It's time we recognize this.
It may be a casting gag that he's gone from playing Batman to Birdman to the Vulture, but Michael Keaton is actually pretty good in Spider-Man: Homecoming—good enough that you can already find him on many “best superhero movie villain” lists that pop up on the Internet week after week. Just like that, Keaton's been canonized alongside Michelle Pfeiffer, Ian McKellen, Tom Hiddleston, Tom Hardy, and anyone who’s played a Joker without wearing face tattoos. But it’s Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man who towers above them all, and after 15 years, it’s time we stop passing on his application into the hall of fame.
Dafoe’s Goblin represents everything that’s fun about superhero villains, as well as everything that’s great about Raimi’s campy films. But to most people, he represents just how easily a bad costume can tank a performance. So many superhero-movie characters find excuses to ditch their masks—not only to get the actors’ faces out there during the big moments, but because it’s tough to emote under a mask. Dafoe leaves his on, though: It’s a big, bulky metal helmet that obscures his whole face, confining most of his emotion to stiff head movements and what you can see of his mouth in the shadow of the helmet’s static maw. He looks like he should be taking on the Power Rangers.
Robbed of any facial expressions whatsoever, Dafoe’s voice becomes his most powerful, wonderful tool. As the Goblin, it climbs to nasally snarls and hellish cackles, as if he’s trying to make his every line quotable through sheer force of will—and the incredible thing is that he succeeds.
Dafoe's conviction to sneering and screeching like an actual demon creates a unique cadence that burns into the memory like few villains have since Mark Hamill’s Joker. He overflows with a menace that dominates every word in the script, delivering all-caps VILLAIN lines like, “We’ll meet again, Spider-Man,” or “You’ve spun your last web.” He bellows something like, “Jameson, you slime,” and he sells it. The words all sound ridiculous written down here, but from the fiend Dafoe creates, they just feel true.
And when Dafoe gets to be the Goblin without the helmet on, it’s as if all the facial expressions his costume bottled up come pouring out. During a mirror scene where he flips between the Goblin and Norman Osborn, there’s never a question of who’s who. Where Norman quivers in horror, the Goblin glides forward as if stalking his prey. His wide, wild eyes and stretched, evil sneer barely contain an animalistic fury. Dafoe thrusts his jaw forward and shows his teeth, pulling back the skin on his face into an unnatural, monstrous contortion to end the scene with a look you could stamp on a Halloween mask, like he’s lobbying to play the part in green face paint. He probably could.
Instead, he’s stuck with the green helmet, the armor, and the bombs that aren’t technically pumpkins but are nonetheless totally pumpkins. We praise a performance like Keaton’s Vulture because he’s understated and lets his menace bubble beneath the surface as it mingles with just a touch of his natural dad-ish goofiness. Understatement is what we expect these days; we’ve gotten wise to the triviality of superhero movies as they’ve gone from big business to biggest business. We expect them to ground themselves and to wink and nod at what silly stuff remains so that we may feel comfortable when we lower ourselves. That’s what the Goblin costume does—Spider-Man tries to ground the character in military hardware by tying the costume and the glider and the pumpkin bombs to a research program instead of an inexplicable Halloween aesthetic.
But the costume doesn’t wreck Dafoe’s performance—instead it makes it transcendent. The costume is the notion that audiences won’t accept the outlandish and the fantastic without some degree of self-awareness, and Dafoe beats it to death with a huge plate of ham because he won’t let it contain him. There’s an earnestness to his performance, and it’s the same earnestness that makes the Raimi films so good: They dive head-first into the potential camp that comes with the territory of capes and spandex, and they embrace it; they are unafraid to be silly, and so is Dafoe. He sings “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” on his way to drop a tram car full of children into the East River; he frightens elderly Aunt May into the hospital when he blasts through her bedroom wall in the middle of her nightly Lord’s Prayer, screaming, “Finish it!”
Dafoe's Goblin is rarely scary, but he commits so heavily to unabashed villainy that his performance reveals unmistakable glee. He’s perfect for Raimi’s Spider-Man, a film that’s unafraid of romantic schmaltz and delivers its “great power/great responsibility” message without a hint of irony. His performance is a statement of superiority because he fights a lousy attempt to ground his character, and he wins. His performance is the ideal. It’s a monument to that crazy, earnest glee comic book films can have when we refuse to water them down or regard their heroics with a knowing smirk.