Spider-Man’s foes have never been the focus of the Spider-Man films in a way that the Joker or Lex Luthor or even Thanos has been in other superhero movies. None of the bad guys in Spider-Man comics has ever come close to the cultural cachet of those villains. This makes a certain amount of sense. The best villains are natural reciprocals of the heroes they battle: The Joker and Batman are two halves of the same coin, cursed to battle forever, and Lex Luthor represents the last vestige of human ingenuity trying to take out the all-powerful alien who reminds us of our own weaknesses. But how do you play off a Queens teenager? Who’s his natural flip side?
It’s tough to find one, and it’s a reason that, throughout a few iterations of Spider-Man films, the villains just don’t stand out like they do in many other superhero movies. That’s no offense to some of the excellent actors who have battled Spidey. But in the end, they’re beating up on a kid. It’s an uphill battle!
Here, a ranking of the 12 villains from the eight Spider-Man films made so far, including this week’s Spider-Man: Far From Home. None of them will ever make you consider rooting against Peter Parker. But a few have their moments. (And spoiler alert: We will be talking about the “surprise” baddie in Far From Home.)
Jamie Foxx, The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Here’s a helpful rule of thumb: If you’re making a superhero movie, don’t have your bad guy dress up all in blue. X-Men: Apocalypse’s En Sabah Nur and Batman & Robin’s Mr. Freeze were utter duds who essentially killed off their respective franchises, and Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of the nerdy Max Dillon similarly highlighted everything that was disastrous about The Amazing Spider-Man 2. You can’t completely blame the Oscar-winning actor, although his cartoonish portrayal of Dillon, who will become the all-powerful Electro, is broad in a way that modern-day superhero movies try to avoid. But like Oscar Isaac and Arnold Schwarzenegger, he’s trapped behind azure makeup and CGI, which make the character seem mostly lifeless, not terrifying.
Topher Grace, Spider-Man 3
Even before Tom Hardy played a muscular but extremely weird Venom in last year’s surprise (and truly bizarre) hit, Topher Grace was an odd fit as the journalist who becomes a symbiote with an alien being, transforming into Spider-Man’s hated enemy. Grace is strangely smug before he turns into Venom, and that smugness makes it difficult to find him too intimidating after he does. Mostly, you’re just thinking, “Wait, am I supposed to be scared of Topher Grace right now?” Grace himself even admitted it was lousy casting. We do not disagree.
Paul Giamatti, The Amazing Spider-Man 2
The idea of Paul Giamatti as a supervillain has undeniable appeal, but his Rhino, who appears at the end of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 mostly to show that Peter Parker is going to continue fighting crime after the loss of his beloved Gwen Stacy, never gets to do much. It’s basically just Giamatti sort of hilariously screaming “I am the Rhino!” in a Russian accent. He was supposed to return as the primary bad guy in The Amazing Spider-Man 3 … but you know how that turned out.
9. Green Goblin
Dane DeHaan, The Amazing Spider-Man 2
There was a period of time where Dane DeHaan seemed destined to be the Next Big Thing. Receiving good reviews in the sleeper hit Chronicle and the flinty drama Lawless, he was cast to play Peter’s old friend Harry Osborn in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. And DeHaan brought his patented tortured sensitivity to the role, giving us a Green Goblin driven by grief and rage, which sets up an emotional showdown between him and Spider-Man. The actor’s livewire intensity — that anxious sensation that he could explode at any moment — was a terrific counterpoint to Andrew Garfield’s more measured Peter Parker, but the film’s too much of a mess to really capitalize on DeHaan’s talent.
8. The Lizard
Rhys Ifans, The Amazing Spider-Man
Ifans may have seemed like an strange choice to play the head villain in a big reboot of a massive superhero franchise — he may have been the only actor less known than Andrew Garfield at the time — but the unfortunate thing is how defanged he is. An adventurous actor with his own fidgety energy, he never gets to unleash much of it in this clunky world-builder; you can see him trying to bring something more to the role, without a lot of success. Also, can we just say that the Lizard is pretty gross? And not in a good way?
7. Dr. Octopus
Kathryn Hahn, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
“My friends actually call me Liv. My enemies call me Doc Ock.” Kathryn Hahn has been on a tear of late between Transparent, Bad Moms, and Private Life, so it was deeply rewarding to discover in the midst of Into the Spider-Verse that she was the voice of a gender-switched Dr. Octopus. It’s a relatively small role — the gist of it is the surprise that the villain is female — but that same authoritative, slightly condescending tone she wielded so well on Parks and Recreation and elsewhere works very well in this delightful rethink of the Spider-Man saga. Maybe she can come back for the sequel?
