Spider-Man has, unquestionably, one of the best rogues galleries of all time. He might only be rivaled by Batman in terms of sheer pop culture relevance. People know these characters, largely thanks to the fact that there have been so many movies since Sam Raimi’s original 2002 blockbuster, but also because this is one of the most recognized and beloved heroes all over the world. There are some iconic villains that he’s come into contact with time and again, classic antagonists that are immediately identified when Spider-Man comes to mind.
But one of the most interesting things about this character and the fifty-plus years of storytelling behind him is that it’s often the lesser-known villains that have torn his life apart. Sure, the Green Goblin has done more than his fair share to screw up Peter’s life, as has Doctor Octopus, but we’ve also had Calypso nearly kill him and drive him mad. We’ve had the Sin-Eater force Spider-Man to question his inherent sense of morality and responsibility. His whole life and existence was called into question, not to mention the fact that he was forced to come face to face with his dead first love Gwen Stacy, when the Jackal instigated the Clone Saga.
The villains Spider-Man faces up against also represent the best things about him because they’re everything he could have become, but didn’t. Like him, they’re mostly science experiments gone wrong, accidents, people who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or people who turned their genius which could have been used for the betterment of humankind into selfish madness, a direction he could have easily taken himself. For someone who lost both of his fathers, a lot of these characters are terrible fatherly role models, particularly Norman Osborn.
Other villains also represent animals—mostly predator—as kinds of totems, as was introduced into the mythology in J. Michael Stracynzski’s run on Amazing Spider-Man. Then there are the outliers like Shocker, Electro or Mysterio who don’t really fall into any of the above categories. It’s an amazingly diverse crop of bad guys, and so it stands to reason that picking favorites can be tough.
This isn’t necessarily a best of list. These aren’t the definitive “best” Spidey villains ever. These are personal favorites, some I think are indisputably iconic and others I think may not have been given their fair shake. Either way, these are our personal picks and we definitely encourage you to chime in with yours.
The Shocker is probably the last guy people expected to make this list, mostly because he’s seen by and large as a joke character. He tends to be a guy that Spider-Man can take out in one punch, a scaredy cat, a guy who’s just a big, dumb thug. And yet he’s honestly one of my favorite Marvel characters ever. He’s the Charlie Brown of the Marvel Universe. He just keeps showing up to rob that bank, always knowing exactly how it’s going to go, always meeting Spider-Man’s arrival with an exhausted sigh, because he knows the hero will show up. He just hopes that just this once maybe he won’t.
But he’s also not remotely as dumb as he’s made out to be, and that might be the great tragedy of his character. He’s never been given much of any encouragement that we can see. Shocker is a guy who’s ultimately too dumb to realize how smart he is. His wrist gauntlets are incredibly impressive for something he made himself, but they’re also something he made in prison. Plenty of other Spider-Man villains are embodiments of wasted potential, people who could have done revolutionary work, but they all at least realized they had potential, while Shocker never even made it to that stage at all.
Max Dillon is nothing more than a guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He has no homemade tech. He did not turn himself into something beyond human on purpose, he had no accident with any kind of technology he was working with. He was not any kind of scientist at all, in fact. Max was just a blue collar guy fixing a telephone pole when lightning literally struck. It was completely by chance. And as such, he became a perfect representative for what power can do to people who aren’t used to having it and weren’t even looking for it. Max’s situation doesn’t parallel a lot of Spider-Man villains, but it does parallel Spider-Man himself. Peter was just a kid who got bit by a spider. Max was just a guy who got struck by lightning.
But “With great power, there must also come great responsibility” is a lesson Max just never learned. He’s a walking scenario of what would have happened if that spider had bit the worst possible person. He’s not a good guy, and he’s not just a little powerful. Max can unleash a lot of damage without any regard for the people he’s hurting, whereas other Spidey villains do have some sort of moral center, even causing some of them to lean toward the side of good. Electro’s not that guy. And his lime green costume should be just as embraced as Mysterio’s has become.
There are so, so many interesting facets to the Hobgoblin. First of all, there’s the fact that there have been so damn many. But the first Hobgoblin, Roderick Kingsley, felt like a murder mystery unfolding on the comics page. Everyone wanted to know the character’s identity and it remained a mystery for so long—slightly echoing the introduction of the Green Goblin as well—before Kingsley was eventually revealed as the villain. Even Spider-Man’s friend and Daily Bugle co-worker Ned Leeds was long believed to be the villain, though it turned out he was in fact framed.
