Amazing Spider-Man is definitely a hit—$91.6 million opening weekend—but the questions are just beginning. As are the spoilers just in case you DO NOT KNOW THE CENTRAL CANON OF SPIDER-MAN LORE. Look away, look away if you haven’t seen the movie or read the comics. If you have…you may proceed.
As you know by now, Gwen Stacy, Spider-Man’s first girlfriend, meets her demise in Amazing Spider-Man 2, just as she did in a two-part comics story called “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” (there was no internet so story titles had to be WILD) written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Gil Kane with inks by John Romita and Tony Mortarello. Now before we go any further, just remember: Gerry Conway was the Dan Slott of his day, to give it some context. The death of Gwen Stacy in the comics has many elements of the film version. In the comic, Gwen is hurled off the George Washington Bridge (although in the art it was clearly the Brooklyn Bridge) in battle with the Green Goblin; Peter tries to save her by grabbing her with his webbing, but she’s dead when he reels her in.
Sam Raimi actually referenced this scene in his own Spider-Man movies, by having Mary Jane threatened by the Green Goblin on a bridge (once again the Brooklyn Bridge, although the tramway is from the 59th Street Bridge). Peter has to choose between saving MJ or a tramway full of kids but being a real hero, he saves both! It’s interesting that comics essentialist Raimi wanted to reference the most famous Spider-Man story but not kill off the wrong girlfriend via the Green Goblin method.
For those who didn’t know or didn’t care about the comics version, Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan and Jesse David Fox discuss the ending and have differing opinions. Fox cried and thought it was sad. Buchanan thought it was dramatically slack.
But that’s my biggest problem with the decision to kill off Gwen Stacey: They rush through it! I would have loved to live with that plot point a little longer, or even let the mood marinate between films, à la The Empire Strikes Back. Instead, the studio is so petrified by the idea that you might leave this movie depressed that they rush Spider-Man into another action sequence in order to get him back into wise-cracking mode. If you’re saying, “We need to have Spider-Man fight a silly, bellowing Paul Giamatti in a mechanical Rhino suit so that the audience knows the status quo will be preserved and will still go to seeThe Amazing Spider-Man 3,” then maybe you are not making the sort of movie that kills off its female lead.
Although ASM2 keeps the general outline of Gwen’s death, it did change the setting, perhaps to avoid comparisons’ to Raimi’s bridge sequence—although Gwen does retain the stylish lightweight spring coat she’s wearing in both the movie and the comic. (The movie version adds a stunning floral lining.) Instead of falling off a bridge, Gwen insists on going with Peter to turn a power plant back online so a plane won’t crash (What?) and in the battle, gets tossed off a clock tower.
However, once thing that DOES match up is the ambiguity of the cause of death, and one of comics great debates. When I first read a reprint of the OG Gwen story line, it was pretty clear to me that it wasn’t falling that killed Gwen—it was Peter’s stopping her with his webbing, which snapped her neck—as suggested by the “SNAP” sound effect in the panel! Of course she would have died anyway, but now Peter Parker has one more thing on his consciousness.
Despite what seemed like a pretty open and shut case guilt over killing Gwen isn’t really a part of Spidey’s lexicon of broods for a long time in the comics, something which has surprised me over the years. Plus, in the actual scene, the Green Goblin claimed that Gwen was dead before Spidey even saved her because…falling killed her. So Peter was off the hook right then and there. But what REALLY happened?
Luckily, Vulture is pretty much Spider-Man obsessed and Abraham Riesman has a fascinating history of Gwen’s death in the comics and movies. Riesman cobbles together Sean Howe’s history of Marvel, and interviews with Conway over the years to put together the picture:
A few months later, Marvel published an editorial in the letters page for Amazing Spider-Man in an effort to settle the debate: “[i]t saddens us to have to say that the whiplash effect she underwent when Spidey’s webbing stopped her so suddenly was, in fact, what killed her.” Case closed, right?
Not so fast. Fans smelled a rat. If that was the original intent, then why wasn’t it made clear in the comic? Why include Goblin’s statement about the fall killing her?
Readers were right to be suspicious. Behind the scenes, there was even more confusion about the intended cause of death — confusion that has never been totally resolved. Lee claims he never approved the decision to kill off his beloved Gwen in any form and gave an interview years later where he expressed unease with the neck-snapping explanation: “To me, that’s a little too — I don’t think we have to know her neck snapped, you know what I mean?”
Gwen’s death has more recently been addressed in the comics, with several stories dealing with Peter guilt or reactions to it, including the 2005 Mark Millar story where Spider-Man uses MULTIPLE threads of webbing to prevent Mary Jane from falling when the Green Goblin tries to do it all over again. So you can teach an old spider new tricks.
But what about the comic book Gwen Stacy? For a bit, Gwen was among those characters who were on the permanent do-not-resuscitate list—Bucky Barnes, Uncle Ben and Jean Grey are also famous examples, ALL of them violated sooner or later—so then came the story of the Gwen Stacy Clone, as recounted in this Brian Cronin post from 2012. Gwen’s clone first appeared in Spider-Man #144 “The Delusion Conspiracy” by Conway, Ross Andru and Dave Hunt, a mere two years after dying, so the blink of an eye in comics terms. But as Cronin relates, nobody seemed happy with this clone thing—over the years the clone was first an actual clone, then not a clone, then a clone again and finally…a woman named Joyce Delaney who was killed by another Gwen Stacy clone in a Spider Island story by Fred van Lente.
Of course, then there is the OTHER Gwen Stacy storyline, from J. Michael Straczynski’s Spider-Man run where it is revealed that Gwen had twins and Norman Osborn was the father and….maybe it is best we forget about that whole thing.
Now, getting back to ASM 2, here’s ASM2’s producer Avi Arad, talking about how Gwen died in the movie:
While some fans have found all the foreshadowing about eminent death in the film, Arad points to the dialogue about time – about time being luck, time being fast, how it’s time to be friends, or, as Stacy puts it, it’s time for her to go to England. “So a lot of that had to do with the clock, and the passage of time,” he said. “I think intellectually, we had a good connection. And the clock was special, because it’s the ultimate ticking clock.” The slo-mo in the scene, he said, made it more visually stunning, because “it gave you the opportunity to see the almost-moments.” From a design perspective and a script perspective, Arad said, “it was very successful.”
Oh wow falling off a clock tower means the passing of time. This is deep stuff. As you may recall, I was less than thrilled with ASM2’s storyline. I am happy to say that Rob Bricken over at i09 has delivered a vintage performance with The Amazing Spoiler-FAQ which is a hilarious take down of the shoddy storytelling:
But the movie can’t be all random coincidences, can it?
No it is not. There are also ridiculously contrived circumstances, such as the creation of Electro, which features sad-sack Max Dillon being ordered to fix a giant loose wire in the room where they keep the man-eating electric eels. This giant, frayed wire is positioned directly above the tanks containing the man-eating electric eels, and these tanks are of course completely open on top. Now, of course, Oscorp runs the entire city’s power grids and is a multi-billion dollar corporation with the strictest safety measures in pace, but whoops, the one guy in charge of shutting down the electricity for that wire isn’t about to let someone’s life get in the way of leaving work at 6pm? And of course, Max, as a brilliant electrical engineer, decides to stand precariously over an open tank of man-eating electric eels to grab both ends of the giant, sparking frayed wires as anyone with his education and experience would do. The fact that he falls into a giant tank of man-eating electric eels while holding two ends of a giant live electrical wire is an outcome no one could have foreseen.
…and so on and so forth. Maybe Gwen deserved to live, but for sure she deserved a better movie to die in.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.