In honor of the release of Spider-Man: Far from Home Conrad Leibel and Michael Vecchio journey through the Spider-verse to reflect on the Web-Slinger’s Rogues Gallery and their appearances throughout film, comics, and pop culture
Conrad: With the release of Spider-Man: Far From Home, I wanted to write about Spidey’s rogues gallery. Marvel Studio’s reboot of the franchise will now include two villains who had been included in neither The Amazing Spiderman nor Sam Raimi’s original trilogy. As with many other long-standing comic series,’ there are both elaborate and rewarding villain story arcs along with a helping of utter trash. The Spider-Man comics have been in print since the silver-age of comics in August 1962 for Amazing Fantasy #15. While it is hard to imagine the character being path-breaking among the likes of Batman, Superman and the earlier Captain America, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko broke a few traditional comic rules in creating his character.
For the first time, a teenager was no longer the sidekick but the main hero of his own story. Stan Lee was initially laughed off by his superior when he proposed the idea of a radioactive Spider-Man as his central idea for a comic (see Stan Lee’s graphic memoir Amazing Fantastic Incredible Stan Lee). Now with three separate film franchises and over 50 years in print, the Spider-Man universe is widely expanded with Spider-Man: Homecoming introducing the character and his stories to the MCU. This article is a reflection of both the glories and the blunders of a life-time spent webbing about New York.
Michael: Indeed without villains, there is obviously little reason for any heroes to exist or fight. Although the list of Spider-Man’s foes is lengthy, only a handful have made the most lasting impressions on both Spidey himself and readers and viewers through all these years. In this piece, we hope to touch upon just a few of the most prominent figures that have challenged our hero and given us many, many moments of entertainment.
Conrad: The first villain we should really talk about is Mysterio. As the featured baddie of Spider-Man: Far From Home, he is the one fans are most eager to learn about. He first appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man #13 in 1964 as a failed actor who learned to use his knowledge of acting and special effects to dupe the police into believing Spider-Man robbed the Midtown Museum. In the 1967 animated TV series, Mysterio concocts a (foiled) plot to reveal Spider-Man’s identity to J. Jonah Jameson and terrifies a small fishing village into believing the Flying Dutchman stalk its shores. The character’ primary knacks are for trickery and illusion – similar to Loki. The design by Steve Ditko is one of my favorites among Spider-Man villains -with the eyes on Mysterio’s cloak likening the character to the anthropophagi of the medieval travels of John Mandeville.
This design is retained in Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Far From Home, where he is played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Fans are undoubtedly interested to know whether Mysterio is, as he claims in the trailer, seeking Spider-Man’s help in putting an end to the threat of the Elementals or if this is yet another of the master trickster’s devious plots. Keen fans of the Sam Raimi trilogy are aware that Bruce Campbell, famous for the Evil Dead series, was slated to play the character in Raimi’s unfinished drafts for a fourth Tobey Maguire lead Spider-Man film. Mysterio remains one of the most interesting characters in the Spider-Man universe for his knack to create plots out of thin air and dupe the web-slinger into situations of mistaken identity, framed crimes, superstitious hoaxes and a general penchant for cunning that brings out some of the best Spider-Man plots.
THE GREEN GOBLIN
Michael: Despite a rich catalog of villains, there can only be one archenemy for everyone’s favorite web-slinger; none other than the maniacal (yet endlessly entertaining) Green Goblin. Since his comics debut on July 1964, and in all his appearances from the 1967 animated series to the 2002 Sam Raimi film, the Green Goblin has never stopped being a formidable opponent for Spidey. Though several names have donned the Goblin costume and rode the infamous glider, it is, of course, Norman Osborn that remains the most notorious incarnation of that nefarious evildoer. Highly intelligent, ambitious, and yet equally corrupt Norman Osborn isn’t just the head of a mega-corporation (Oscorp), but a scientist who shows he is willing to use his own body for the advancement of his experiments.
When he was exposed to a formula that enhanced his physical abilities, the original Green Goblin was born; boasting an eccentric array of weapons (including Pumpkin bomb grenades, and a “bag of tricks”), he soars the New York skyline on an all equipped glider that proves to be quite the foil for Spider-Man. Together with a truly unmistakable look (that has evolved over the years), the Green Goblin’s presence in the Marvel universe has had consequences not just for Spider-Man but equally for his other half, Peter Parker. The revelation of his identity would hit very close to home for Peter; he was after all the father of his best friend Harry. And yet the personal pain did not end there. In a moment that continues to generate conversation to this day, Peter’s love Gwen Stacy falls to her death at the hands of the Goblin in The Night Gwen Stacy Died from 1973. A seminal event in the life of Peter Parker, the incident would forever transform the Green Goblin from being just another baddie to one of Peter and Spider-Man’s most formidable and emotional adversaries.
