The following contains spoilers for The Amazing Spider-Man 1 & 2, Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man comic, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Try these on for size: [The Amazing Spider-Man 2](movie:508593) was a really good movie. Rhino, Electro, and Green Goblin didn’t add up to too many villains. Hans Zimmer and the Magnificent Six made the right call in grounding Electro’s theme in dubstep. Stan Lee cameos have been annoying for a while.
Have I lost you yet? Opinions are scary, I know. Let’s put one more out there and run with it: Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man movies missed a great opportunity with Gwen Stacy.
Yes, the new flicks handled the character better than Sam Raimi did in his trilogy (or just in Spider-Man 3, to be precise). But if I'm honest, saying something is better than it was in Spider-Man 3 isn’t saying much. At all.
While Raimi’s Spider-Man movies relegated the classic character to a mere plot device in a single film, Sony’s latest attempt at portraying Gwen Stacy appropriately placed her at the fore. In the traditional comics, Gwen is Peter Parker’s first love interest. The Amazing Spider-Man stuck to that story, holding Mary Jane Watson back until Gwen’s finite time had been spent. Emma Stone brought the character to life with such charm and charisma that some jokers want her to revert back to being a red-head and play MJ.
Stone’s Stacy is Peter Parker’s classmate at Midtown High School. They exchange twinkle-eyed glances, Peter sort-of asks her out, and they have dinner with Gwen’s family. Gwen’s mother is a pleasant enough woman. After dinner, Peter reveals to his girlfriend that he is Spider-Man. Gwen’s father dies at the end, murdered by the Lizard; everyone, including Gwen, knows that Dr. Connors/the Lizard is responsible. Peter attempts to honor the elder Stacy’s dying wish (“leave Gwen out of it”), but of course that doesn’t last long, as the young lovers appear to commit long-term in Amazing 2.
BUT WAIT! The Amazing Spider-Man 2 stuck to the script and killed off Gwen Stacy. It was a moment whose impact on Peter/Spidey can only be rivaled by the death of Uncle Ben. Webb’s movie committed to the dramatic and gut-punching event, something that can’t be said for all comic book films (lookin’ at you, Winter Soldier).
So if the Amazing writers weren’t afraid of bearing proper tragedy in their project’s story, why did they not draw more direct inspiration from Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man? Note that it is one of the most highly regarded Spider-Man runs in the character's 50 year history.
In this post-The Dark Knight world - you know, that commercially and critically-acclaimed Batman film that some argue is the reason the Oscars re-upped their number of Best Picture nominees from 5 to 10 - why neglect similar drama when it is ripe for the picking in your own source material?
Gwen Stacy, as presented in Ultimate Spider-Man, is much more interesting than anything we’ve seen from her on the big screen. Bendis’ version of the character is slightly troubled, to say the least. This is exemplified early on when she stands up against Peter’s bullies by brandishing a knife. How can the daughter of police Captain George Stacy behave like such a delinquent?? Well, Gwen’s mother isn't the pleasant woman we glimpse in The Amazing Spider-Man 2: she is a mean old hag who skips town and doesn’t take Gwen in when George is killed by a burglar.
Here’s the kicker, the real meat of the drama: that burglar was wearing a Spider-Man costume.
So Gwen, now living with Aunt May and Peter since there was nowhere else to go, loves her buddy Peter... but hates the cop-killing Spider-Man.
Then Gwen discovers Peter’s secret identity.
How intense would that scene be? Especially if it was the Amazing Spider-Man Gwen Stacy, the one who was dating Peter Parker. You’ve got legitimate drama, a director who can handle character moments, and two fine actors in Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. Denying the world that scene could be a crime.
Of course, Gwen’s tale ends in an abrupt death. In The Amazing Spider-Man 2, she shows up at the climactic fight between Spider-Man, Electro, and Green Goblin. The villains are defeated and, in classic fashion, Gwen finds herself plummeting toward the Earth. Spidey uses his webs to catch her, but the sudden stop snaps her neck.
The death of Gwen Stacy played out entirely differently in Ultimate Spider-Man. Peter Parker grants Dr. Connors permission to study his miraculous blood, an opportunity which Connors takes as far as experimentation. Thus, Carnage is born. The vampiric monster escapes Connors’ lab and makes for Parker’s home, a destination decided by the blood shared by Peter and Carnage. Gwen runs into Carnage before Peter does, suddenly and surprisingly suffering her inevitable fate.
I will say that I prefer the actual cause of death, the long drop and sudden stop, in Amazing 2 more.
However, there is a key difference in how each event unfolded. In Amazing, Gwen is responsible for her own death. It was her decision to show up at the Spider-Man/Electro/Goblin battle. In Ultimate, Peter is responsible - and he knows it. We are to understand that Connors wouldn’t have accidentally spawned Carnage if he hadn’t received permission to study Peter’s blood.
Losing his first true love is heartbreaking for Peter Parker. Being the reason she died... it was unbearable.
Gwen’s story is a tragic one for all involved, and watching Peter staying by her side through the thick and thin could only have benefited the development of our hero.
Would a more Ultimate-inspired Gwen Stacy have been too intense and upsetting for summer blockbuster film-goers? I could maybe grant that possibility. Would it work tonally with what Webb is developing over at Sony? The combination of action, humor, romance, and drama worked in the comics, so I don’t see why not.
Regardless of such factors, I think the Ultimate Gwen Stacy is more interesting. For a rebooted franchise that is often panned for lacking style and individuality, I believe that would have been a story worth emulating.