In one sense, it’s silly to warn people off what happens to Gwen Stacy in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Peter Parker develops powers after getting bitten by a radioactive spider. Gwen Stacy dies. It’s what she does. She’s Peter’s first love, and famously, at least in comic book terms, she was killed off — in 1973, in a story arc written by Gerry Conway that was one of the signals that the medium as a whole was taking a turn for the darker and grittier. Her absence has been as important as her presence, the shocking intrusion of the reality of death into Spider-Man’s world after he’s become a superhero, a dramatic upping of the stakes and proof of his fallibility.
In having the latest incarnation of the webslinging superhero, played by Andrew Garfield, fall for Emma Stone’s Gwen rather than the more familiar but not yet introduced Mary Jane, The Amazing Spider-Man signaled that it was setting itself up for eventual tragedy. Is Gwen Stacy really Gwen Stacy if she isn’t doomed? The potential was there from the beginning, when Peter told Gwen his secret, kissed her, and leaped off her family’s 20th story balcony to battle the Lizard, as she gasped, with accidental prescience, “I’m in trouble.”
It took until this year’s sequel for that trouble to actually catch up with Gwen, but when it finally came calling, it did so in voluptuous and terrible source material-inspired fashion. After Gwen helped Peter defeat Jamie Foxx’s Electro with a power overload and just as the lovers looked poised for happily ever after (“Maybe we can still make your flight!”), the film’s second baddie made his big, viridian entrance. Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan), who was hustled through his character arc into evilness with unfortunate briskness, appeared in full Green Goblin regalia, spider serumed-out, wearing the OsCorp armor he’d stumbled upon and riding a weaponized glider. Gwen became a hostage in a fight atop a clock tower that left her falling in detail-laden slow motion, looking up at the camera with horrified eyes as Spider-Man leapt to save her and catch her with his webbing — too late.
Marc Webb’s Spider-Man is a darker one than Sam Raimi’s, but the scene in which Gwen’s time ran out still felt like a disruption, like the superhero franchise had, for a moment, run off its tracks and into unfamiliar territory. After all that nimble, CGI-enabled swinging through the city as if physics were incidental, it was as if gravity were having its revenge. Instead of the usual cinematic recovery shot, lids fluttering, eyes slowly opening to reassure the grieving hero, we got a stream of blood from a nostril. And to emphasize the permanence of what had happened and remove all possible question, we then saw Peter at Gwen’s funeral and then at her grave as the seasons turned.
Gwen’s death was an undeniably powerful moment. How could it not be? Real life couple Garfield and Stone have such palpable chemistry and charm together on screen that they’ve managed to make the Spider-Man reboot more compelling as a romance than as a superhero story. They’ve allowed the relationship between Peter and Gwen to be so believable and so refreshingly free from the usual artificially inserted misunderstandings that Gwen’s death comes across as the only way to deal with a love story that can’t be broken up by secret-keeping. The film took care to preemptively relieve Peter of some of his guilt by having Gwen walk into danger of her own accord and to compress his grieving process and get back into the game before the credits rolled, but it still feels like the franchise is going to struggle to recover from killing off its female lead, even with Mary Jane (played by Shailene Woodley or otherwise) waiting in the wings.
Maybe Gwen Stacy had to perish — though like all adaptations, The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel have picked and chosen their way through their source material, and the version of the character played by Bryce Dallas Howard in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 didn’t meet the same grisly fate. But her death is undeniably disappointing, and not just because it means that we won’t get more of Garfield and Stone together on screen in these incarnations.
Emma Stone’s Gwen was accorded more vitality and less condescension than the average comic book movie love interest. She was smart and perceptive and let in on Peter’s secret instead of being kept on the outside and left to wait and wonder impatiently. She felt like a partner, not a weight on the protagonist, a weakness, or a prize to be won, and while the series obviously wasn’t about to send Spider-Man off to England to follow her to Oxford, the possibility was oddly tantalizing. What if a superhero franchise had to deal with an ongoing relationship with real-world dilemmas, like whose career priorities (degree or crime-fighting) were allowed to come first?
Instead, Gwen became fodder for more superhero angst, and the planned third and fourth movies are going to have a hell of a time picking up and moving on in her wake. The problem with having a character brought to life the way Stone did is she’s not easily shrugged off, and even as Spider-Man hurtles his way into the future, her absence is going to be felt.