Even more interesting than how long he kept his identity a secret, though, is how he became the Hobgoblin in the first place. This was just someone who got lucky and happened to stumble onto the Green Goblin’s hideout. And as soon as he saw what he’d found, especially with Osborn being believed to be dead at the time, he saw an opportunity and seized it in a heartbeat. He was a knockoff of the Green Goblin and seemed to just embrace that, just for the thrill of the fact that he got away with it.
Mysterio has finally gotten the movie spotlight he deserves thanks to Spider-Man: Far From Home and I couldn’t be happier. This character was seen as a big joke for so long. And there is something pathetic about him, but those qualities only make him more endearing. He’s such an outlier among Spider-Man villains. He’s not a genius, he’s not an accident, he’s just a guy who tries to see how he can spin any situation to his advantage. In his very first comic book appearance, he used his illusions to create “threats” that he would then show up to stop so that he would appear to be a hero. Because this is a guy who wants the fame and rewards of being a hero without actually working for it.
This shouldn’t be a character who parallels Spider-Man at all, except for the fact that when he first got his powers, all Spidey wanted to do was show off and be a celebrity. Mysterio, like so many other villains, never learned that hard lesson. And even if he had, he totally would have blamed the world rather than himself. There’s also the fact that while he is an insanely good human being, Peter Parker has to lie to people every day to protect his identity as Spider-Man. It’s the one thing he has guilt over that he can’t really reconcile, and it’s perfectly embodied by Mysterio, whose whole gimmick relies on deception.
Many villains are mentor figures who went bad, but The Lizard has a unique role in Spider-Man’s life for being the only guy who really got to keep a close relationship with Spider-Man even after he became a villain. The Lizard is the Hyde to Curt Connors’ Jekyll. In some ways, The Lizard always seemed to be a metaphor for alcohol or drug use, as Connors was fine and functional, often helping Spider-Man and generally being someone he could come to for advice, but there was always a fear that he could relapse and turn into the Lizard again at any time.
Much like Hulk and Banner, The Lizard (when not simply portrayed as a snarling monster) has a distinctive personality from Banner’s, though it’s never really thought to be a separate entity. Ultimately, what makes The Lizard such a great villain is that Connors is a genuinely great friend of Spider-Man’s, so every time they fight you can feel that Spider-Man takes no joy in it. He just wants to get his friend to stop. That’s part of what makes his relationship with his villains so great. In most cases, he truly wants to help them and see them better themselves and The Lizard is the best embodiment of that.
Kraven the Hunter
Kraven is another villain that was almost always seen as a joke character. His costume was silly, his whole gimmick was ridiculous, even by the standards of 1960s Marvel comics. This status lasted for a long time, and may have lasted forever if it weren’t for a single story line. Kraven’s Last Hunt completely reinvented the character in the way that few stories ever get to do. It took his defining trait—believing himself to be the ultimate hunter—and reinterpreted that in a powerful way. In this story, he hunted Spider-Man, poisoned him and buried him alive. But it speaks volumes about his character that, after believing he’d killed Spider-Man, he took over the costume.
It’s something that gets echoed with Spidey’s villains, particularly in Superior Spider-Man, the idea that so many of them just want to prove that they could do it better. For Kraven, though, it’s a hollow victory and it leads to him taking his own life because he had fulfilled his one and only purpose by hunting the ultimate prey and therefore believed life had nothing else to offer. It was an incredibly dark, dramatic story for a guy in leopard pants and a lion vest.
When Peter Parker first becomes Spider-Man, he’s young. He’s a teenager who’s risking his life to fight crime, but still has a kind of child’s optimism about the way the world works. Kingpin is one of the first villains to really take that away from him. This is a guy who has no costume, no mask, a wealthy developer that everyone knows is a criminal but no one can do anything about it. He owns crime, he owns the cops, he goes into prison and he comes right back out again. He’s a very real world untouchable bad guy.
