Scott Mendelson, a contributor at Forbes and owner of one of the creepiest profile photos of all time, wrote a piece recently on The Amazing Spiderman 2 and the problems inherent to its most iconic scene. As anybody with even a passing interest in Spiderman comics knows, Gwen Stacy is one of the Web Head’s most important relationships. In 1973, she met a gruesome fate at the hands of The Green Goblin in one of the most revered and controversial storylines in comic book history. So, naturally, after four Spiderman movies it was somewhat strange that this scene – so critical to the canonical Spidey mythos – hadn’t played out on the big-screen.
Oh sure, the Raimi films had danced around this idea, with Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane taking a near fatal plunge in the original 2002 Spiderman film. This seemed like it was merely a tease however, certainly nothing that appeased the salivating fan base. It is thus unsurprising that when the reboot of Spiderman was announced, paired with the news that Gwen Stacy instead of Mary Jane would be the primary love interest, that the potentiality of Gwen’s annihilation was quickly evoked. It hung over the first film to some degree, but Gwen was largely kept out of the action. This was a choice that now can be perceived for what it was: merely a delay of the inevitable.
With Gwen surviving the events of the first Marc Webb-directed film, it was almost a forgone conclusion that the luminous blonde would meet her end in this month’s The Amazing Spiderman II. Despite nearly everybody expecting it, the death scene still proved itself to be emotionally evocative, even somewhat devastating. To Mr. Mendelson however, this scene underscores a fundamental problem with both comic book films and the texts that inspired them. Essentially, the death of Gwen Stacy is another example of the “women in refrigerators” concept, a phrase first coined by Gail Simone which outlines the disturbing trend in comic books – and probably fiction in general – where female characters experience horrific events solely to provide male characters with the requisite pathos.
The Amazing Spiderman II is, of course, a prime example of this notion. And while Mendelson’s concerns are largely valid – as Gwen’s death does negate her agency and does cripple the emotional pull of future Spidey installments – this is hardly the biggest problem with the character. Any ire directed at Webb’s conception of Gwen should not simply focus on her death but also on the way her life is depicted. The incarnation of Gwen’s character is faultless, arc-free and serves solely as a foil to the unruly, unkempt nature of male hero. These issues are highlighted strongly in the most recent film – which attempts to establish Gwen Stacy as a beacon of feminism – but shows ultimately that it cannot transcend its genre.
I. The Girl Next Door?
Any male of the millennial generation would watch The Amazing Spiderman II and feel their hearts beat a little faster. This is not because of the frenzied CGI action either but because of the magnetic pull of the film’s leading lady, Gwen Stacy, who may be one of the most idealized portraits of a woman on-screen in recent memory. Gwen has everything going for her. Not only is she smart, driven, beautiful, compassionate, loving and brave, but she is also firmly invested in her own autonomy and ready to slap down the old Web Head when he starts reeking of machismo.
On the surface this seems positive. Gwen is not simply relegated into being a dependent, “damsel in distress” figure. In fact, she is positioned as a paragon of empowered young womanhood, eclipsing Dunst’s Mary Jane from the earlier trilogy. But if one tables broad, individual character traits and looks at the totality of Stone’s Gwen Stacy, problems begin to emerge.
Throughout both Amazing Spiderman films, Gwen Stacy never makes a wrong step. She is unconflicted regarding nearly everything in her life. As she says in the film, she loves both Peter and his alter ego Spiderman. She is willing to sign up for a life that would be constantly in turmoil, a life sitting up and waiting to see if her boyfriend would even come home from a night of policing the streets.
Gwen also shows little in the way of conflict or past baggage. For example, a major plot point in the first film is the death of her father, Police Captain George Stacy. It’s a traumatic, brutal death that involves both Spiderman and The Lizard. Inexplicably, Gwen appears at the beginning of Amazing Spiderman II utterly composed and well-adjusted, seemingly unburdened by the dual problems of no longer having a father and that the love of her life risks his neck daily for no pay.
