In Your Face Jam: The Amazing Gwen Stacy Problem

Wed, May 7th, 2014 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Brett White, Contributing Writer
50

Let's have a talk about "The Amazing Spider-Man 2." And this is going to get spoiler-y, so if you haven't seen the film yet, you should look away. And if you haven't yet put it together what this article is going to be about considering the title and the fact that I'm throwing up spoiler warnings, then I applaud your ability to remain unaware of the thing Gwen Stacy has become most known for. You're going to be very surprised by "Amazing Spider-Man 2," and -- possibly -- very angry.

So let's get the spoiler out of the way so I can get down to writing a lot about that spoiler. Here goes: Gwen Stacy dies. She dies! She dies in the film's final act. Does that surprise anyone who even has a passing knowledge of the Marvel Universe? Gwen Stacy being dead has become her most identifiable trait, right up there with her black headband and Romita-approved smile. Considering that she signed on to play a character most known for being dead, Emma Stone's days felt numbered as soon as she appeared on screen in the role. Gwen Stacy was introduced into Sony's "Amazing" franchise for the sole purpose of dying -- but did she really have to die?

RELATED: Garfield & Stone on "Amazing Spider-Man 2's" 'Thrilling and Terrifying' Ending

You know where this conversation is headed

Odds are you've heard the term "women in refrigerators," coined by Gail Simone many years ago to describe the disturbing trend of female characters being killed to further the emotional anguish of the dudes that loved them. She came up with the term to specifically describe what happened to the hip and young Green Lantern Kyle Rayner's girlfriend Alex DeWitt, who the emerald hero found dead and shoved into his fridge by a supervillain. Of course, the underlying trope didn't start with that issue in the late '90s; if the Internet had been around in 1973 when Gwen Stacy met her demise, the trope could easily be changed from "fridging" to "bridging."

Peter Parker's girlfriend Gwen Stacy died in "Amazing Spider-Man" #121, when the Green Goblin found out Spider-Man's secret identity and tossed Gwen off a bridge in order to get back at the hero. Spider-Man, perched atop the Brooklyn Bridge, managed to catch Gwen with a webline -- but the whiplash caused by the save snapped her neck. Yeah, a few of those details -- namely which bridge the incident took place on and whether or not the Goblin had snapped her neck already -- are vague, but the point of the story remains clear; a villain kidnapped a woman -- who then died -- in order to emotionally torture a man. Tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme, beauty and a beast of a trope.

I'm not here to argue that that story is a bad one. That's something that needs to be stated, because the number one defense people muster when their favorite things are criticized is, "but it's good." Is the story good? Yeah, actually, it's considered to be one of the best. It's considered to be groundbreaking, and it's considered to be the story that marked the end of the entire Silver Age of comics. Without the death of Gwen Stacy and the subsequent maturation of super hero comics throughout the rest of the '70s, it's possible to imagine a world where things like "The Dark Phoenix Saga" or "The Dark Knight Returns" never happened. It was 1973. The times weren't so progressive, especially where women's rights were concerned. Marvel in particular weren't all that concerned with their portrayal of women. When Gwen Stacy died, Chris Claremont's feminist run on "Uncanny X-Men" was still a few years away, and solo titles starring Spider-Woman, Ms. Marvel, and She-Hulk had yet to be launched -- in fact, none of those characters even existed. Gwen Stacy died in a time period where women were routinely damseled (placed in jeopardy for a male hero to come rescue), but rarely if ever fridged (killed or severely maimed in order to cause a male hero torment). Tropes aside, it's an important story and widely regarded as the best Spider-Man story. That's fine.

