Willem Dafoe as he prepared for the dual roles of Norman Osborn and Green Goblin in the 2002 film Spider-Man. His performances across the franchise, including the 2021 film Spider-Man: No Way Home, drip with all the tragedy we expect from a classic horror monster like Jekyll and Hyde. Dafoe plays his character as a man torn in two by his own hubris. He’s unaware his life’s work has transformed him into an unspeakable abomination until it’s far too late. But even as Osborn’s life descends into madness, Dafoe never loses sight of the humanity within his character. This allows the audience to sympathize with Dafoe’s Osborn, even as his version of Mr. Hyde begins tearing New York City apart.
We first see Dafoe’s Jekyll and Hyde act after the Goblin murders a group of Oscorp board members in Spider-Man. He awakens in an almost hungover stupor, a maniacal cackle echoing through the halls of his posh Manhattan apartment. Following the sound of the voice, he quickly realizes it’s coming from his reflection in the mirror. When the camera pans from Dafoe to his reflection, his entire physicality suddenly shifts. He’s actively showing the audience his transformation from man to monster.
As Dafoe mentioned in a GQ interview about the scene, “Sam Raimi gave me ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ to read before I did that. But it was fun, and we basically did it in one take… it became a beautiful game, because I had to switch those things, and also for the camera to be in the mirror the correct way. I had to dance with the camera a lot.”
When the Goblin begins speaking to Osborn in the mirror, Dafoe creates a dynamic physical contrast between the two characters. Once the Goblin and Osborn lock eyes, Dafoe’s inert posture changes shape, his back curving as his toothy smile widens. “Me! Your greatest creation,” the Goblin snarls at Osborn, “Bringing you what you’ve always wanted: power beyond your wildest dreams, and it’s only the beginning.” As Dafoe’s Goblin grows larger than life, he creeps ever closer to the mirror’s edge. In turn, Dafoe shows Osborn shrinking away from the mirror, lost in the horror of the moment. This is Dafoe creating a physical representation of how one part of his character’s personality is quickly consuming the other.
Willem Dafoe is a member of The Wooster Group, an avant-garde theater troupe that puts a high premium on physical performances. With a background in physical theatre, it’s natural Dafoe was possessive of how his characters move. Instead of using stunt performers, he asked to be in his Goblin costume as much as possible. What this allows him to do is carry over the physicality established in his mirror scene into the rest of the film. This wasn’t Dafoe’s way of disparaging the talents of stunt people. It was just incredibly important to his process he create a consistent physical vocabulary for his character. After all, he’s playing a masked monster who expresses himself almost exclusively with his body.
Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man contains the most overt references to the physical transformation in Stevenson’s book. But the tragedy of Dafoe’s dual characters crests in Spider-Man: No Way Home.
Throughout the series, Dafoe’s Norman Osborn has a truly menacing presence. But that’s not the character we initially meet in No Way Home. Dafoe’s first scenes show us not an operatic supervillain, but a lost and confused old man. He plays Osborn like he’s suffering from dementia, unsure of where he is or how he got there. We know he’ll inevitably break bad, but Dafoe offers no winks to the audience that this is an act by the Goblin. In these opening moments, our hearts ache for Osborn because Dafoe is simply playing the truth of each scene. He’s a scared man who simply wants to know why everything in his life doesn’t exist anymore.
Because his character arc in No Way Home starts from a place of compassion and pity, once the Goblin reemerges more vicious than ever, the transformation Dafoe makes becomes all the more powerful. This is because he’s created an even greater distinction between the man and the monster; a contrast that becomes tragically clear in Dafoe’s final moments on screen.
After Peter Parker spares Osborn’s life and injects him with a cure reversing the effects of his Goblin-making serum, we see the face of a man we haven’t really seen since 2002. As clarity returns to Dafoe’s eyes, the Goblin’s anger vanishes, replaced with Osborn’s palpable dismay. “What have I done,” he murmurs mournfully, the gravity of his actions washing over his sorrowful gaze. In this moment, the tragedy of Dafoe’s version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde crystallizes. Green Goblin wasn’t just Spider-Man’s greatest nemesis; he was Norman Osborn’s as well.
Willem Dafoe’s gripping portrayal of Norman Osborn and Green Goblin is one of the most interesting and complex performances in Marvel’s rogues’ gallery of cinematic supervillains. Starting from a place informed by Robert Louis Stevenson’s timeless horror tragedy, he sketched out a character both vile and sympathetic that he made feel real within a fantasy world. But his performance as the Goblin is also a showcase for every actorly trick Dafoe has used to haunt moviegoers for decades, from his wild-eyed emotions to his skin-crawling sneer. It’s almost as if Dafoe knew Spider-Man would introduce him to a whole new generation of fans, so he made sure to demonstrate why he’s one of the most respected character actors in Hollywood.
Willem Dafoe’s work across the Spider-Man franchise is a spectacular snapshot of everything the actor brings to a performance. He’s fiercely committed to surfacing the underlying truths of Norman Osborn while indulging in gleeful chaos as the Green Goblin. He handily delivers a comic book character that truly bleeds emotion, striking a balance between effective realism and the high theatricality of superhero cinema.