This makes Gwen an unrealistic character. She is little more than an idealized object of desire for Peter Parker. All of her wonderful traits, not to mention all of the wonderful things she is pursuing in her life, are rendered utterly superfluous because they are not balanced by any complexity or conflict. This profound void within the character also makes it impossible for her to have a decent arc, an idea that will now be expanded upon.
II. Leaving on a Jet Plane: Why Gwen’s Oxford Trip Doesn’t Matter
To visualize the problems which define the character arc of Gwen Stacy, one simply has to compare her with another of Spidey’s lady loves, Mary Jane Watson. Namely, does she have an arc? Well, in the first Spiderman film it was suggested that she at least had a goal: She wanted to get out of her verbally abusive home in Queens, get into Manhattan and start acting.
After the first movie MJ achieves this goal and then becomes stagnant then for the remainder of the series. This turns her into a passive character. She only takes action in response to Peter’s behavior. This is illustrated in her decision to marry the son of J. Jonah Jameson in Spiderman 2, which feels almost retaliatory for Peter not being able to be there for her.
The salient point is that Mary Jane’s character is considered nugatory by Rami’s film. She only matters in regards to how Peter feels about her. This is what happens when a major character has no goal outside of a relationship with the lead and doesn’t change for better or for worse throughout the film.
How does Gwen stack up in comparison? The Amazing Spiderman II revolves around the possibility of her leaving New York for Oxford. This makes it appear that Gwen might have an arc where she grows and changes. Not so. Similar to MJ’s acting, the film brushes over Gwen’s relationship to her goal. It also presents no problems or obstacles that she must confront to obtain it. Without these two elements, the audience cannot become invested in Gwen’s individual struggle to pursue Oxford. This is exacerbated because the film keeps the focus solely on how Gwen’s decision affects Peter.
The 1976 film Rocky – specifically its female lead Adrian – provides a point of comparison for why Gwen’s arc in The Amazing Spiderman II (or Mary Jane’s in Spiderman 2) falls flat on its face. In that iconic drama, Adrian was a character closed off from the world. Due to the film’s deft script, however, there was an explanation for her behavior. Adrian was suffering from the verbally abusive behavior of her brutish brother Paulie: the neighborhood drunk and all around loser.
This film is relevant because, as opposed to Gwen and MJ, Rocky’s script provides Adrian with a goal of coming out of her shell and enjoying life and a struggle precipitated by Paulie’s alcoholism and abuse. These elements play a fundamental role in the viewer discerning a profound character change in Adrian. Conversely, while Gwen faces the prospect of losing Peter by going to Oxford, there is no real deliberation about the decision and no conflict that she must overcome.
An element of conflict is of paramount importance to the strength of Gwen’s character. Gwen may be a marginally more active character than MJ, but the Oxford plot point still just sorta’ happens to her. Her decision to go in for its entrance interview is all well and good. However, it certainly doesn’t show Gwen being tested in any real way. Even worse is that despite this life-altering opportunity happening to Gwen, the film is far more intrigued with how it makes Peter feel. The film drops Oxford onto her shoulders, but it only does this to highlight the sacrificial aspects of Pete’s double life.
III. The Problem Ain’t Just Her Death
As it has been discussed previously, a disturbing trope of superhero cinema is the prevalence of seemingly perfect love interests. In the original Spiderman films, Mary Jane Watson encapsulates this idea. She is a character who can star in a Broadway show and still make it to Queens in time for a quaint birthday party. To put it as simply as possible: her life is on track and moving forward. The reasons why she is characterized in this fashion that are of critical importance. MJ, like many comic book film women, simply needs to have her life on track. Without her stability the emotional maladies and general chaos – so intrinsic to the male hero – would not feel sufficiently heightened.
One can see evidence of this contrast between Dunst’s Mary Jane and Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker in Spiderman 2. In fact, easily the most affecting scenes are early sections of the film depict MJ moving on with her personal and professional life while Parker sinks deeper into a financial and social quagmire. In Amazing Spiderman II a comparable dynamic occurs, with Gwen being shown obtaining a great job (directly out of high school no less), maintaining an active social life and getting offers to go abroad while Peter scurries around on rooftops looking like a creep.
