The Amazing Spider-Man 2:

Pop Tragedy or Just Sad?

[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.

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Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He is the author of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer. In addition to producing a weekly column for Sequart for almost two years, he has also written for and PopMatters. He has published essays on a variety of writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, and he has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville.

See more, including free online content, on .

Also by Greg Carpenter:

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer



  1. Damn. I just found my favorite writer on Sequart.

  2. ...David Whittaker says:

    I’m a strange bird. I’m sometimes read things for the spoilers. In this case I’m glad I did.

    To reiterate your point the original story had such a profound effect in comic history both universally and individually. As a teen I watched the 90′s Spider-Man cartoon and it was investigating their reinterpretation of that night I discovered the original story and realised that emotional bed-rock to Spidey’s seemingly comical adventures.

  3. Another thing to consider about “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” that gets next to no mention: the fallout of that story didn’t just strengthen Peter Parker’s ongoing narrative, but that of his supporting cast. Particularly Mary-Jane Watson, up until that point depicted as the more party-going, carefree type. She has a pivotal moment after Gwen dies, when she finds Peter at his apartment, grieving, and tries to get him to go to a party (if I remember correctly?) and he yells at her. Tells her to leave. Instead, she simply takes a seat and watches over him. It’s a quiet moment which speaks volumes.

    Considering Mary-Jane was cut from the movie, I’m presuming in favor of the more trailer-friendly franchise bait, and the remaining, non-villain cast essentially being Gwen and Aunt May, the movie never stood a chance of replicating that kind of power.

  4. Greg, this is a well-thought and constructed article, but I disagree with much of it. In my opinion, the original story, “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” is much more remembered for it’s historical importance than for the actual story told. You mention that the emphasis on Spider-Man’s guilt at his unwitting role in Gwen’s death is what might set this story apart from other “fridging” stories, but as far as I can tell, that aspect wasn’t really explored in those comics, and has only become an important part of the lore due to fan speculation. Nowadays, not even those involved in the creation of the comics recall who came up with the idea to put the “snap!” in there. As a mater of fact, even if at that point it was a novelty as opposed to a cliché, I think Gwen’s death in the comics fits a lot better the fridging critique than the movie version. She was not a terribly interesting character, and was killed specifically to shock and to set up a new status quo for the titular hero. Heck, in the comic, she was unconscious the whole time, therefore she was blissfully unaware of her own demise! Most of here important today derives specifically from the fact that she died tragically.

    The movie version of Gwen, in contrast, was a great character in her own right, easily one of the high points of both movies. It was established that she was a smart, charming, corageous woman with a bright future ahead of her. And what’s more, she put herself in danger by her own choice, and her help was essential in saving the city. So yeah, even if the aftermath of the movie focuses of the effect of her death on Peter/Spider-Man (he is, after all, the titular hero), it was not as shallow as the comic version. I agree that some things in the movie didn’t work, but to me the Gwen/Peter stuff was consisntently great, including the handling of her death (which, by the way, would probably only be known to comic book readers. I doubt most general moviegoers are even aware that it’s an adaptation of an actual comic book storyline)

    • David Balan says:

      I’m with you on this one – Gwen’s development as an independent character with her own desires, in addition to her romance with Peter, was probably THE strongest point of the movie, and it definitely saved it from being the pointless punch-up it would have devolved into had she been less relevant to the story.

      The tacked-on ending bit was silly, though, I agree with Greg there.

  5. I think this article misses the forest for the trees. By the point the movie reaches the death scene, the neck-snapping is completely irrelevant; the entire running time of the movie has been about Peter’s guilt over Gwen.

    It’s drawing a parallel between his parents, Norman Osborn and himself, showing people who tried desparately to avoid getting their loved ones mixed up in what they were doing and failed. Peter Parker goes running after the whole Oscorp conspiracy, leading to what is (so far) quite a miserable and tragic life and a million miles removed from what his parents wanted. And rather than appreciating that his parents tried to protect him, he’s just angry and resentful. Norman Osborn tried to keep his son away from him, and Harry ended up exactly like him. Peter tries to keep Harry away from the super-craziness, and doesn’t succeed because Harry just takes it as a sign that Peter has wronged him. And during all of this, Peter is haunted by the memory of Gwen’s father, who he was unable to save and who told him to get away from Gwen. He tries to distance himself from Gwen, but is unable to do it because she insists on being involved with what he’s doing.

    When most of the movie, from its very first moments, is about this theme of guilt over failed responsibility, what difference does it make whether it was the web or the ground that did the deed? (Though, my memory is that they did get the neck-snapping in there at the end, so I’m not sure you’re correct in the first place. Regardless, that certainly was not the focus of the scene.) I did not have the sense for one moment during the graveyard sequence that Peter was blaming anyone other than himself. That’s why he decides to quit. It was his responsibility to make sure that no one got in the line of fire (as illustrated so wonderfully in that slow-motion action scene where he pulls people away from the electrocuted railing), and he couldn’t keep Gwen away, any more than his parents could keep him away.

    My wife and I, who knew the whole time that Gwen was most likely going to die, were still devastated by the ending. And to me, a guy standing by a graveyard for a year obsessing over his loss and culpability is not a “feel good ending”. I don’t know what movie you were watching.

