If you want to place blame anywhere for the existence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the current state of cinema — which is engulfed in superhero stories and dominated by Disney-owned IP — you can probably trace it back to San Raimi’s Spider-Man. Superhero films and Marvel films had been made before Spider-Man came to theaters May 3, 2002, but for decades, DC heroes Superman and Batman dominated the live-action treatment of comics characters in major motion pictures. Besides 1998’s Blade, more of a vampire film than a standard superhero film, and 2000’s X-Men, a sprawling ensemble of heroes and antiheroes, Marvel hadn’t let one of its true heroes lead a movie to that point.
Carried by Tobey Maguire’s charmingly optimistic take on Peter Parker — a perfect complement to Raimi’s horror-influenced directing style — Spider-Man dominated the box office and permeated pop culture. Years later, moments from the Raimi trilogy have become their own memes, like emo Peter Parker and “I’m something of a scientist myself.” Willem Dafoe and Alfred Molina as Green Goblin and Doc Ock, respectively, added to the franchise’s heartfelt center with their campy but grounded performances. They created the blueprint for goofy supervillains with emotional weight and instantly became iconic cinematic bad guys. In 2012, Marvel made a run at a new trilogy with The Amazing Spider-Man starring Andrew Garfield, followed by a 2014 sequel, but those movies lacked the magic and sense of humor of Raimi’s; a third film was never made.
Now, 18 years and three Spider-Man franchises later, we’ve come back to where it all started. (Warning: spoilers ahead.) Spider-Man: No Way Home (out now), the latest installment in the MCU and the Tom Holland Spider-Man series, brings all the Spider-Mans together. As a result of a magical mishap courtesy of Doctor Strange, old villains from each of the live-action Spider-Man franchises end up in the main timeline of the MCU. Tom Holland’s Peter Parker, with the help of Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parkers, attempt to cure their villains of their villain-y ailments (being a lizard; being made of sand) before they are brought back to their original places in the multiverse. The movie gives each returning villain and both returning Peter Parkers a somewhat cohesive, satisfying arc — in some cases even more satisfying than their arcs in their original movies (proving that Spider-Man 3’s problem was not too many villains).
Most of the returning performers ham it up as much as possible, making this ambitious and absurd endeavor — basically, turning a meme into a bloated but fun, moving, and self-aware nostalgia trip of a movie — work. Does any of this make sense? Not really, but it doesn’t have to, because the emotional arcs track and we love Spider-Man. No Way Home easily could have been a messy web of chaos, but thanks to all-in performances from returning actors who, quite frankly, did not have to go as hard as they did for this, it all holds together. So who handled their great power and responsibility the best? Here, we rank their performances from meh-tastic to Oscar-worthy.
8. Thomas Haden Church as Flint Marco/the Sandman, Spider-Man 3 (2007)
All respect to Thomas Haden Church, who took his Marvel money and simply showed up, worked kind-of hard but not as hard as he could have, and ran home as soon as he heard the word cut. The Sandman isn’t as striking a villain as the others because he felt like he was getting in the way of an already narratively inflated Spider-Man 3 (which had Peter Parker sympathize with him because of his sick daughter, despite the fact that he murdered Uncle Ben — a huge retcon considering Uncle Ben was killed by a completely different person in the first movie). Sandman would perhaps be more impactful were he ever to cross over into the Star Wars universe to antagonize Anakin Skywalker, which is legally possible considering those franchises are owned by the same corporation now.
7. Rhys Ifans as Doctor Curt Connors/the Lizard, The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
There’s not much you can do as an actor when you’re playing a giant CGI lizard-man who looks a little more like a dinosaur-man than a lizard-man. And when you spent your original movie trying to turn the citizens of New York City into lizards, there’s only so far you can go to redeem yourself. Rhys Ifans doesn’t get a lot to do here, but he at least takes advantage of his sparing dialogue. The film’s sense of humor — which The Amazing Spider-Man lacked, despite its use of a Coldplay song for a montage and the fact that its villain was a lizard-man trying to turn everyone into lizards — adds more depth to a profoundly dumb but very Spider-Man-y villain.
6. Charlie Cox as Matt Murdoch/Daredevil, Netflix’s Daredevil (2014-2018)
Matt Murdoch is not a Spider-Man villain, nor has he ever appeared in any Spider-Man films. But his appearance in No Way Home is significant because it’s the MCU’s first recognition of a Marvel Netflix-show hero. Cox makes the most out of a brief comedic cameo as Peter Parker’s lawyer early in the film. It’s a scene that establishes both the lighthearted tone of the film and the fact that a bunch of people are about to show up in this thing even though all of the actors lied to us about it for years.
