(NOTE: Major spoilers ahead. Do not read unless you’ve already seen the movie or don’t give a damn.)
I have something to confess: as much as I like Spider-Man and his ‘verse, I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about The Amazing Spider-Man: I just wasn’t sure that it had anything new to add. Sure, we would get The Lizard on film (and, although I didn’t know it at the time, George Stacy), but aside from that, eh.
Well, that’s what I get for not paying attention.
To be clear, there’s nothing in Amazing that is likely to blow one’s mind. It’s competent, and manages to distinguish itself from the previous iteration of the franchise, but unless it shat gold, there was no way the film was going to recapture the wow factor from the first two Raimi films, and it doesn’t. Still, there is at least one reason why it’s worth a watch: Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy.
Whatever her original role in the Spider-books, Gwendolyn “Gwen” Stacy is primarily (and probably unfairly) known as Spider-Man’s Dead Girlfriend. Although originally intended by Stan Lee to be The One, and a prominent part of the book for years, she was so overshadowed by her death and by Mary Jane Watson that for the longest time, it seemed that there was no chance of seeing her in an adaptation unless it was so the sole purpose of adapting her death. This has changed a bit in recent years, with the character making appearances in Spider-Man 3 and serving as a regular character in The Spectacular Spider-Man,and while she was competently used in both, there was nothing to make me go “Gwen Stacy rocks”.
Amazing‘s Gwen starts out a lot like Spectacular‘s, filtered through the Emma Stone lens. Like in Spectacular, she is a science wonk interning for Dr. Curt Connors; unlike in Spectacular, she is not Peter’s lifelong friend. Also unlike Spectacular, there is no attempt to pretend that she isn’t hot, which I appreciate, since its a stupid trope to invoke when the character is being played by Emma Fucking Stone. And since its Emma Stone, she’s charming and has a lot of chemistry with Andrew Garfield’s Peter.
Now, it’s worth noting that “Gwen is a science wonk” is a detail from the original books (albeit one that was never terribly prominent—she just happened to share Peter’s college classes), which has been given new prominence as a way to make her distinct from Mary Jane. It’s a good character beat, and I appreciate it—it’s nice when fiction takes the (correct) stance that Women Can Like and Do Science. I especially like that there’s no particular greater reason why she likes it—she just does.
So an act and a half goes by with Gwen being Standard Love Interest, until ZOMG! She learns Peter’s secret identity, in what is easily my least favorite scene in the movie (more on it later) and suddenly, the film becomes interesting. Gwen now has an active role to play in the central plot.
Then, in the third act, as Spidey follows Connors into his sewer lair, he asks Gwen to go to Oscorp to retrieve a couple of Chekhov’s guns: one that Connors needs for his master plan, and one Spidey needs to stop it. Even after Peter realizes that Oscorp is not a place you want to be in and asks Gwen to get the hell out, she remains, making sure to have the building evacuated and she can finish preparing the stuff she needs.
Connors arrives, and the movie turns into a horror film. All Gwen can can do nothing more but hide and hope she is not found.
(Hint: She’s found.) And yet, she has taken steps to not be entirely helpless; in what stands as the likeliest candidate for her crowning moment of awesome, she improvises a flamethrower to attempt to defend herself. While it doesn’t quite work she survives the encounter, which I’m grateful for.
Now, in the ongoing discussion on what constitutes Strong Female Characters, questions have been raised about what form this should take in stories starring a single male (super-) hero. If “equal” is the baseline we’re working towards, how is that achieved without making Spidey a co-star in his own film, or giving Gwen super-powers of her own?
Amazing, I think, gives us a good template. No, Gwen is not Peter’s equal in ability, or even science know-how. However, she is his equal in bravery and heroism, and is arguably his superior morally. When asked the dual questions of “what can you do?” and “what will you do?”, she answered “quite a bit” and “everything I can”, and then went and did just that, because she wanted to.
Also important here is the fact that Gwen’s attempts did not end with her death. As the movie’s sole prominent female character (with the arguable exception of Aunt May), seeing her heroism come at the cost of her life would have ruined the movie for me. Yes, sometimes heroes die, as George Stacy demonstrates (oh, and how I wish he hadn’t) but as a lapsed DC fan, it often seems to me that it’s a price women heroes end up paying much more often (or at least, it can seem that way, given how skewed the male-to-female ratio generally is). Such disparities can be hugely problematic, as they reinforce narratives that women aren’t suited for the front lines, and should be protected for their own good.
Now, to the stuff I didn’t like: despite Gwen’s awesomeness, there’s a handful of scenes that brought me back down to Earth to forcefully remind me that yeah, the experience wouldn’t be complete without a. allowances for the rape culture. I speak, in particular, of the part when Peter forcibly web-pulls Gwen towards him as she is about to leave the scene, which not only gives his secret identity away but becomes the catalyst for their first kiss. I realize that having him simply say “hey, I’m Spidey” isn’t the most dramatic of scenes, but could we please have a scene were having a woman’s agency taken away isn’t seen as ohmygod superhot? Or at least have Peter apologize? Then again, given the other stuff he pulls off—stuff which can be somewhat explained by the fact that he’s a rather socially dumb sixteen year old kid, but still feels somewhat disappointing—the fact that he doesn’t doesn’t exactly feel out of character.
Similarly, I disliked the scene at the end where Captain Stacy makes Peter promise to keep Gwen out of his super-hero life. While I get where he’s coming from, surely Gwen is allowed a say in this? While the last scene in the film strongly suggests that Peter intends to ignore it, the fact that Peter needs to be called on it before he actually decides to do so really sours those last few minutes.
In the end, The Amazing Spider-Man is an excellent Gwen Stacy story, and I really hope the inevitable sequel manages to be an even better one.
ETA: Apropos to nothing, my family and I had a disagreement on a particular detail, and I could use some input. From my interpretation of the film, there was no actual relation between Oscorp’s Spider experiments and the components Peter use to develop his webbing. My sibling disagreed, arguing that the two were indeed connected. Thoughts?