Admit it, the moment you heard Willem Dafoe’s familiar Green Goblin cackle in the Spider-Man: No Way Home trailer you smiled. The legendary character actor isn’t even seen on screen, yet the sight of his pumpkin bomb from 2002’s Spider-Man and the sound of his laugh were a blast of sweet, sweet nostalgia. So much so that fans immediately began speculating just how different his costume might look this time out—hoping the green plastic get-up from 20 years ago never again sees the light of day.
And while that instinct is understandable, it comes mostly from a place of love, as well as comfort in the knowledge that no matter what, Dafoe’s Green Goblin will once again be spectacular. Perhaps that’s why I can’t help but wonder about the other Spider-Man villains who were teased; the ones who despite great comic book legacies left something to be desired the last time we saw them at the cinema. I’m thinking about the Lizard.
First appearing in The Amazing Spider-Man #6, the Lizard was only one in a long line of immediate home runs for Stan Lee and Steve Ditko during the early ‘60s. Genuinely, the bulk of the web-head’s rogues gallery (which is only rivaled by Batman) was created in a handful of months during those early days, with Lizard’s origin story being sandwiched in between our first introductions to Doctor Octopus and Sandman on one side, and Electro, the the Green Goblin, Mysterio, and Kraven the Hunter on the other.
Yet even in that first appearance, the Lizard was a special creation. Like many of Peter Parker’s greatest foes, Lee and Ditko’s scaly variation on Jekyll and Hyde was yet another authority figure whom the wall-crawler needed to defeat in generational combat. As the first youthful superhero created in the decade of youth, Spidey was originally presented as a kid sticking it to the man, and unhip authority figures like Doc Ock. But the Lizard? Unlike the others, he was a tragic figure with a tragic backstory: a war hero surgeon who lost his arm in combat and in an attempt to regrow it for his family turned into a six-foot dinosaur. It’s ridiculous, yet at its heart it was the archetypal horror we’ve seen in every great werewolf story, complete with the emotional stakes of Dr. Curt Connors’ wife and son being left behind as collateral damage if Spidey couldn’t save the Lizard from himself.
All of those elements were there from the jump with the Lizard, which makes their absence in 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man all the more baffling. Despite the studio apparently championing the villain as being the next foe in their fourth Spider-Man movie—to the point where it became apparently one of many disagreements with director Sam Raimi who was fixated on doing a Vulture movie back in the late 2000s—the finished product showed a genuine lack of comprehension about what made the character one of Spider-Man’s great foes.
Through no fault of actor Rhys Ifans, who plays Dr. Curt Connors as serviceably as possible from the thin screenplay he was provided, that film robs the Lizard of the character’s tragedy or even a hint of pathos: gone are Connors’ wife and son, as well as his tragic war backstory. In fact, Connors is a fairly shady individual in the film with vague connections to the deaths of Peter Parker’s parents. In other words, he’s a stock mad scientist, who neither Peter or the audience has much reason to sympathize with.
Additionally, the design of the character was nearly every bit as atrocious as the Power Rangers costume Dafoe got stuck with a decade earlier as the Green Goblin. While The Amazing Spider-Man filmmakers apparently chose to honor the flatter facial design of Ditko’s initial concept of the Lizard, they nonetheless removed other key elements of Ditko’s design which made the character so visually appealing: aspects like the shredded lab coat which belied the character’s lost humanity, and created a striking visual contrast to the green scaly look. Which is to say, without the white cloak, he looks a bit like a shrunken Godzilla running around town, with the ugly face of those misbegotten Goomba designs from the Super Mario Bros. movie.
As with the unwise choice of redesigning Spider-Man’s costume to better resemble a basketball in that movie, these poor choices made the Lizard look visually goofy and poorly thought out. When one contrasts this with how the character has been more or less drawn since the 1970s, including famously by Venom co-creator Todd McFarlane, who made the Lizard look like a demonic viper in human clothing, the ineptness of the cinematic Lizard becomes a failure on every level.
Admittedly, it’s unlikely Curt Connors’ motivations can be saved in Spider-Man: No Way Home. With One More Day fallout left to be resolved from Spider-Man: Far From Home’s cliffhanger ending, the multiverse needing to be set-up for audiences who don’t watch every Disney+ series, Doctor Strange fan service to squeeze in, and, oh yeah, the rest of the Sinister Six to reintroduce—including cinematic high points like Dafoe’s Goblin and especially Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock—there probably isn’t a lot of room for the cinematic also-rans of Lizard, Jamie Foxx’s Electro, and Thomas Hayden Church’s Sandman.
However, at least two of those became “also-rans” because of poor choices made by other filmmakers. Marvel Studios has had much better luck in interpreting Spidey villains to the screen than The Amazing Spider-Man duology, if still not on the level of Molina or Dafoe’s contributions. In the same way they turned a questionable concept like old man Adrian Toomes into a Michael Keaton showcase in Spider-Man: Homecoming, they could also reimagine the Lizard, and even Electro, into cooler characters that younger fans who never read the comics might actually care about this time. At the very least, they can give Lizzy his coat. And maybe just make him Dylan Baker’s Dr. Connors, who despite only appearing as a supporting character in Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man trilogy, already had more gravitas and sympathy than whatever the hell The Amazing Spider-Man was up to.
If the Green Goblin can get a new look, so will hopefully the ones who are not remembered quite so fondly.