Spider-Man has some well documented troubles with authority figures, with patriarchy, and another defining trait of the Kingpin is his wealth. Wilson Fisk might have gone on to be Daredevil’s greatest nemesis, but he’s a major thorn in Peter Parker’s side as well. This is a rich man with the temperament of a child, who could be using his money to do so much for the city and instead uses it to run a criminal empire. Fisk represents crime itself and naturally calls everything Spider-Man’s doing into question. Both of them know that if he’s out of the picture, another Kingpin would step up. He’s a constant reminder that all Spider-Man can do is make a dent in the fight against crime, but that it’s not a fight he can ever actually win.
We’ve reached what I consider—and I think most people consider—the holy trinity of Spider-Man villains. In some ways, it’s weird for Venom to be on this list because he’s been an antihero for so long. He started considering himself to be a “lethal protector” really not that long after his introduction in the comics. But when he was a bad guy, he was one that Spidey was constantly unprepared for. Literally, too, in the fact that Venom didn’t trigger his Spider Sense. If you were growing up in the ‘90s, Venom was it. He was a perfect example of the extreme comics of the time, where everything was obsessed with being a little over the top. Venom looks like a nightmare come to life, an oily black, oozing thing with giant white eyes and sharp fangs. But there’s a sense of humor that balances that out in a neat way, even starting with his first appearance.
There’s also the fact that Eddie Brock wasn’t a guy that Spider-Man ever paid attention to, but was someone who believed that the wall crawler had been ruining his life for some time. He’s also a guy that Spidey could never really beat without help. In their first fights, Spider-Man often barely walked away alive, had to resort to other methods, but he never beat Venom in a one-on-one fight. Venom was a mixture of a living suit that Peter rejected and a man fueled by hatred for Spider-Man, which resulted in a villain who made things personal from the very beginning.
Otto Octavius really didn’t seem to be a bad guy. He was a scientist who served as something as a mentor to Peter, he was someone that the kid looked up to, which made it all the more devastating when he went off the deep end. This is something that Spider-Man 2 definitely leaned into with its terrific portrayal of Doc Ock. There’s a reason this is one of the most well known Spidey villains ever. In fact, he was even Stan Lee’s personal favorite. There’s a great visual thing that separates him from almost any other bad guy in that Doc Ock is never physical. His power is literally all in his mind, because he uses his tentacles to do his fighting for him.
He’s also a villain who’s always made things really personal, and has done so in some truly invasive ways. Obviously, there was the time he took over Peter’s body for an entire year to prove that he could be a better version of Spider-Man. But he’s also crossed lines like forcing himself into Peter’s life by courting Aunt May. He formed the Sinister Six, and he was even responsible for the iconic image of Spider-Man lifting rubble over his head (recreated in Homecoming) that was truly the first time it felt like Spider-Man actually thought he was going to die, and was the first time he was legitimately at the end of his rope as a hero.
The Green Goblin is it. He’s the guy. And he’s the guy for a lot of different reasons. The first goes all the way back to his introduction. When Green Goblin was first introduced, he was a wacky costumed villain like all the others, working with mobsters like the Enforcers. Nothing really seemed that different about him except that every other Spider-Man villain got an elaborate backstory and he didn’t. The comic revealed nothing, and it kept saying nothing as he started making more and more appearances, keeping his unmasked face in shadow and developing a mystery over a long period of time. When his identity was revealed, he turned out to be the father of a classmate Peter was just starting to become friends with.
Osborn’s first weird stroke of evil genius was to be the first villain to ever learn Spider-Man’s true identity. And it’s not just the fact that he did it, but the way he did that’s so ingenious. Spidey’s always fighting villains, usually winning, and then going home. Green Goblin was the first villain to ever consider just following him home after the fight. It was leverage he had over Peter very early on. Then, of course, he killed Gwen Stacy, one of the most shocking and heart breaking moments in Spider-Man’s long history. As mentioned, Norman Osborn is the ultimate bad dad. He’s the anti-Uncle Ben. He’s someone who’s proven again and again that fatherhood is the last thing on his list of priorities. He’s a man who characterizes responsibility as a form of weakness. With events like Siege, taking over SHIELD and turning it into HAMMER and leading the Dark Avengers, a character who started out with a severe sense of duality ultimately proved that beneath the Goblin persona, Norman Osborn had been the true threat all along.