[SPOILER WARNING: Major spoilers about "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" lie ahead, including in-depth discussion about the ending. Proceed with extreme caution, and at your own risk.]
When Emma Stone first joined the "Amazing Spider-Man" film franchise, fans were surprised to hear she wasn't playing Mary Jane Watson. Stone, best known for her red-headed appearance in films like "Superbad" and "The Help," would be returning to her blonde roots to play Gwen Stacy, Peter Parker's earliest love -- and one of his earliest losses.
The first "Amazing Spider-Man" movie's success hinged entirely on the relationship between Stone's Gwen and Andrew Garfield's Peter Parker, a perfect reflection of the actors' real-life chemistry. Fans started to wonder if the "Spider-Man" team, from director Marc Webb all the way through to the higher-ups at Sony Pictures, would have the nerve to follow through with the story Gwen is most famous for.
Well, wonder no more.
Though it's called "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," the film has an entirely different title in spirit: "The Night Gwen Stacy Died." One of the single greatest assets of the "Amazing Spider-Man" relaunch is officially off the table, now that Stone's character is dead, leaving a heartbroken Peter Parker and an equally heartbroken audience in her wake.
"I knew from the very beginning what the intention was for Gwen's arc," Stone told Comic Book Resources and other outlets about her character's death. After a pause, she looked up at reports, a morbid grin on her face. "I thought it was executed well."
Stone's lightheartedness in the face of extreme on-screen tragedy is exactly why the creative team felt wary of losing Gwen.
"When you do something like that, it's thrilling and terrifying. There's what's terrifying in the movie, and there's also, you know, we adore her," executive producer Matt Tolmach exclusively told CBR News. "She's a part of the culture of the making of these movies. She's so spectacular. Actresses like that don't just come along. Were there moments when we looked at each other and went, 'Are we fucking nuts?' Yeah! "
On the other hand, that's what makes for a great story," he continued. "What's real tragedy? It's not when something happens to somebody you don't care about. So you have to step up to the challenge and be comfortable with the risk."
For his part, Andrew Garfield, star of the "Amazing Spider-Man" movies, felt it "would have been strange" not to follow through on Gwen's comic book arc.
"It's a defining moment in the comics, and not just in the 'Spider-Man' comics, but in comic book history," he told CBR. "It's a fact that we lose people. People die. Death is strangely a part of life. You can't have life without death. It's an amazing thing, and a shocking thing, for audiences of these types of films to witness. Especially with such a beloved character."
From the beginning, the very idea of casting Gwen as the lead of the rebooted "Spider-Man" series meant that her death was inevitable, according to Tolmach. In his opinion, it's all about servicing the Peter Parker character.
"When you decide that you're going to tell the Gwen Stacy story, you know you're going to end up there. You just try to put it off for a little while, because you don't want to lose Emma. You don't want to lose Gwen. You don't want to lose that dynamic," he said. "But these movies are all about Peter Parker and his journey in life and as Spider-Man. You're constantly having to turn the screws on him. This was a movie that, on many levels, is about hope. What's the best way to convey that? It's easy if you make a movie about someone who is doing pretty well, but your message of hope is going to fall kind of flat. You want to make a movie about someone who is brought to their knees, and they're able to find hope in the end. That's inspiring and challenging."
For Garfield, he believes that the death of Gwen Stacy separates "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" from other comic book movies and big-budget blockbusters because it ups the stakes in a truly tragic way.
"I think it's incredibly bold and incredibly necessary, to keep pushing the envelopes and the boundaries of what these movies can contain," he said. "There's a tendency to want to be safe, and a tendency to want to please everybody, and to not ruffle any feathers. There are so many of these movies out, so how do we make sure this one stands out and needs to be seen? We can go and see 'Captain America' and 'The Avengers' and Superman and whatever -- but what is it about this film?
"I think the love story we've created between Gwen and Peter is very authentic and very deep," he continued. "It tugs the heartstrings because it's truthful. How do we subvert that? I think it's one of the strongest parts of that first film, the love story. So I think it's very interesting to subvert it, and to explore where Peter goes from here."
Indeed, that's the big question. Where does Peter Parker go from here?
"You have to give it complete, fair credence, because it's huge, this post-traumatic stress," said Garfield. "It's huge, genuine PTSD for Peter Parker. How is he going to continue fighting? How is he going to continue loving? Will he ever be able to love again? Will he be able to have any personal relationships in his life ever again? What does it do to his power, his ability to fight, his compassion as a human being? These are all the big questions that I'm starting to ask about where we go next."
One possible path forward is through Mary Jane, the woman who eventually married Peter Parker in the "Spider-Man" comic books, well after Gwen's death. Actress Shailene Woodley was cast in "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" as MJ, but was ultimately cut from the final film, as a means of preserving the impact of Gwen's death.
"It wasn't the right time. It was disingenuous," said Tolmach. "It wasn't right for Peter to be feeling that, to be experiencing that in this story, when everything was about Gwen."
As far as Stone is concerned, however, the Mary Jane character is as important to Peter's arc as Gwen. "I'm excited to see what happens with Mary Jane," she said. "I think him overcoming such a horrific experience in his life is one of the most inspiring things, that you can love again. That you can feel responsible and still pick yourself up and find a way to let your love in."
Still, Gwen's death and Stone's departure from the "Spider-Man" series will be a difficult hurdle to overcome in the movies ahead. It's especially difficult for Tolmach, who gave Stone her first big screen break with "Superbad."
"From the moment I met her, when she was 17 years-old, she had that thing," he said. "I always tell people, go back to 'Superbad.' Watch this girl go toe-to-toe with Jonah Hill, and totally give him a run for his money, with that scene in the classroom. I love that movie so much, and her moxie and confidence was what made that character so awesome. She was cool and funny. There was something very special about her in a high school movie. There's something special about everything she does."
That special something will no longer be involved with "Spider-Man," unless future movies bring Stone back in dreamlike sequences, a la the use of Dennis Leary as George Stacy. For her part, Stone is keen on returning to the series, saying, "I've been trying to think of ways that make sense to bring her back, but absolutely, I'm up for doing anything Spider-Man related."
And while Tolmach wants to see her back in action as well, he also believes that the show must go on, focusing on Peter's life after Gwen's death.
"Right now I can't fathom a universe without her," he said. "On the other hand, if we're being true, this is all about what happens to Peter. You don't get to just make it all feel good."
"This never ends. It hangs over him forever, and it will forever define him," he continued. "It's with a heavy heart, but it's in service of the story."
"The Amazing Spider-Man 2" is in theaters now.