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The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and the Problem with ‘Problematic’
May 7, 2014Posted by on
The recent release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the second in a series of mostly poorly thought-out, borderline soullessly rebooted Spider-Man film adaptations from Sony, has drawn the love and ire of comic book fans and non-comic book fans alike for its controversial last act death. If you haven’t seen the film yet, the major spoiler is that Gwen Stacy, played by likable and popular actress Emma Stone (who, let’s face it , is probably the best part of both movies), bites the bullet, plummeting to her death from a clock tower during a climactic battle between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin. Spider-Man cannot save her, and she dies horribly while he mourns her death, holding her in his arms.
What I have seen from comic book fans online is that the treatment of Gwen Stacy’s death was both shocking and necessary, and also well done. Stacy’s death famously took place in the comics originally in the 1970s, where the Green Goblin killed her, much the same way that the film version of the Green Goblin does in the new movie, except without the clock tower nonsense (it was originally just a building she plummeted from). Yes, Green Goblin in the 70s was Norman Osborn and Green Goblin in TASM2 is Harry Osborn (Norman’s son, who is Peter’s age), but that little change makes Gwen’s demise even more utterly heartbreaking – Harry is supposed to be Peter’s good friend after all.
Stacy’s death is important in that it humbles Peter, reminds him of who he is and what is capable of happening to his loved ones, and nearly breaks his spirit completely. It is also important in that it is one of the most famous moments in comic book history. It is something still debated and talked about amongst Marvel fans to this day. Those less familiar with the comic book series, however, have taken a different approach to the tragic death of Gwen. I’ve heard Gwen Stacy referred to as a damsel (which is incorrect and also not really a bad thing even if it was correct) and that her death was “problematic.” I’ve seen people refer to the incident as a “woman in refrigerator” moment for the film, which is also completely wrong and an eye-rolling example of some people just not getting the film.
I find these assertions to be absolutely ridiculous. Stacy is never “damseled” (thanks, Tumblr, for that verbiage!) in either movie. The film goes out of its way to show us multiple times that Stacy is the smartest person in the room. She is well on her way to becoming important in her job at Oscorp. It is Gwen who fixes Spider-Man’s web shooter so that he can more tactically fight Electro. It is Gwen who is studying to be a microbiologist or whatever, and who is up for a scholarship at Oxford (a plot point I was far more invested in that what was up with Peter’s mom and dad). It is plucky Gwen who wants to assist Spider-Man on every mission he goes on, putting herself in harm’s way in order to save the city from the clutches of Electro. She is competent, intelligent, and heroic. Her arc is better than Peter’s in both movies.
It is important to remember that in the first Amazing Spider-Man movie (a film I liked more than Nick, but still thought was fairly average), Gwen’s father, Captain Stacey (Denis Leary), passes away heroically, saving Peter from the wrath of the Lizard (Rhys Ifans). Peter makes a promise to the dying Capt. Stacy that he will stay away from Gwen, lest she suffer the same fate as her father. Peter almost immediately undoes this promise and becomes Gwen’s boyfriend. The fact that he broke his promise and this ultimately led to Gwen’s death is all the more tragic for both Peter and Gwen. Yes, he learned a lesson at the expense of the death of a loved one – this is what happens in films like these. This is a fiction universe where everyone around our main character, the enigmatic Spider-Man, is a target for tragedy.
The idea that Gwen’s death was a “woman in refrigerator” moment is also utterly absurd. In 1994, Kyle Rayner’s (one of the many Green Lanterns in the DC Universe) girlfriend was shockingly murdered and stuffed into a refrigerator in what has become one of the more shameless moments in comic book history. It was wrong to do something like this then and it’s still wrong now. In 1999, comic book writer Gail Simone dubbed this trope “woman in refrigerator” to denote the awfulness of it. I don’t like the trope whatsoever. It is wrong to murder a character for the sole purpose of making the stakes higher for whatever superhero the story focuses on. This is absolute not what TASM2 does with Gwen Stacy. Going by the comic book example, Stacy’s death predates the trope by two decades anyway!
I think there should be more comic book films targeted toward a female audience. I would be thrilled to see a Wonder Woman film from Warner Bros., and I think we are close to getting one. I don’t think that Marvel has done a good job integrating females into their films whatsoever, but they seem to get a free pass for anything they do from nerds on the internet, so whatever. I do think that both Amazing Spider-Man films have thus far done a worthy job of trying to appeal to a more mixed-gender audience, and this is worth noting. Stone’s portrayal of Gwen Stacy was a highlight of both films, and her character is much more important than say Black Widow’s in any Marvel Cinematic Universe film or Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises.
The scripts in both of the rebooted Spider-Man films have so far not done a great job handling the more action-y aspects of a comic book film (though TASM2 is an improvement in that respect), but I don’t think anyone can make the case that Gwen Stacy isn’t the second most important character in either film and that her character is arguably more interesting and better written than Spider-Man himself. It’s sad that Stone won’t get a chance to reprise her role as Stacy in future films, but the fact that it’s so sad is a testament to how good the character was, not because her character’s death was “problematic.”