Here's what's not fine, and here's why Gwen's death in "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" got the biggest of the many, many eye rolls I gave that film. This is not 1973, and I rolled my eyes upon learning that even with the overabundance of knowledge we now have about the gross inequality of representation between men and women in the media, the filmmakers still thought it appropriate to rigidly stick to a story created in the much less progressive early 1970s. If you go by the storytelling on display in "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," we really haven't progressed all that much, have we?

the panel which inspired the phrase 'women in refrigerators'

As far as I'm concerned, Stone's portrayal of Gwen Stacy needs to be celebrated on the same level as Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark and Hugh Jackman's Wolverine. She's that good in the role. Even more importantly, she took a character that's been dead for longer than everyone in the two films' target audience has been alive and made her three-dimensional. Her Gwen Stacy was passionate, charming, super smart, and fiercely independent. Emma Stone breathed more life into Gwen Stacy than the character ever had when she was alive in the comics. She created a fantastic role model for little girls to aspire to be like when they see these summer blockbusters. Gwen Stacy proved that even people without radioactive spider-powers can be brave, and that being smart is something to be proud of. In "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," they even saw a female character willing to sacrifice romance for an education. That's different. That's fantastic. But, you know, I hope those little girls got all they needed to out of Gwen, because she's dead -- but hey, at least Spider-Man got pushed back into heroism because of it!

While watching "Amazing Spider-Man 2," one of the few things that becomes clear in the midst of the film's, um, whole lot of everything is that director Marc Webb and screenwriters Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Jeff Pinkner seem to care a great deal about Gwen Stacy's agency. While she does get damseled and fridged in her final moments, she puts herself in harm's way to save Spider-Man. Yeah, if Gwen hadn't stolen that cop car and drove to that giant tube-based outdoor power plant Electro would have fried Spidey to a crisp. Then, only Gwen's scientific know-how restored power to New York City -- and prevented those two completely tangential passenger planes from crashing into each other. Spider-Man needed Gwen Stacy, not just romantically, but as a partner in his crime fighting -- something that he desperately tried to prevent. The couple's main stumbling block throughout the film is Peter's unwillingness to put Gwen in harm's way. He tries to protect her by controlling her life and taking away her choice. When he breaks up with her early on in the movie, Gwen flips the script on him, proclaiming proudly that she is breaking up with him because of his selfishness. And when Gwen comes to Peter's rescue on Power Tube Island, she delivers an incredibly impassioned speech justifying her being there and demonstrating her ability to make her own decisions. But then -- she dies anyway.

Gwen's death felt incongruous with the message the film devoted a good chunk of its four hundred minute running time to developing. Her death just proved Peter Parker right, and therefore proved Gwen wrong. All of her cries for independence, all of her Oxford dreams all disappeared in the end because she did not listen to her boyfriend. Her death also negated the one thing that critics have unanimously praised in what's turned out to be a fairly pannable movie -- the chemistry between Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. Their scenes crackle with way more energy than anything involving Electro, and the filmmakers still thought, "Well yeah they are dynamite onscreen together, but there's this forty year old story where she dies that we should really stick to, even though that's what the majority of the audience expects us to do!"

The other lesson that I wish studios making comic book movies would learn, in addition to the one that includes jettisoning the damsel in distress and women in refrigerators tropes into the sun, and in addition to realizing that they're living in a post-"Frozen" and "Hunger Games" world and that "Catwoman" and "Elektra" happened a decade ago, is that strict adherence to the source material is optional. At one point in "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," the film could have wildly deviated from the source material and explored something truly unique and progressive; Spider-Man decides to move to London with Gwen Stacy so she can go to Oxford. Spider-Man in London?! What a movie! And a super hero making a personal sacrifice for the woman he loves instead of the other way around? Holy original concepts, Spider-Man! Where's that movie? Oh, psyche, it's not getting made because the Sony Cinematic Universe Spider-Man is so wishy-washy about being a super hero that he needs someone in his life to die in every film in order to keep him going. Uncle Ben, Gwen Stacy -- Sally Field needs keep her fingers crossed until the next movie script arrives in her inbox.

So yeah, instead of striking out into new territory, "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" decided to play it safe by telling a story we've now seen countless times since the trope was first chucked off the Brooklyn (or George Washington) Bridge. And instead of telling girls that they too can have valid representation in super hero films, they instead settled for the "listen to your boyfriend for your own good" lesson. At least girls have those "Captain Marvel" and "Wonder Woman" movies to look forward to, and they will more than compensate for the void left by the fantastic Gwen Stacy's death.

Oh, wait --

Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the comedy podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).

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TAGS:  in your face jam, amazing spider-man 2, emma stone, gwen stacy

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