Warning: Some spoilers are contained in this editorial
The new Spider-Man films have had their issues, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find even the harshest critic not give credit to the casting choices. Although much of the development of characters and relationships seems to occur off-screen, the strongest traits of characters like Gwen, Peter, and Harry shine through murky plots brilliantly.
Dane DeHaan’s Harry Osborn is generally kind, yet cursed by selfishness and the sins of his father. Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker is more engineer than scientist, curious and loving, yet unwilling to trust others—and his Spider-Man rattles off enough quips to offset the deadpan Tobey Maguire’s three films. Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy is brilliant and brave, driven and very clearly the most adult of the trio.
When Stone was cast for the role of Gwen Stacy, I doubt I was alone in knowing she would be dead by the third installment of the Amazing Spider-man franchise, and although she was the love interest from the second she was announced, Stone gave Gwen an independence that is sorely lacking in female action film roles—especially in superhero movies.
Gwen breaks up with Peter when she is tired of him denying her autonomy, she schools him on introductory electrodynamics that prove essential in the climactic battle with Electro, and for two movies she has come in to save the day despite protests from both her father and Peter. She has plans to study at Oxford regardless of what it means for her relationship and suggests that perhaps she and Peter are just on separate paths. Gwen is more than just Spider-Man’s girlfriend, more than just the daughter of a police captain, she is her own person, and it is only when Peter realizes this–that in order for a relationship to function and be healthy they must each be allowed to make their own choices– that she is willing to give their relationship another chance. And even then, she is still going to Oxford. Gwen loves Peter and wants to be with him but is not about to compromise her dreams for his.
While Peter may understand that he needs to let Gwen be her own person, when she insists on accompanying him to his final battle with Electro, he webs her to a police car. Gwen cuts herself free (read into that any symbolism you want) and chases after Peter, saving him. Again. And it is right about here that I found myself hoping Marc Webb and his team of writers would break from fidelity to the source material and make Gwen into something more than Spider-Man’s dead girlfriend. I had about twenty minutes or so to hold onto that hope.
When Harry dropped Gwen in the final act, my breath caught in my throat as Peter leapt for her and they went crashing through a glass dome and into the clock tower. When Gwen fell and was hanging by a web about to be snapped as Peter and Harry pummeled each other, I again found myself hoping they would break from convention. When a single web shot out to save her as she plummeted a third time, when Webb showed her come to a stop and the audience heard the snap, I still had hope. They kept cutting between Peter and Gwen, indicating that perhaps she could still be alive, until they zoomed out on Peter cradling her body, sobbing.
Gwen Stacy had her own story. The character refused to fall into the trope of the manic pixie dream girl to Peter’s troubled teen self and had a bravery that kept her from sliding into role of damsel in distress, simply there for Spider-Man to save. Gwen had so much that is found lacking in the female cast of superhero films, and keeping her around could have allowed for new stories to be told in the Amazing Spider-Man franchise or at least give it something to make up for the lackluster storytelling. Gwen’s death doesn’t even fall under the women-in-refrigerators trope, serving to neither motivate Peter to do anything nor paint Harry as some more fearsome villain through his willingness to kill those Peter loves. There’s no excuse for her death other than a fidelity to decades-old source material in lieu of keeping around a character that would slap Peter out of his moping, tell him to toss on the red-and-blues, and force him out a window to go do what he was born to do.
But we live in a world where the idea of green-lighting a Wonder Woman movie seems absurd to Warner Brothers, where we are only now getting a Black Widow film announced, and where a character with the traits of Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy doesn’t fall in line with the role women are expected to play.
Of course she had to die.
David Fairbanks is a freelance writer, poet, and artist. You can find him on Twitter at @bairfanx.