The following contains SPOILERS regarding 2014's The Amazing Spider-Man 2. If you're a fan of the comics, you pretty much know what I'm about to discuss.
A few weeks ago I found myself with a lack of plans since most friends were busy and my husband was out of town. This particular Tuesday afternoon I decided to see The Amazing Spider-Man 2 when I left the office. I settled on the superhero movie because I’d seen most everything else interesting in theaters, and because I figured the Very Important Thing from the comics had to happen in this sequel.
In one of the most defining moments in the original comic book series, readers witnessed the death of Gwen Stacy, Peter Parker’s high school love. It’s a crucial and dramatic scene made even more tragic because it’s unclear in the comic whether Green Goblin has already killed Gwen when she’s thrown off the George Washington Bridge or if Spider-Man’s web grabbing her mid-free fall whiplashes her so severely her neck breaks. This one moment is so much a part of Spider-Man legend that to this day people still debate what really happened and it even inspires amazing surreal-narrative novels. About a fictional event! In this latest series of films Gwen Stacy is played by the endlessly charming actor Emma Stone. She’s funny, intelligent, and gloriously blond as Gwen; her rapport with Andrew Garfield (her real life boyfriend) feels like the real glue of the story and the films would feel empty without this element.
So, I went to the movie to see Gwen Stacy die. Not that I wanted her to.
I settled into my seat at the theater with my nutritious concession-stand dinner of chicken tenders. I ripped open ketchup packets while observing the crowd as they filtered in. I enjoy the experience of going to a movie by myself; of course it’s rare that I’m truly by myself. Observing others’ reactions to the same material has always fascinated me.
That night the theater was relatively empty—another reason I love to go right after work on a weeknight. There was a family in the row directly in front of me; a man and woman with two small children. The children, a girl and a boy, were seated between their parents. A twenty-something man in a tie arrived just as the trailers started and by the looks of it, he had also came straight from work, though a large popcorn and soda would serve as his dinner. He was two rows ahead of me.
The movie started, and just like in the first film, I was most captivated by the scenes that centered on Peter Parker, not as Spider-Man, but as a teenager talking to his Aunt May or going back and forth on his need to break up with Gwen to make sure she is safe (foreshadowing!). The action was fine if quite unthrilling. The movie almost felt like two separate movies mashed up into one, and I probably yawned as Jamie Foxx’s Electro tried frying Times Square or when Dane DeHaan’s Harry Osborne tried saving himself from his father’s own ugly fate1 or… I’m not even sure what Paul Giamatti’s bad guy role served. With a two hour and 22 minute runtime, I was noticing every piece of film that could be excised from the tonally uneven mess. I was taken out of the movie simply for wondering, “Why does this scene exist?” The thing was bloated from the beginning; nothing would have changed had they deleted the first 15 minutes (which they should have). I could go on, but If you want to know my feelings regarding the movie as a whole, my opinion most closely mirrors Film Crit Hulk Smash, who has 237 burning questions for it.
Perhaps that bloat was for a reason. Maybe the director and others in control of the final product also didn’t want to get to the saddest part. There was a minute there where I thought, hey, maybe she won’t die! Alas. Gwen, plucky as ever, decides to help her boyfriend at the last because she cares about the people of New York I suppose, and because she’s smart and knows about electric power-grid machinery. But she is not a superhero, and that’s where she’s less smart and it’s a bit aggravating.2
Gwen meets her demise in somewhat similar fashion to the comics—the Green Goblin drops her down a shaft as Spider-Man comes to rescue her while simultaneously sparring with the enemy. The main difference is that she is alive and screaming Peter’s name as she falls, waiting for that gentle snap of being caught in his web, which was demonstrated so innocently in the first film. As Spider-Man fends off the Goblin, he’s also trying to make sure his web reaches her, but there’s a cascade of metal objects falling as well, and getting in the way of her assured safety. Finally, Spider-Man neutralizes the Green Goblin and dives into the shaft to focus on Gwen—his web reaches her torso in slow-mo, hoisting her, just as her head snaps back and comes into contact with the ground. She appears immediately unconscious. When Peter reaches her and holds her, and that tell-tale blood appears, then it is sure: she’s dead.
You know what’s tough? Seeing Emma Stone die. That guy in the tie two rows ahead of me sobbed. I managed to hear him through my own shallow breath, my tears streaming freely. Gwen Stacy was the untarnished good person in these films, partly due to a lack of any true character depth, but mostly because of Stone’s gargantuan likability factor. Stone portrayed her so lovingly, so ultimate-best-friend-like (and girlfriend-like), that her death really had that emotional gut punch on screen. It felt like the soul of the film had departed.
As I tried hard to stifle any sort of vocalization of my tears, afraid that those nearby might hear me cry, I heard the tiny voice of the little girl in front of me ask her mother, “Why isn’t Gwen waking up?”
And then I cried all over again.
After the movie it was that little girl I couldn’t let go. Because she must have been six or seven years old and she didn’t know what death meant yet.
I tried thinking of when I first understood death. I think I probably had my first inkling when I was a kid watching movies like Jaws. I have a vague memory of sitting on the rug playing with my dolls in my aunt and uncle’s living room in Rhode Island while my aunt and dad watched tv. It must’ve been the late ‘80s. I was not paying attention to the television until I heard the first notes of that famous John Williams score, and then my eyes grew wide as I saw the great white shark and its victims. I was intrigued by the gore and how painful it looked—I recognized that red stuff was the same ooze that would materialize when I scuffed my knees playing with my brother, its mere appearance made me cry—but I didn’t grasp death. Forever is a hard concept for a kid to get, too.
I don’t remember asking my parents about death. I’ll have to ask them if they remember having to explain it to me. I wonder if it was after a horror movie, or any movie. Unless it happens in real life first, I have to think a fictional death in a movie or a book is the kick-off for the conversation. I wonder if we even had the conversation. Or did I come to understand death on my own after collecting all the evidence via media and then understanding more fully when it happened to my aunt or my grandmother or that girl in college? Does understanding death happen all at once? Or incrementally until you’re on the same page with everyone else?
Some people spend their lifetimes trying to comprehend death, and if there is more that it entails beyond the ceasing of life. Death happens, but there are so many unknowns around it. All I’ve learned is that you really begin to understand other people when death looms. When your friend has to go in for extra tests because of a lump. When the younger brother of your best friend passes in his sleep and you see the different ways all of her friends react. When you get the call about the death of a relative two days after it happened. You then understand how death means different things to different people. Everybody understands the cold reality of expiration, but it’s those still living we really have to worry about.
Years from now, that little girl may or may not remember witnessing Gwen Stacy’s death on the big screen, but maybe that was the spark that set off a curiosity about the concept of death and the film’s correlation to reality. Perhaps like Jaws and the blood, she’ll begin to see how movies can reflect the hardest parts of life even if it’s not real. I left the theater thinking about the girl and what that on-screen death would mean to her and what it had meant to me to hear her, but I wasn’t really thinking about Gwen anymore.
1 I was also gawking at how much DeHaan looks like a young Leonardo DiCaprio, perhaps just as capable an actor too—point is I was not paying attention much to Green Goblin.2 To quote the aforementioned Hulk review: "DO YOU REALIZE THAT THIS MOVIE IS SAYING THAT GWEN DIES BECAUSE SHE DID NOT LISTEN TO HER BOYFRIEND? AND HAD TO BASICALLY INSIST ON MARCHING OFF TO HER OWN DEATH SO IT'S NOT PETER'S FAULT?”