Conrad: Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin in the iconic 2002 Sam Raimi film remains the most memorable for me. While the character was developed to send an anti-drug message to young readers (Stan Lee was forced into a situation where the comics code authority refused to authorize the comic but the American government highly approved – see again his memoir), Dafoe’s Green Goblin is something entirely new. You get a sense that Norman wants what’s best for both Harry and Peter and fails because he relentlessly pursues his own ambitions. The mirror sequence in which the Goblin threatens Norman from his own reflection is to-this-day one of the best sequences in any comics-based film. The character struggles so intensely with his multiple personalities that, in the film’s climax, both Norman and Peter lose any sense of where Norman ends and the Goblin begins.
Michael: Though there are moments in Dafoe’s performance that may be considered “over the top”, his Green Goblin is filled with a crazed glee that is exactly how we came to know the character in the comics; as for his alter ego Norman Osborn, the dual personality between him and his “greatest creation” is consistently engaging and provide among the best moments in the film. Even the sight of Norman preparing to carve a turkey has never been more unsettling!
Michael: If the Green Goblin can be considered Spidey’s arch-enemy, Doctor Octopus is surely number 2 on the list of his most recurring and dangerous opponents. From his debut in 1963, Doc Ock has undoubtedly become one of the most iconic personalities to have ever emerged from the prolific minds of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. An example of a tragic villainous figure (as many Marvel villains are), Otto Octavius is in many ways like Peter Parker; studious, brilliant and a leader in scientific innovation, he too like Peter falls victim to an accident that would forever change his life. Unlike our hero’s journey, however, the lab explosion that leaves Otto with four permanent mechanical arms welded to him leads not to heroics but to insanity.
Not using his great power with great responsibility, Doc Ock constantly reminds us of what Spider-Man could have been, had he chosen a different path. Menacing, unstable, and just plain frightening, the threat Doctor Octopus poses ( on his own or in leading the Sinister Six) to all in his path are second to none. Whether holding Betty Brant hostage, masquerading as the Master Planner, menacing Aunt May or being the catalyst for the fight that killed Captain George Stacy, Doc Ock has had a most profound and lasting effect on the life of Spider-Man.
Conrad: Doc Ock is one of the most popular Spider-Man villains due to the fact that he has a skewed moral logic which in many ways mirrors Peter’s own. He is a successful, ingenious scientist who falls into villainy through first doing what he believed would make a better world. In Spider-Man 2, that means creating a source of power that would be unparalleled and be able to sustain the world’s energy demands for generations. Of course, creating a mini-sun star in downtown New York would also mean destroying much of the earth.
The writers of the most recent Spider-Man PS4 game again played on this hero/villain dynamic in Doc Ock by having the character be Peter’s father figure and mentor in the absence of his uncle. In the game, Doc operates a prosthetics lab of his own with Peter as his assistant. The two work to create a better world for those who require bodily prosthetics, in contrast to Oscorp, which is shown throughout the storyline to be interested primarily in military-industrial contracts that create further destruction. Octavius’ relentless pursuit of revenge against Norman results in him abandoning his dreams and becoming Doctor Octopus to unleash chaos on New York with the help of the sinister six. This version of Doc Ock spoke to many fans and will remain one of the most memorable video game villains of this generation.
Into the Spider-Verse also introduced, for the first time, a female Doctor Octopus (voiced by Kathryn Hahn) who works with Kingpin as part of a new variation of the Sinister Six to take down Spider-Man and bring Kingpin’s family back to life.
J. JONAH JAMESON
Michael: While not a supervillain, it cannot be denied that one of the biggest thorns in Spider-Man’s side is none other than J. Jonah Jameson; the irascible, stubborn and arrogant editor of The Daily Bugle newspaper, Jameson’s campaign to apprehend and undermine the web crawler has provided for plenty of humorous and entertaining moments throughout the years. Blinded by his jealousy and general hatred for Spider-Man, he is totally oblivious to the fact that he has Spidey’s alter ego working as his photographer, in what has become a recurring joke.
