[Author’s note: If you haven’t seen The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and it feels like your Spidey sense is tingling, it’s probably because you’re about to encounter major spoilers.]
I’ll always remember when I went to see The Two Towers. It was back in the days when you could mention Peter Jackson and J.R.R. Tolkien in the same sentence without feeling that Pavlovian need to hit the espresso bar and coffee up. No doubt were Jackson to make that film today, he’d divide it into two movies—one for each tower, of course—but when The Two Towers was released, his days of narrative padding were still far in the future and the film was quite good.
But what sticks out in my memory is not the movie itself, but rather the reaction of a teenage girl sitting one row in front of me. As the movie neared its conclusion and it became clear that Jackson was going to leave several plot threads unresolved, the girl began to talk at the screen loudly enough to wake a dead orc: “No. Oh no. Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare! DON’T YOU DARE!”
Having lived through three years of Han Solo frozen in carbonite, I can’t say I sympathized with her all that much, nor, apparently, did the person sitting near her who leaned in and said, “They actually have this story in books, you know?”
I always thought that made for a funny story, and I used to re-tell it often, but I don’t anymore. Not since I found myself staring dumbfounded at the end of the first season of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Even though I didn’t shout at the television, I might as well have, and all it took was one look at my wife’s face to know what she, with her well-worn collection of George R. R. Martin books, was thinking: “They actually have this story in books, you know?”
Which is a roundabout way of explaining why I didn’t feel like making snarky comments to the sobbing people I heard in the theater last weekend when I saw The Amazing Spider-Man 2. While many of us knew where Gwen Stacy’s character was heading—they actually have it books, you know—it’s good to remember that sooner or later we’re all in the dark about something.
In this case, few individual comics stories are as legendary as Gerry Conway and John Romita’s “The Night Gwen Stacy Died.” Even though Spider-Man had been born amid failure and death, it’s hard to think of another plot shakeup from that era more shocking than the death of Gwen, Peter Parker’s girlfriend. Of course, for today’s comics reader, the story doesn’t resonate in quite the same way. For one thing, most of us have become immune to the news of comic book characters dying. Didn’t I hear that Wolverine was going to die in the comics soon? I think so, but it caused so little pause that I have never even bothered to verify it.
But on a more serious note, the death of Gwen Stacy also carries some political baggage today, reminding readers of the sometimes-cavalier treatment women characters receive in mainstream comics. As a kid, I remember watching reruns of old TV shows like Bonanza and The Big Valley, and I used to joke that whenever Little Joe Cartwright started planning a wedding, his fiancé would probably be shot at about the 35-minute mark. Today we’re a bit wised up when it comes to the negative repercussions of using women characters as victims for the sake of a melodramatic shock.
In fact, before she gained prominence as a comics writer, Gail Simone garnered attention for her work on the Website Women in Refrigerators, which attempted to track all the women characters whose corpses were strewn across the comics landscape. The site’s title, a reference to a story where Green Lantern found his girlfriend’s head in a refrigerator, has even become a verb, with many people now routinely referring to such plot twists as “fridging.”
So most of us tend to be skeptical of “fridging,” especially since widespread occurrences of it perpetuate a male-centered view of the world. Taken cumulatively, this story trope reflects ugly levels of sexism, though as with most observations of such tropes, it’s not always fair to judge isolated, individual stories in the same way.
In the case of the “The Night Gwen Stacy Died,” even if the original goal was a crass desire to eliminate the “problem” of Spider-Man having a steady girlfriend, the story had a lot of power—particularly because the specific cause of death, Gwen’s broken neck, was the result of the physical force of Spider-Man’s webs stopping her fall. Even though the Green Goblin was ultimately responsible for what happened to her, it’s Spider-Man’s effort at saving her that actually does the killing.
All of this makes the story more than just an opportunity for Spider-Man to deal with loss or seek revenge. It’s about deepening the core of the Spider-Man character through those signature themes of guilt and responsibility. That’s why even though the story may be justifiably offensive to some readers, it still strikes me as defensible. But given the complications, it’s a tricky moment for a contemporary movie like Amazing Spider-Man 2 to try to re-enact.
