Imagine going into “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” completely blind. For those lucky audiences, Electro is probably the least shocking thing about the webslinger sequel. (Spoiler alert!) Imagine their surprise when they discover that Gwen Stacy doesn’t make it out alive.
On the other hand, for those who know a thing or two about Spider-Man mythology, the question was never if Peter Parker’s teenage love interest would die, but when and how. Naturally, some were surprised that Gwen survived the first film. Others thought maybe director Marc Webb and his writing team would drag the romance out to the upcoming third installment. These are all fair concerns, and not just for fanboys — they cut to the very essence of the storytelling in this latest cycle of Spider-Man movies.
Whatever your feelings toward Sam Raimi’s trilogy (I consider the first two among the best examples in a genre for which I have only limited patience), it’s clear that the way Webb set out to differentiate his otherwise vanilla 2012 reboot was by emphasizing the romance. From the moment Sony honcho Amy Pascal opted to start the franchise over (as opposed to continuing where Raimi’s messy third movie left off), some defended her decision by making the analogy to Shakespeare’s plays, which are constantly being remounted. But Spider-Man was hardly Shakespeare — or was it?
Somehow, by choosing to substitute Spidey’s erstwhile love interest, Mary Jane Watson, with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) in the new Andrew Garfield version, Webb and company signaled to aficionados that the central romance would eventually have to turn tragic. (Notoriously, in issues 121 and 122 of “The Amazing Spider-Man,” the Green Goblin tosses Gwen off the George Washington Bridge, and Spidey fails to save her on the way down.) And recognizing that the filmmakers planned to tackle such a significant moment in comicbook history sparked the same kind of curiosity and anticipation that awaits any well-cast Shakespeare revival.
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As the first “Spider-Man” movie preached a dozen years ago: With great power comes great responsibility. By involving Gwen, Webb was essentially signing up for the all-important task of handling one of the great comicbook deaths in a fresh and respectful way. Of course, the same could be said for the character of Uncle Ben, whose demise served to motivate young Peter’s transformation into a costumed vigilante in the previous movie. And this new film opens with yet another blow, as we witness the noble sacrifice of Peter’s parents, who don’t go down without a fight in what feels like the pre-credits action sequence of a Bond movie.
Speaking of Bond movies, the 007 franchise has dealt with this same problem many times before. Whether dipped in gold or shot in the back, Bond girls have a nasty habit of dying off soon after they’re seduced. Never was that pattern more disappointing than in 1969’s “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” which ended with the assassination of Bond’s bride as the newlyweds drove off to enjoy their honeymoon. (“Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace” improved on the formula, following up the tragic death of Vesper Lynd by showing the psychological aftermath of her fate.)
This is where “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” stumbles. The filmmakers go to great lengths to lay the groundwork for Gwen’s death, only to shortchange the consequences. At her high-school graduation, Gwen delivers a valedictory speech that says, “What makes life valuable is that it doesn’t last forever.” And when it comes time to put herself in harm’s way, she makes it clear that she is responsible for her own choices. Refreshingly self-empowered (especially compared with the passive damsel in distress that was Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane in the earlier movies), Gwen is her own person: She breaks up with Peter, she decides to move to London for a once-in-a-lifetime study opportunity and, in an unconventional move, she makes Peter pledge to follow her there.
The screenplay may be clunky at times, but this is all wonderfully anti-patriarchal — a welcome upheaval of the male-driven agenda we get in most superhero movies, and a natural extension of the new “emo” Spidey that Garfield had so endearingly personified in the first movie. So why doesn’t Gwen’s death register more strongly with the audience? And why doesn’t the film deal with the emotional impact this moment has on Peter Parker?
The film shows Peter trying — and failing — to save Gwen’s plummet from the top of a bell tower. As in the comicbook, it is not the fall itself but the whiplash inflicted by Spidey’s web that kills her (though she would’ve died anyway, and his guilt is presumably greater than this technicality). But there’s something oddly anticlimactic about that most important moment, as Peter cradles Gwen’s corpse in his arms. Maybe it’s the music, or the fact that in scenes like this, beloved characters are almost always only “mostly dead” (making the cut to Gwen’s funeral the bigger shock). Or maybe it’s that impassive Spider-Man mask, which really ought to have come off sooner, so we could actually read the expression in Garfield’s “big brown doe eyes.”
All but ignoring the Green Goblin’s fate for the time being, Webb shows Peter looking bereft as he watches video of the valedictory speech he missed, but the film skips over the next five months while Spider-Man hangs up his costume in mourning. Somehow, this feels like the period the film really ought to have explored, instead of wasting time on all those routine montages of Spidey intervening on behalf of bullied science-fair geeks or the yawn-inducingly familiar freak accidents that transform misunderstood Oscorp employees into supervillains. After all, superhero girlfriends don’t die every day, and Gwen Stacy deserves better.
What do you think?