Conrad: When Steve Ditko created Jameson, he did so with the intent that this loud-mouthed braggart would consistently cause trouble for the superhero. In what essentially became a parody of Clark Kent’s dual life, Parker’s life as a photographer and his relationship with Jameson consistently create catastrophes. In the early runs, fans hated Jameson’s ridiculous facial expressions and Ditko would go out of his way to make the character more “hyena-like” (Bell 61). Needless to say, Ditko’s ideal stuck. One cannot imagine J. Jonah Jameson without JK Simmons’ ridiculous facial expressions in the 2002 movie. Jameson continues to be a fun and interesting villain within the Spider-Man universe because he brings together the different facets of Peter’s life and forces him into making often extravagant and comical decisions to weasel his way out of Jameson’s watchful eye.
Michael: JK Simmons really cannot be praised enough for his performance in the Raimi trilogy; he is absolutely spot on in his personification of J. J. and is totally flawless, hilarious and entertaining throughout all of his scenes. Jameson would be proud to know that he would be played to perfection in a Spider-Man movie, though he would obviously prefer the film to be about him.
THE SINISTER SIX
Conrad: Longtime fans of Spider-Man comics, movies and cartoons are well aware that, unlike some of the early Hollywood superhero movies, Spidey’s nemeses frequently collaborate to create hideous challenges for Peter. Perhaps the most notorious collection of supervillains in comics media (excepting Lex Luthor’s League of Doom), the Sinister Six are a collection of some of the most dangerous criminals in Spidey’s New York. The make-up of the group frequently changes, but the classic lineup includes Vulture, Doctor Octopus, Mysterio, Sandman, Electro, and Kraven the Hunter. This coalition of super-villains has been made and re-made throughout the comics and media, also including at various points Rhino, the Hobgoblin, and many others. The group became so popular in the comics that it was routinely updated to include more members, later becoming the Sinister Seven, the Sinister Twelve, and the Sinister Sixty-Six. Whew!
The group is led by Doctor Octopus who is elsewhere covered in this article – who often uses the other super-villains as actors in his own plots to not only kill Spider-Man but to take over New York City. The group first appears in The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1, where the group ultimately fails because they take on Spider-Man individually rather than as a collective. While they partially learn their lesson before their next appearances in The Amazing Spider-Man #334–339, the group fails when it is revealed that Doc Ock had been intending to control the minds of the other villains through a dangerous chemical leaked into the atmosphere. Sandman then joins Spidey to take on the rest of the villains.
Michael: The concept of having the “best of the worst” team up to finally topple Spider-Man is one with countless possibilities; through their many appearances the Sinister Six has always been a source of great wonder and always makes us question, what if? What if they could only use their power for good? But then again, what fun would that be?
Michael: Born Wilson Fisk, Kingpin has consistently shown that he is also willing to get into the fight if need be. Although he may look like a giant obese man incapable of much movement, he is all muscle under his designer clothes and has killer strength that catches many opponents off guard. While nowadays he features more prominently as Daredevil’s main nemesis, his origins lie in The Amazing Spider-Man # 50 from 1967 and he has ever since never stopped being a menace. In film and TV, actors like Vincent D’Onofrio and the late Michael Clarke Duncan have stepped into the iconic smoking jacket, putting their own great spins on a most remarkable villain.
Conrad: Kingpin should be of interest to pretty much every fan of Marvel comics out there. This character is often at the center of conspiracies that bring together not only all of Spider-Man’s nemeses (Into the Spider-Verse) but also strings together the character arcs of Spider-Man, Daredevil, Elektra, Punisher and Captain America. The second reason Kingpin is so worthy of note among Spidey’s villains is that the character (with some exceptions) does not have any superpowers of his own. He is the boss of organized crime in New York: manipulative, cunning, evil and, well organized and one of the few villains to have defeated Spider-Man. If Kingpin’s name makes you imagine someone who is easy to knock down, you better reconsider because he gets back up, up and up.
Michael: Amongst the newest of Spider-Man’s enemies, Venom quickly become one of the most popular members of Spidey’s rogues gallery; his popularity is such that he is to date the only villain to have their own stand-alone film. First appearing in 1984, the space symbiote that becomes Venom initially attaches itself to Spider-Man which leads to a new look for the wall-crawler. His new black suit was quite the change from the classic red and blue pattern. When Peter eventually rids himself of the symbiote it attaches itself to the angry and vengeful Eddie Brock, becoming Venom; several seek and destroy type missions against Spider-Man and anyone else in the way would follow. While Eddie Brock remains the most prominent person to fall victim to the symbiote, other names to don the black suit include Peter’s old high school nemesis, Flash Thompson.