    Actually, it seems like most people saw a different movie than we were. We were blown away by this movie; definitely one of our favorite superhero movies ever, so rich as it is simultaneously in human compassion, tension and fan-service. I don’t care for the parents in the comics, whose mention has never taken place in any half-decent story except Ultimate Spider-Man’s Venom arc (and I include the recent graphic novel Family Business in that list of stinkers), which thankfully was the template here. (My wife and I were surprised and a little disappointed that Harry Osborn turned into the Green Goblin and not Venom, given the connection to Bendis’s storyline and the fact that he actually injected himself with something called “venom”.) But I’ll be damned if the writers didn’t manage to get a great, fresh story out of Peter’s parents.

    I don’t understand what people are seeing in this movie that has them so angry, and why people are unable to see the movie that had us on the edge of our seats the entire time, but maybe it’s taken too much creative license? I don’t know, it baffles me.

    • David Balan says:

      I agree that this movie had a lot of good ideas – personally my critiques are mostly structural. None of the great plot threads (Richard Parker @ Oscorp, Harry & Norman, Peter & Gwen, Max & Smythe, Electro’s clear mental illness, etc…) ever actually tie into one another – they just abruptly end or are discarded without any thought or resolution.

      Maybe that reflects how real life actually works (not everything always connects) but this is fiction, and in my opinion there were a LOT of missed opportunities to play UP the guilt/responsibility theme. There were too many villains (again) and the causal connection of the plot resembled a piece of swiss cheese.

      The script needed more drafts. But I’ll be damned if there weren’t some EXCELLENT ambitions in this film. Worth seeing just for that.

  6. Sorry folks. Been on the road for several days and am late getting around to this. Lots of good comments here–more things than I could possibly address at this point. But I will talk about a couple of things.

    Lic. GUIDO-VISIoN, I agree that Gwen was a particularly good character in the movie–more interesting than Mary Jane in the first trilogy. Personally, I found many of their scenes in this last movie charming, but to me the story of the relationship itself seemed inconsistent and full of arbitrary events. But things are always subjective …

    Mordechai, I like your first line about me missing the forest for the trees, because that’s actually part of my frustration with the film. If the trees aren’t working for me, then the forest isn’t … yeah, I’m losing my metaphor, aren’t I? :) But a big part of my disappointment is that if I feel myself repeatedly being thrown out of the movie emotionally (those would be the trees, I guess), then when the movie tries to hit me with a “big effect” like Gwen’s death if feels hollow and false. But again, that’s subjective.

    Much like David says, I’ve seen far worse movies and far worse superhero movies. There are some positive things here, and if you don’t find yourself getting thrown out of the movie then I can easily see it being effective.

    And I agree that a guy standing for a year in a graveyard is not a “feel good ending.” But that’s also not the ending. We’ve got another several minutes left to try to set up the Rhino and the bravery of the boy in costume and for Peter to suit up, etc. That last several minutes seemed disjointed to me and that’s what I was trying to get at.

    The last thing I want to mention is the business about whether Gwen’s head hit the ground first or whether the whiplash effect snapped her neck. As I watched the movie I clearly got the sensation that her head hit first and I was shocked they made the change. Later, Forrest Helvie, someone who has frequently written for Sequart, told me he thought the webbing snapped her neck. When Mordechai wrote the same thing here, I had a moment of panic. Did I see it wrong?

    Well, after a quick Google search, I discovered that there are conflicting accounts out there. Of the first four sites I found that addressed the issue, two said the webbing snapped her neck and two said her head hit the ground. What are we to make of that?

    Well, without seeing the movie again, it would seem to me that the filmmakers have made it ambiguous. When I saw it, I didn’t even get the sense that there was ambiguity–it never even entered my mind. Had I felt like it was unclear, I would have addressed that. (And personally I don’t have much respect for it if it’s deliberately ambiguous.)

    Regardless, had I felt like it was unclear, I would have and should have addressed it that way in the piece. But I assume we’ll be able to tell a little better when we have home video versions of it.

  7. Horaz SC says:

    “Actually, it seems like most people saw a different movie than we were. We were blown away by this movie; definitely one of our favorite superhero movies ever, so rich as it is simultaneously in human compassion, tension and fan-service.”

    “I don’t understand what people are seeing in this movie that has them so angry, and why people are unable to see the movie that had us on the edge of our seats the entire time, but maybe it’s taken too much creative license? I don’t know, it baffles me.”

    200% agree.

    I knew Gwen Stacy died in the comics and what it meant,
    but I just couldn’t believe it when it actually happened in the film
    and in fact I wasn’t expecting it at all.
    It WAS a shock and I’m certain it wasn’t made to feed some shallow
    people’s refrigerators and any other expressions that honestly only
    sound more and more dumb through time (factor this by four if the person
    mentioning it thinks they are entitled to do so based on the number of comics
    they own and wants to take a “serious” approach at the medium).

    I do not know what Spider-Man scholars think they know to approve of a film,
    but Amazing Spider-Man 2 was one hell of a movie watched by many from a wrong angle. Perhaps it’s about time they sit down regularly in front of a screen instead of still hanging from the ceiling…
    No matter how much Spider-Man you have consumed, Spideys powers, let alone, a formed opinion on certain undeniable aspects, won’t stick to you.

    On a final, checkmate statement, Garfield IS Peter Parker.
    In the same vein Dafoe IS The Green Goblin.
    I don’t care what Disney-Marvel wants me to think in this Nth reboot of them.
    …and spoiler alert: you also shouldn’t.

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