None of these facets seek to deepen the female characters they are actually associated with. Every positive life quality is included simply to show that there is a comparable void in the lives of their respective male partners. To some extent this summarizes everything inherently problematic about the romantic relationships that dominate the films of superhero cinema. While Mendelson, not to mention many other internet commentators like to focus on how Gwen’s death cheapens her character, the bigger, more pressing concerns lie with the way her life is depicted. Gwen’s life is capitalized upon simply to help an audience visualize her boyfriend’s experience.
IV. Concluding Thoughts
At one point in the great TV show Six Feet Under, the wife of the main character Nate Fisher (played by Peter Krause) goes missing. Unsure about whether or not he ever loved her, Nate is tormented by this development. In one dream sequence he encounters his wife Lisa on a golden beach. While fighting back tears he tells her that he felt like he one “chance” and he fucked it all up, to which Lisa responds that she is “not a chance” but a “person.”
In a way this goes directly to the heart of Gwen Stacy’s character in Amazing Spiderman II. Ostensibly operating under a feminist agenda, Webb’s film does valiantly attempt to turn her into a progressive love interest. At one point in the film, after Peter has literally webbed her to a car to prevent her from following him into battle, Gwen breaks free and subsequently saves Peter from the lightning bolts of Electro. Afterwards, she screams angrily at Peter that, “Nobody makes my decisions for me!”
Beautifully played by Stone, Gwen’s rage in this moment is palpable, intense and, quite frankly, awesome. Curiously, it also mirrors a statement made by Mary Jane in Rami’s Spiderman 2, where, after realizing that she can’t go through with her wedding, MJ rushes to Peter’s dismal hovel. Arriving at the decrepit doorway still wearing her wedding dress, MJ says to Peter, “Can’t you respect me enough to let me make my own decision?” The key differences between the two lines and the two female characters who articulate them is the context of where the lines are spoken and the emotions that are behind each line.
For Mary Jane this line is delivered in a pleading fashion. There is a dreamy look in her eyes as she offers herself to Peter. Gwen on the other hand barks out the statement with enraged vitriol; she clearly feels slighted by Peter attempting to force her to remain on the sidelines. His transgression cuts her deep; it’s something that penetrates to the core of her being. This shift between Mary Jane and Gwen is a positive step forward for sure. Yet ultimately Gwen’s feminism, her claim to self-determination, is too little too late. This feels especially true when one considers that, for Webb’s film, Gwen ignoring Peter’s attempts to keep her away from the action is not really so much about who she is but a method for getting her to the place where she will meet her doom.
The bottom line is that Gwen is clearly in possession of strong, feminist attributes. But does this make her a feminist role model? Is she a great, complex character, as Sony’s marketing so desperately wants us to believe? The answer to both these questions is no, because Gwen is the opposite of how Lili Taylor’s Lisa in Six Feet Under describes herself. She is more of a concept than a character. She is treated as Peter Parker’s “chance” at happiness, not as a real person. This idea is reinforced by Gwen not possessing anything other than desirable attributes; not having a goal that she has to struggle towards and obstacles which seek to limit her progress; experiencing no growth or change as a person; and finally by being in a film which takes her experiences and puts them at the service of exploring Peter Parker.
In 2014 this is disgraceful; we should expect more. There have been plucky, empowered women in big budget action films for a long time now. But only rarely have these female characters also possessed the attributes that Gwen so sorely lacks. It’s long past due for action films to not only showcase their female characters having admirable, strong and role-model-worthy qualities. It also is high time to depict them putting these traits into practice, and not just for their men but for themselves. We can’t resign ourselves to depictions of women who just appear good or admirable. We need to see evolution, depictions of women struggling, learning, grasping for what they want, making mistakes and experiencing growth, real growth. That is when female characters who feel real will be born.