Conrad: Venom is one of the villains I enjoyed more as a teenager. Perhaps there is something that specifically appeals to an audience that is Peter’s age about having to fight off an evil double. My first encounter with Venom was through the 1994 animated series where the character’s destiny is entwined with that of Carnage. This version of Venom sacrifices himself to save the people he loves in the end, despite being a regular menace to Spider-Man. The Venom that impressed itself most on my young imagination, however, was the Venom from the six-part mini-series which became a stand-alone anti-hero comic where Venom faced off against the Life Foundation and those who sought to weaponize him. It was the first time I read a comic where bad was good and the whole world was a bit topsy-turvy. This mini-series no doubt inspired what would become Tom Hardy’s Venom in the recent 2018 film.
Sandman is great because he’s a villain entirely due to circumstance. In the third Sam Raimi Spider-Man film, Sandman is a criminal because he is trying to earn the money to provide for his daughter and has been otherwise unable to. If Spider-Man 3 went with a single-villain, Sandman would have provided more than enough material. He’s engaging, sympathetic and the center of several moral questions demanded by the Superhero narrative.
Kraven the Hunter
Rather than having an axe to grind with Spider-Man or looking for money or power, Kraven the Hunter does things just for the challenge; a Russian big game hunter, Sergei Kravinoff comes to America with the sole aim of hunting Spidey and proving himself as the best hunter of all time. Without the use of weapons, Kraven uses only his bare hands which in tandem with a super strength serum gives him immense durability and hyper-awareness, his own “Spider-sense”. In “Kraven’s Last Hunt” from 1987, he even manages to bury Spider-Man alive!
While Vulture is technically already in this piece as a regular member of the Sinister Six, the villain deserves a mention on his own right. The Vulture is most well known as Adrian Toomes, a former electrical engineer who invented a flight harness. Upon discovering the corruption of the business he was working for, Adrian stole the flight harness and began a life of crime as the Vulture. Michael Keaton’s performance of this villain in Spider-Man: Homecoming is one of the most memorable comic-book villain performances out there! Sam Raimi had initially planned to cast Keaton in his own Spider-Man 4 before the plug had been pulled. While the cranky old miser version of this character found in the comics is entertaining, it is Keaton who elevates the persona to new levels – playing his roles as father, a mob boss and friendly in-law off against each other.
The Lizard should probably go down in history as one of the wackiest Spider-Man villains out there. Not only was the character infamously terrifying in the Spider-Man 3 video-game, but his plan to turn all of New York into lizard-people in The Amazing Spider-Man is also comic-book camp at its best. Dr. Curtis Connors is a man who had lost his arm and devotes his energy and research towards finding a regenerative cure. He does find it – but it requires a large dose of reptilian DNA and – zap! Doctor Connors becomes an anthropomorphic lizard man himself. Sam Raimi’s trilogy had long built up to introducing the Lizard, with Curt Connors being Peter’s professor throughout the trilogy. It is almost as if Sam Raimi and his crew imagined what would come with the later development of the MCU!
A city worker who was struck by lightning while working on a power line, Max Dillon would have his life forever transformed as he became the dangerous Electro; with his ability to manipulate electricity Electro quickly became one of Spider-Man’s most recurring foes, and was an original member of the Sinister Six. Whether it’s generating enormous amounts of electrical energy, withstanding electric charges or firing bolts of power from his fingers, Electro is without a doubt the most charged personality in Spider-Man’s rogues gallery.
Bell, Blake. Strange and Stranger: the World of Steve Ditko. Fantagraphics Books, 2008.
Lee, Stan, et al. Amazing Fantastic Incredible: a Marvelous Memoir. Simon & Schuster, 2019. Arrant, Chris, et al. The Art of Spider-Man Classic. Marvel Worldwide Inc, 2011
Michael Vecchio is a contributing writer for Before The Cyborgs. A graduate of the University of Alberta, he is a keen follower of events in the world of film, as well as politics and history. You can also hear him podcast about film and politics
Conrad Leibel is a poet, performer, essayist, and musician. He graduated from UVic’s MA in English Literature program with a concentration in medieval and early modern studies and holds a BA in English and Film Studies from the University of Alberta.