6. The Sandman
Thomas Haden Church, Spider-Man 3
Church had recently been Oscar-nominated for his wonderful performance in Sideways when he was tapped to play the Sandman, a shape-shifting thief who just wants to help his ailing daughter Penny. The character is unquestionably the most interesting, complex villain in Spider-Man 3, which means of course he gets shuttled off the screen for all the big set pieces. Church has said he’s happy he did the role, but that the character didn’t exactly turn out the way he planned. Still, he acquits himself better than everyone else in the film, and his transformation scene holds up better than you might think.
Jake Gyllenhaal, Spider-Man: Far From Home
For longtime fans of superhero movies, the casting of Jake Gyllenhaal in Far From Home was a cheeky callback to an era, not that long ago, when it looked like the actor might replace Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man 2. That didn’t happen, obviously, but roughly 15 years later he got to be Quentin Beck, who claims to be from a different Earth in the multiverse, just trying to help Tom Holland’s Spider-Man defeat the Elementals. No longer the sweet kid of Moonlight Mile — or the demented kid of Donnie Darko — Gyllenhaal has evolved into a warm, mature presence, and so he’s seemingly the perfect father figure for Spider-Man, who’s in search of one after Tony Stark’s death. Mysterio ends up having a pretty conventional Evil Plan™, but Gyllenhaal gives it a little more juice and humor than it would otherwise have. Like the movie itself, his character is rich with potential but ultimately a tad underwhelming.
Liev Schreiber, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Maybe the most underrated villain in the Marvel canon — he has battled Spider-Man, Daredevil, and the Punisher — he previously appeared in the dreadful Ben Affleck Daredevil movie but is redeemed by the general good spirit of Into the Spider-Verse. (He was also played memorably by Vincent D’Onofrio on Netflix’s Marvel TV series.) Here, Kingpin is given an empathetic backstory — he just wants his family back, from whatever universe he can get them from — and is animated in a way that makes him seem almost impossibly massive. He also does something that no one else on this list can say: He really does kill Spider-Man.
3. Green Goblin
Willem Dafoe, Spider-Man
To prepare Willem Dafoe for his dual role of Norman Osborn and Green Goblin — in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, it was Norman’s son, Harry, who was the villain — director Sam Raimi suggested Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to the Oscar-nominated actor, who took it from there. Unfairly or not, Dafoe has long been typecast in the audience’s mind as a performer who will go out on a limb, reaching for operatic heights in his unhinged characters, and while he certainly goes big in Spider-Man, there’s a playfulness that keeps the portrayal from feeling self-regarding. As the Green Goblin, Dafoe is hurt a little by his cheesy-looking costume — he’s basically a demented Power Ranger — but the movie gave his fans the opportunity to finally see him act exact opposite himself on-screen. He’s done better work, but he’s maybe never been quite this fun.
Michael Keaton, Spider-Man: Homecoming
The recent Michael Keaton renaissance — he was excellent in Birdman and Spotlight — continued with this superb performance, which was all the juicier because of how it represented the actor coming full circle. A few decades before, he was Batman, one of the biggest DC heroes, helping to popularize superhero cinema. In 2017, he was the Vulture, a Spider-Man bad guy. The MCU has notoriously featured some weak villains, but Homecoming was one of the happy exceptions, pitting Tom Holland’s sweet, geeky Peter Parker against Adrian, a hard-working guy who loses his business thanks to Tony Stark. Keaton plays the man as weary and resentful, wanting to take his anger out on the world — and Adrian doesn’t even know yet that his arch-nemesis is dating his daughter. It’s a cliché that the best villains don’t think of themselves as the villains, and Keaton brought that truism to life. In Homecoming, Vulture and Spidey stand toe-to-toe, both relatable and sympathetic in their own way.
1. Dr. Octopus
Alfred Molina, Spider-Man 2
Casting Molina, an actor who can be menacing but also absolutely delightful and charming, was a brilliant coup for a film that needs us to empathize with its bad guy: that this Doc Ock is initially so close to Peter Parker makes his descent into madness and villainy not just scary but sad. You cheer for Molina almost as much as you do Spider-Man … until you suddenly don’t. And what an inventive creation! Our favorite bit is how each of his mechanical arms seems to have their own personality, and it’s not always one that jibes with the others. This is still the best Spider-Man movie … and Doc Ock is right at the center as to why. And also: Never forget that the ever-versatile Molina was rehearsing for Fiddler on the Roof while on set of this film, which led to this immortal moment: