Let me start by saying I am not a “Spider-Man Guy” and a great deal of my knowledge of the character comes from osmosis (from my college roommate who was a Spidey Guy and from the internet). So that 1988 Amazing Spider-Man Annual that marked the first time I ever read a single comic book that featured Gwen Stacy, I was instinctually aware of her connection to Peter Parker. I may not have known the specific details prior to actually reading The Death of Gwen Stacy in trade sometime in the 90’s, but I knew she was Peter’s love who was murdered by the Green Goblin. Then I read the trade. Then I discovered the panel below. Then I discovered the truth:
Spider-Man killed Gwen Stacy! However inadvertent, however unintentional, as conveyed by the “SNAP!” in her neck region, Peter Parker’s attempt to save his girlfriend actually resulted in her death. It was quite a shocking discovery for me and, while I’m having a difficult time 100% confirming if Peter is aware of his culpability, I imagine it was for Mr. Parker as well when he learned the truth. I’ve read that that fatal mistake on Peter’s part, a death for which he actually is to blame (as opposed to Uncle Ben’s or Captain Stacy’s deaths that he just takes responsibility for due to his guilt-complex), led to a turning point for him as a character and, ultimately, also brought Peter and Mary Jane Watson together in their grief.
So why am I bringing all this up 40-plus years after Gwen’s comic book death?
Because Tuesday August 19, 2014 marked the home release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 film that featured a cinematic version of that landmark 1973 event. As with the source material, it was a Green Goblin involved in the death sequence (Peter’s friend Harry Osborn rather than his father Norman though) but the scene shifted from a bridge to a clock tower. In addition to environmental shift, the movie makes the choice to remove the blame for Gwen’s death from Peter’s shoulders and put it squarely on the impact of the fall.
Yes Peter tries like hell to save her (highlighted by an amazing cinematic moment when that final rescue web fires out from his wrists and looks like a hand reaching for Gwen), but the impact of her head snapping against the ground before the web goes taut is what kills her. I had doubts as the memory of my theatrical experience, but one beauty of the home player is the ability to frame-by-frame and that clearly showed me Gwen’s skull striking the ground first, then Peter’s web going taut. Its close enough, but the only crime cinematic Spider-Man committed in the death of movie Gwen was not reacting quickly enough.
It bothered me quite a bit at first, that removal of fault. I know, given the nature of Parker’s character, it will not change the guilt/responsibility Peter feels and as the movie franchise rolls on it will likely become another of his driving forces along with those parental issues and Captain Stacy’s death (how these films treat Uncle Ben’s death is another topic entirely), but it changes the dynamic of responsibility and the great power that creates it. In comics, Peter had a responsibility to use his great power responsibly but failed to do so and that failure tragically killed his great love. In the movie take, he was just a little too slow and she died tragically.
Still, resolving that creative dissonance didn’t quell my issues with the treatment of Gwen. I realized what my true issue was: her death! The Gwen Stacy of Sony’s Amazing Spider-Man movie franchise did not need to die just because she died in the comic book! Yes it is a landmark story in the print history of the character but why did the most interesting aspect of this film iteration of Spider-Man need to die already (if at all)?
The Peter/Gwen dynamic (highlighted by the touching “street crossing” scene) was the heart of ASM2 and had a great deal more life to be explored, particularly in a franchise that has already announced two more Spider-Man sequels, a Sinister Six movie, a Venom/Carnage movie, and an unknown female-led feature. Obviously I have no idea where the direction is heading for the future films, this all comes from the heart/gut, and they tell me there was so much more to be done before (or if) Gwen’s was killed.
My first thought is that Gwen’s fate was sealed because of a need to make her iconic death 40-plus years ago be a part of cinematic lore as well. Yet very little of the Spider-Man source material has been used faithfully for Marc Webb’s movies so why would this aspect of it be absolutely necessary to include? If it was to heap yet another loss on Peter, to add an additional layer of guilt, then mission accomplished I supposed. But did he really need that? In the first movie alone he took on the deaths of Uncle Ben and Captain Stacy, plus coping with the mystery of his parents. Peter will no doubt take on the guilt of Harry’s transformation into the Goblin and will probably accept some blame for Electro’s actions, so does he need the death of Gwen on top of all that? Peter has suffered and suffered and now there is no happiness left in his life.
My second thought wandered to what Shailene Woodley’s Mary Jane Watson would have amounted to in the film had her part not been cut. I read the following quote from director Marc Webb on Movies.com:
“There was one little scene at the beginning where she is next door and it took place right around the montage where he comes back and there was another little moment between Gwen and MJ. But it just tipped over. The relationship between them [Peter and Gwen] is so sacred and so powerful, that it just didn’t feel right. And it sucks because Shailene is such a f**king great actress and so cool and magical but it was just about having this obligation to this romance that I thought was sacred. It was just one of those things.”
So if that “look its Mary Jane” moment was all Webb intended for ASM2 then my thought process for Gwen’s death isn’t there. If there would have been more to it, perhaps my fears of “killing one woman to make room for another” are accurate. Aside from reasons relating to merely sticking to the source, my other concern has been that Gwen was simply removed in order to make room for Mary Jane as Peter’s love interest. Unfortunately killing off Gwen before even introducing MJ robs future films of a great deal of dramatic content that could have been milked from sticking to the source material. In the comics, it is their mutual sorrow over Gwen’s death that draws Peter and MJ together first as friends and eventually as a couple. That is the sort of meaty subplot that seems perfect for the world Webb has constructed that is parts drama as well as action. Gwen’s survival in ASM2 would have not only bucked the expectations in a positive fashion but it would have allowed more room for her and Peter’s relationship to mature while MJ was simultaneously introduced not as a divisive force but as a friend to the couple, especially since Peter’s life is devoid of a single friendship after Harry’s villainous turn.
Ultimately the fate of any character in entertainment, particularly in a franchise intended to be long-running, is subject to the creative direction of the people in charge and how they believe they will get the most out of said character. Unfortunately the choice to stay relatively true to the source material by killing Gwen Stacy robbed Sony and Marc Webb of the greater creative potential provided by keeping her alive. How about Gwen in England with the long-distance romance angle? Or Gwen in England while another woman (MJ/Felicia/Betty) comes into Peter’s life? Perhaps Peter & Gwen in England together while Harry builds his Sinister Six stateside? Or the aforementioned Gwen/Peter/MJ friendship that develops into an actual support system for our superhero before it is stripped away by Gwen’s (seemingly) inevitable death?
Only time, and the other five announced Spider-Man franchise films, will tell us what Sony/Webb has intended for the Wall-Crawler and perhaps it will unfold before my eyes as something even greater than the potential I see as being wasted by Gwen’s death. Until that day comes though, I will watch ASM2 with mixed feelings, likely turning it off after the funeral (where it feels like it should have ended rather than the tacked on Rhino sequel-bait), and continue to feel as if the best part of this vision of Spider-Man was this:
Thanks for clarifying the cause of death. I wrote about this back when it was in theaters and I complained about the choice to have her head hit the ground first, but someone commented that it was the whiplash effect instead. I didn’t realize that the cause of death was even in dispute when I wrote the piece, but when I Googled it i got about a 50-50 split. But I guess now we know for sure. Thanks.