Needless to say, SPOILERS for Amazing Spider-Man 2!
Probably the least surprising moment in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 – at least for comics readers – was Gwen Stacey’s fateful death. The moment SONY announced Emma Stone would be playing the tragic character, fans knew it was only a matter of WHEN, not IF, we would see “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” on the big screen. And when ASM2 set photos leaked showing her in a terribly familiar outfit, readers knew it was a done deal. I had plenty of problems with Amazing Spider-Man 2, but how they reimagined Gwen Stacy’s death was not one of them.
The real surprise was how Amazing Spider-Man 2 reimagined Gwen Stacy’s death: they updated her story to fit the ethos of our contemporary culture.
“The Night Gwen Stacy Died” is the title of Marvel Comics’ The Amazing Spider-Man #121. Published in June 1973, it features Peter Parker returning from Canada with a cold, anxious to meet up with his girlfriend Gwen for some good ole fashioned [insert wholesome metaphor for 70s-comics-approved teen romantic activity here]. Before poor Peter can get back to his apartment, Norman Osborne remembers not only that he’s the Green Goblin, but that Peter is Spider-Man. He kidnaps Gwen and in the ensuing fight, drops Gwen. Peter webs Gwen, but her neck snaps and she dies.
Gwen Stacy’s death became a landmark moment in Spider-Man’s history, one that marks him forever. It’s hard to imagine Spider-Man today without the legacy of Gwen’s death.
It’s not surprising that Amazing Spider-Man 2 would retell the death of Gwen Stacy. But rather than slavishly reproduce the 1973 story, the film reimagined the story for our day.
The most obvious update is Gwen’s active role in her own death. In the comic, Gwen’s a wholly-passive character. Peter never sees her conscious, and she dies without any agency. While that worked well enough in the 1970s, we live today in a world of strong female characters.
So in Amazing Spider-Man 2, Gwen is not only a brilliant scientist and valedictorian, she ‘s courageous. She joins Peter in his battle to save the city, despite his numerous protestations to the contrary. In their final exchange, as Peter tries to wave her off, Gwen holds her ground, insisting:
Peter, this is my choice. This is my choice.
In the original comic, Gwen is a passive bystander. In the film, Gwen is a brave, confident actor who plays an indispensible role in the resolution of the plot.
The other major update is in how the film uses Gwen’s death. In the original comic, Gwen’s death seems to be a result of his human frailty. He mentions frequently that he’s not at the top of his game, that he’s feeling under the weather. We’re left to assume that had Peter been at full strength, he’d have been able to defeat the Goblin and save the girl.
The comic plays on Peter’s illness to emphasize his Everyman-ness.
Unlike most of the other Marvel heroes, Spider-Man is one of us. Despite trying his best to be a hero, the city often hates him. Despite his spider-powers, he can’t balance all his obligations. Because he chooses to help others, his personal life is always a wreck. This is why we love Peter. This is why we root for him.
But part of what it means to be human is to be limited. To be captive in a fallible, failing body. A body that gets sick, that quits on us – sometimes when we need it most. Peter’s inability to save Gwen is directly tied to his mortality, a reminder that he’s still more human than super.
That’s why Gwen’s comic-death is so tragic – Spider-Man is a fundamentally optimistic character, and her death is a reminder that we don’t live in a world that always gets a happy ending.
Amazing Spider-Man 2 uses Gwen’s death to comment not on human weakness, but on human mortality. At the beginning of the film, Gwen muses that the young imagine themselves to be immortal, even though they’re not. She challenges the graduates to live life to the fullest, not to waste any moment.
Gwen’s words are a sanitized nihilism, the “eat and drink for tomorrow we die” sort of philosophy that’s given rise to #YOLO and Ke$ha’s “Die Young” and their like.
Peter understands the real danger his life as Spider-Man poses to Gwen (in light of the deaths of Captain Stacy and Uncle Ben). His desire to protect her wars with his desire to love her throughout most of the film, until she finally opts out of their relationship all together by taking a fellowship in England.
The film makes much of Peter wasting time he could’ve had with Gwen.
The message is clear: Death is inevitable, so we shouldn’t let fear keep us from maximizing the time we have with those we love.
The tragedy of Gwen’s death in the film is quite different from the comics. The film reflects the inevitability of death pervading our culture (True Detective, anyone?). From Gwen’s opening monologue graduation speech on, we know that Death isn’t an enemy Spider-Man can conquer.
The (ultimately nihilistic) message is that in the face of death’s inevitability, we must seize every moment.
What makes Gwen’s death tragic is not that Death itself is tragic (as in the comics), but that Peter wasted the time he could’ve had with Gwen.
Turning Gwen into a strong, active female character transformed the story of her death into a story for our times. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 team deserves to be commended for reimagining this tragic, landmark storyline in a way that feels both faithful and fresh. If Gwen had to go (and she did), she got a fantastic send-off.