Green Goblin is the tragic monster from Willem Dafoe’s film

In the dual roles of Norman Osborn and his maniacal Green Goblin alter ego, Dafoe drew on classic horror to outline his tragic cinematic monster in Marvel’s hit franchise.


By Jacob Trussell Published May 18, 2022

Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a recurring column that explores the artistry behind some of cinema’s greatest roles. In this post, we examine Willem Dafoe’s performance as the 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 frankensteinthe Monster made a splash in a 1969 edition of Silver Surfer entitled The Heir of Frankenstein. This would eventually lead to his own dedicated series in the early 1970s, the appropriately titled Frankenstein’s Monster.

Frankenstein’s Monster wasn’t the only creature from horror history to rear its ugly head at Marvel Comics. In 1972, Bram Stoker’s famous vampire was the star of Dracula’s tomb, notably with the first appearance of everyone’s favorite daywalker, Blade. That same year, werewolf at night he left. This twist on Wolfman would eventually debut another of Marvel’s most beloved heroes, Moon Knight.

Marvel was consciously translating classic horror titans into a more palatable medium for younger audiences. It only makes sense that they would then try to create their own villains influenced by these classic monsters. Just look at Morbius, a popular antagonist turned anti-hero in the Spider-Man comics. It can be argued that he is inspired by both Stoker’s famous bloodsucker and FW Murnau’s. Nosferatu.

Another villain possibly inspired by classic horror monsters? Norman Osborn in the Spiderman Serie. After being exposed to an experimental formula, Osborn develops superhuman abilities beyond his wildest imagination. But he splinters his personality in the process. This leads him down a path of destruction as his insane alter ego, the Green Goblin.

If Norman Osborn’s origin story sounds familiar, it should. That’s because he was unabashedly 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 gave this book to Willem Dafoe while preparing for the dual roles of Norman Osborn and the Green Goblin in the 2002 film Spiderman. His performances throughout the franchise, including the 2021 film. Spider-Man: No Way Home, drips with all the tragedy we’ve come to expect from a classic horror monster like Jekyll and Hyde. Dafoe plays his character as a man torn in two by his own arrogance. He doesn’t know that his life’s work has transformed him into an unspeakable abomination until it’s 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 Mr. Hyde’s version of him begins to tear New York City apart.

We first see Dafoe’s Jekyll and Hyde take action after Goblin murders a group of Oscorp board members in Spiderman. She wakes up in a near-hangover stupor, manic laughter echoing through the halls of her posh Manhattan apartment. Following the sound of her voice, she quickly realizes that it is coming from her reflection in the mirror. As the camera pans from Dafoe to her reflection, her entire physique suddenly changes. He is 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 you do that. But it was fun, and we basically did it in one take… it became a beautiful game, because I had to change those things, and also to get the camera to be in the mirror the right way. I had to dance a lot with the camera.”

As Goblin begins to speak to Osborn in the mirror, Dafoe creates a dynamic physical contrast between the two characters. Once Goblin and Osborn lock eyes, Dafoe’s limp posture changes shape, his back arching as his toothy smile widens. “Me! Your greatest creation,” Goblin growls at Osborn, “brings 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, creeps ever closer to the edge of the mirror. In turn, Dafoe shows Osborn walking away from the mirror, lost in the horror of the moment. This is Dafoe creating a physical representation of how a part of his character’s personality is rapidly consuming the other.

Willem Dafoe is a member of The Wooster Group, an avant-garde theater company that places great importance on physical performances. With a background in physical theater, it’s only natural that Dafoe would be possessive of the way his characters move. Instead of using doubles, he asked to use 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 was not Dafoe’s way of belittling the talent of specialists. It was incredibly important to the process of him creating a consistent physical vocabulary for his character. After all, he plays a masked monster who expresses himself almost exclusively with his body.

sam raimi original Spiderman contains the most overt references to physical transformation in Stevenson’s book. But the tragedy of Dafoe’s dual characters reaches its peak Spider-Man: No Way Home.

Throughout the series, Dafoe’s Norman Osborn has a truly menacing presence. But that’s not the character we meet initially. no way home. Dafoe’s opening scenes show us not an operatic supervillain, but a lost and confused old man. He plays Osborn as if he has dementia, not knowing where he is or how he got there. We know that he will inevitably turn bad, but Dafoe offers no winks to the audience that this is an act of the Goblin. In these opening moments, our hearts ache for Osborn because Dafoe is simply interpreting the truth of each scene. He is a scared man who simply wants to know why everything in his life no longer exists.

Because his character is in no way home starts from a place of compassion and pity, once the Goblin resurfaces more vicious than ever, the transformation Dafoe makes becomes even more powerful. This is because he has created an even greater distinction between man and 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 that reverses the effects of his goblin-making serum, we see the face of a man we haven’t seen since 2002. As clarity returns to Dafoe’s eyes, the The goblin’s anger fades. replaced by Osborn’s palpable dismay. “What have I done?” he murmurs sadly, the gravity of his actions bathing his pained gaze. At that moment the tragedy of Dafoe’s version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde crystallizes. The Green Goblin wasn’t just Spider-Man’s greatest enemy; he too was from Norman Osborn.

Willem Dafoe’s gripping portrayal of Norman Osborn and the Green Goblin is one of the most compelling and complex performances in Marvel’s gallery of cinematic supervillains. Drawing from a place informed by Robert Louis Stevenson’s timeless horror tragedy, he sketched out a character both vile and endearing that made him feel real within a world of fantasy. But his performance as the Goblin is also a showcase for all the acting tricks Dafoe has used to haunt moviegoers for decades, from his wild emotions to his goosebump-raising sneer. It’s almost as if Dafoe knew Spiderman It would introduce him to a whole new generation of fans, so he made sure to show why he is one of the most respected character actors in Hollywood.

Willem Dafoe’s work through the Spiderman The franchise is a spectacular snapshot of everything the actor brings to a performance. He is fiercely committed to bringing to the surface the underlying truths of Norman Osborn as he indulges in joyful chaos as the Green Goblin. He deftly delivers a comic book character that truly bleeds emotion, striking a balance between effective realism and the sheer theatrics of superhero cinema.

Related Topics: Spider-Man, Great Performances

Jacob Trussell is a writer who lives in New York City. His editorial work has appeared on the BBC, NPR, Rue Morgue Magazine, Film School Rejects and One Perfect Shot. He is also the author of ‘The Binge Watcher’s Guide to The Twilight Zone’ (Riverdale Avenue Books). Available to host your next spooky public access show. Find him on Twitter here: @JE_TRUSSELL (he/he)

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