Watching The Amazing Spiderman 2 is more of a complicated enterprise than I had originally thought. Believe me, it's not a sentence I write lightly.
I find that I have so many — SO MANY — thoughts about this movie, its struggles with characterization mainly. But to me, the most painfully significant thing that The Amazing Spiderman 2 accomplished was encapsulated in the role of Captain Stacy (Denis Leary), affectionately hereafter known as The Ghost of Comic Book Tropes Past.
Serious spoilers ahead.
The Amazing Spiderman 2 is, as we all know, the product of a sadly transparent attempt on behalf of Sony to create a comic book universe with the Marvel properties it refuses to give up that will rival the Marvel Cinematic Universe proper. Amazing O-Deck contributor lightninglouie recently wrote a great article about "third-movie" syndrome, and how the main difference between the MCU and the Sony and DC attempts is that Marvel has so far avoided "third movie syndrome," while DC and Sony seem doomed to repeat it.
It's impressive that with "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," Sony has managed to create a movie that is almost at "third-movie" level, when it's only the second movie.
But it's true. The film, betraying the deep misunderstanding of how Marvel is making it happen, just tries to cram as many plot points in as possible. Sony seems to believe that it's simply character recognition that draws in the fans, so why not cram in three villains, including one that is only in the film shouting incoherently for a full total of about five minutes? Why not use Jamie Foxx's potentially fascinating and powerful villain as just a lead up to Green Goblin, get him out of the way in a move that feels both cheap and way too easy, and then 'shock' our audiences with the transformation of a character that could have had a ton of potential over 2-3 movies as a fully developed arc, and who is instead simply presented as a friend of Peter's (which means you should love him too), while banking on you caring about his inevitable, zero-surprise transformation to Green Goblin, given that we showed you what he's going to be in the first 10 minutes of the movie? (While we're at it, why don't I try to parse all of that in an insanely long sentence?)
Why not, indeed.
Others have developed this more fully than I. I bring all of this up to establish the fact that Sony is falling prey to predictable, tired comic book movie pitfalls.
And one of the things that the movie struggled with most clearly was the role of Gwen Stacy.
For once, we really had something with Garfield and Stone. Their chemistry was fresh and kept things from getting too bogged down (most of the time). But we also had a comic hero girlfriend who actually DID things. She was incredibly smart, confident, and took action even when Peter delivered the predictable line which must come in all superhero relationships: "It's too dangerous! You stay here, I'll go."
I loved that about her character in the first movie. It felt like the potential for a new departure and a real strength for this franchise — a girl who is part of the story, really part of it, and who doesn't have to be the "strong until she isn't" woman. This, I thought, could really BE something.
In the story, of course, it's this trait that led Gwen's father to force Peter to promise not to drag her into the dangerous role of Spiderman's girlfriend.
So throughout the second film, Peter is haunted by random appearances of Captain Stacy, glaring dolefully at him, reminding him that he isn't holding up his end. By wanting and pursuing a meaningful relationship with Gwen, who fully understands the risks, he is bucking the system and breaking the Rule of Heroes: he isn't protecting The Girl.
Watching it last night felt like seeing Peter Parker trying to break away from the old mold, to stretch into something new, only to be constantly revisited by the Ghost of Comic Book Tropes Past. What are you doing, Peter? Leary's eyes growled. You are on the verge of becoming a rational being who respects the wishes of your girlfriend as an adult human. You are dangerously close to treating Gwen like someone who actually can make her own choices and who can choose to be in danger, not just to be the ball in an endless game of web-slinging Keep Away. What are you thinking??
Peter fights it. He almost gives into it. And finally, to his credit, he steps away from it. He stops trying to do the tortured hero trying to protect his woman thing. He chooses to follow Gwen and her dreams, instead of demanding that she conform to his Superhero Calling of Destiny.
At this point, the movie can do one of two things. It can really run with this. It can continue Gwen and Peter into another movie, it can examine and develop this great relationship. Or it can revert to form and comfortable tropes.
So, Girls in Refrigerators it is.
If you knew the comics, you knew Gwen Stacy was going to die at some point in this series. If you have ever seen a movie before, you knew from Gwen's Valeforeboding speech at the beginning that she was plot fodder by the end of the movie. I'm not arguing with the choice to kill Gwen — it's canon, even if it is a Fridge trope, and they had to get there eventually.
They just chose to do it by giving Gwen the potential to be an amazing female character, who full-on hits the brakes and schools Peter: "No one makes my choices for me!" And damn, it felt good to see her follow through on that, even if we all knew it would end with a sickening thud at the bottom of a long fall, the gut-wrenching result of a meaningless capture by Green Goblin. The lack of character development only works against this more now, as a Harry Osborn who really knows Gwen who then chooses to happily kill her is horrifying. But a Harry Osborn who met Gwen Stacy once on an elevator? Meh. She meant nothing to him beyond leverage on Peter, so why not.
So a character who deserved at least three movies before her eventual demise, who could have been key in developing the audience's emotional attachment to Harry Osborn before turning him, whose loss could have meant more for the story than just motivation for Peter, loses to the specter of her disapproving father, a symbol of the tired comic tropes that demand this movie's conformity. She gets a casually motivated death and a rushed mourning montage at the end of the film, so that we can all be emotionally reassured that when Mary Jane inevitably shows up in the next movie, Peter can appropriately move on. He mourned, remember? For months. If you don't remember that, you probably blinked. Or else you were too distracted trying to understand the incomprehensible presence or dialogue of Paul Giamatti in those last few minutes.
So RIP, Gwen Stacy. You could have meant so much more for this franchise. You can't help that you were the rare bit of substance that got tossed aside in favor of cramming in more villains and destruction. But for a glorious moment, you were a breath of fresh air.