5. Jamie Foxx as Max Dillon/Electro, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)
Foxx was done a little dirty in The Amazing Spider-Man playing an engineer who becomes an all-powerful electric creature after falling into a pool of electric eels. The film took itself way too seriously and never took advantage of Foxx’s charisma or comedic skills. But here, the actor gets to play Electro the way he should have been played: with the utter campiness that being a Spider-Man villain demands.
4. Alfred Molina as Doctor Otto Octavius/Doc Ock, Spider-Man 2 (2004)
When we last saw Doc Ock in Spider-Man 2, he was sacrificing himself to undo the mess he’d made while under the influence of the arms attached to his body. In that film, Molina smoothly shifts from Peter Parker’s mentor to menacing villain. In No Way Home, he does the opposite, going from menacing supervillain back to the sweet scientist Otto Octavius. Molina is the kind of actor who can pull off a see-sawing performance like this in his sleep, and that he did.
3. Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker/Spider-Man, Spider-Man (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004), Spider-Man 3 (2007)
The first two Spider-Man films starring Tom Holland are fun because he captures the naive and youthful spirit of the beloved teen hero; but there’s always been something of an emotional disconnect with the character who was intentionally introduced in medias res, already with powers and no origin story in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. The Holland films feel more like MCU movies than Spider-Man movies: Rather than telling Parker’s story, they function like stepping stones to other, bigger stories involving Parker. So it’s ironic that the film with the most Peter Parkers is the one that finally gives Holland’s character the necessary emotional journey he’s been lacking. And it’s because of Tobey Maguire’s nostalgia-drenched (to a manipulative point, but it’s fine because we’re so happy to see him) presence and restrained performance that Holland gets there. Maguire’s Parker recalls the story of losing his Uncle Ben, explaining that, all these years later, he’s never gotten over it, because there’s nothing you can do to get over losing someone, even when you’re a superhero. Maguire’s performance as a mature and settled but still grieving version of Peter Parker activates a side of Holland’s Peter Parker that was dormant until now.
2. Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker/Spider-Man, The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)
We hope Andrew Garfield got paid the most out of anyone for this cameo, because he put his heart and soul into it in a way that looks and feels effortless. Upon being approached for this project, Andrew Garfield clearly said to himself, “If they’re going to pay me millions of dollars to be in the Spider-Man meme movie, I am going to do myself some justice by proving I was perfect for this part, even though everyone hated my movies.” Here we see Garfield sink back into the chaotic, neurotic, nerd energy that made his casting as Parker so great. When he reluctantly explains that he saved the city from being turned into lizards and expresses jealousy upon learning that Holland’s Spider-Man got to fight an alien in space, Garfield is also expressing his mild-to-severe disdain for the mediocre films he was in. This subtextual gripe is not only justified, it elevates the performance as well as the meta references.
1. Willem Dafoe as the Norman Osborn/Green Goblin, Spider-Man (2002)
Willem Dafoe is not capable of doing a little. Willem Dafoe will always do the most, whether he’s Norman Osborn or a lighthouse manager, and No Way Home takes advantage of that over-the-top intensity by completing Norman Osborn’s arc in a way that we didn’t even know was necessary (mostly because his arc was resolved in one movie in 2002). What makes Dafoe’s return as the Green Goblin pitch-perfect is that he is also in on the joke and the ridiculousness of the film’s existence, particularly when he delivers his own meme, “I’m something of a scientist myself.” Dafoe looks like the confused streetwear king of the multiverse in a green houndstooth coat and purple hoodie as he rejects the Green Goblin persona early in the film and tries to figure out where the hell he is and what is happening to him. But he eventually snaps, reverting to the high-pitched, menacing voice of Osborn’s villainous alternate persona. Dafoe shifts between these personalities as seamlessly as he did almost two decades ago, as if no time has passed. Norman’s sudden return to the Green Goblin persona later in the film is one of its best moments: It’s peak camp but subtly menacing, and it leads to the pivotal turning point for Tom Holland’s Spidey. One might say Willem Dafoe goblinned up the scenery in his triumphant return, which ended with a slightly heavy-handed but moving moment he didn’t get with Peter Parker before he died in 2002’s Spider-Man. In No Way Home, Dafoe reminds us of something we already know: He’s one of the best actors we have, in this or any universe.