And it doesn’t work.
None of the things that make the original story seem justifiable are present. The comics version broke new ground by shaking up the status quo of a superhero book and also by introducing basic logic and physics to a genre where such ideas were routinely ignored. But the novelty of the story and its adherence to science has long since faded. More troublingly though, the film goes out of its way to eliminate the most compelling wrinkle in the original story. The film clearly shows Gwen’s head hitting the ground before Peter’s webs are drawn taut. Thus, the movie fails to explore the guilt from Peter’s misjudgment and hubris. That quality made the original comic read like pop tragedy; without it, the movie is just… sad.
Which means this movie doesn’t earn the right to depict the death of Gwen Stacy. The tone for the film is wildly inconsistent, the character motivations are often fuzzy, and even the special effects are distractingly amateurish. In order to try to make a potentially dubious story element work, the movie has to really be good, and this is not a good movie.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s also not a horrible movie, despite what some people are saying. I’ve tried to stay away from most of the reviews in order to write this piece, but I’ve seen several people comparing it to Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin. The world is filled with really bad superhero movies, but The Amazing Spider-Man 2 isn’t one of them. I don’t even think it’s the worst Spider-Man film.
But that still doesn’t make it a good movie. The legendary director Howard Hawks once said a good movie consists of three good scenes and no bad ones. I don’t know if I buy that, but if we go by Hawks’s notion, then this movie is at least halfway there. While there are many bad scenes, including all of the ones designed to establish Electro’s origin, there are also some very strong moments.
The initial confrontation between Spider-Man and the newly empowered Electro is one of those scenes that really comes alive. There is an immediacy to it that reminds me of those wonderful shouting matches between Al Pacino and Charles Durning in Dog Day Afternoon, each talking over the other while the crowd looks on. Those scenes are filled with the uncertainty and confusion of the best kinds of improvisation. Even though Amazing Spider-Man 2 isn’t one-tenth the movie that Dog Day Afternoon is, this nighttime confrontation nevertheless creates some of the same sensations. The scene is textured with five perspectives—Spider-Man, Electro, Gwen, the crowd, and the police—each seeing something slightly different and all those narratives competing for the same space. If it weren’t for the awkward pun, you could describe the atmosphere as electric.
But the central problem with this movie is that whenever it starts to find its footing, it stumbles once again. That’s why, no matter how exciting the street scene is, no matter how charming some of the moments are between Peter and Gwen are, and no matter how effectively Andrew Garfield portrays Peter’s grief, the distance between the film and viewer is too large to produce any real catharsis. When a beloved character is falling to her death, it’s a bad sign if you’re thinking to yourself, Oh, I wonder if they’ll change the angle of the shot to match Romita’s original panel?
But that kind of detachment happens when you mix a cluttered narrative with extended moments of camp. And it surprised me considering that I liked the first film. It’s been a while since I saw it, but I remembered being genuinely moved by the characters and story, and I thought Garfield—not my idea of Spider-Man at all—was remarkably effective, almost like a young Montgomery Clift.
But this new movie lost me long before the night Gwen Stacy finally dies. Had the film not copped out on Peter’s guilt, perhaps the tragedy of the situation might’ve drawn me back in, but it seems clear that the filmmakers were unwilling to go to a place dark enough to embrace that kind of pain. In fact, the film stubbornly refuses to end until they somehow manage to tack on a happy conclusion. The scene where a young boy shows what Spider-Man means to everyone makes for a nice sentiment, but coming five minutes after we just watched Gwen Stacy pointlessly fall to her death makes it all feel a bit unseemly. Are we really so averse to tragedy that we have to rush to a “feel good” ending, like the end of “Itsy Bitsy Spider” where the sun came out “and dried up all the rain”?
The bungling nature of the film makes the whole storyline feel like little more than an obligatory adaptation. “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” is Spider-Man’s most famous story, so of course it has to feature in the new movie—even though it seems clear that the filmmakers weren’t committed to doing what was necessary to make the story work.
It’s a good reminder for all of us that even though we keep hearing that the film industry is lending respectability to comics, in reality a lot of movies don’t even have the same gumption as a forty-year-old superhero comic book.