When my 4-year-old son asked me if I would take him to see The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Marc Webb) on Memorial Day, I’ll admit that I wasn’t even aware the sequel (to the reboot) had been released. I was also unaware that X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer) or Captain America: Winter Soldier (Joe Russo) were playing in the same theater. I guess I’ve lost my taste for super hero films. I used to love them. In fact, when I was 13-years-old I became obsessed with Batman (1989, Tim Burton). I had posters and collected trading cards and listened obsessively to the soundtrack:
My interest in films like Tim Burton’s Batman and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) was due less to their super hero antics (the amazing weapons, the acrobatic fight scenes, the spectacle of urban destruction) and far more to do with the idea of normal people who feel an obligation to act on the behalf of others. Because I loved these dark, brooding, almost-noirish heroes, I forgave these films for their lifeless female characters. Or rather, I never thought much about them. I never once identified with Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) or Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). I didn’t want to be rescued by Batman (Michael Keaton) or Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire), I wanted to be Batman and Spider-Man and rescue folks myself. Now, it’s no secret that super hero movies have a major gender (and race and ethnicity and sexuality problem). Almost all of the major stars of the super hero franchises are white, heterosexual, cis men. And after a while, the white male fantasies of control and power over a chaotic and inherently evil world were no longer interesting to me. I stopped going to see super hero movies.
Though I did not see the first film in the franchise reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), I wasn’t expecting to see anything other than 142 (!!!) minutes of CGI fight scenes, smashed cars, franchise-building, and pretty girls who need rescuing — and that’s exactly what I got. Now I don’t want to shit on Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). She’s adorable. Her outfits are amazing (amazing!). She’s the valedictorian of her graduating class. Her hair curls in all the right places. She snagged a sweet job (internship?) at Oscorp Industries immediately upon graduating. She wrinkles her little nose when she laughs. She even got into Oxford to study sciency stuff. She also uses her knowledge of high school science to help Spider-Man magnetize his web shooters, a key trick allowing Spider-Man to wrangle with Electro (Jamie Foxx).
All of these character traits and plot points appear, on the surface, to elevate Gwen above the usual superhero girlfriend role. Indeed, when Gwen finally decides to leave New York for England (Oxford! Science stuff!) Spider-Man cribs a move from Charlotte’s Web, by writing the words “I Love You” in giant web-letters. He then tells Gwen that he will follow her to Oxford. He will follow Gwen anywhere. He will be her trailing, Spidey-spouse, doing fixed term work across the Pond. OMG, swoonsville, right ladies?
But even as someone who knows nothing about the Spider-Man I know that shit is not going to happen. Spider-Man cannot give up his gift, his “great responsibility,” for the love of a woman. He can’t be secondary because he’s primary. He’s the protagonist. And Electro is totally sucking up all of New York City’s power so Spidey basically says “Now I’m gonna tie your ass this police car with some of my webs. Bye.”
This enrages Gwen, who is all “Fuck off, Spider-Man,” because she is a modern postfeminist woman (with GIRL POWER!) and she makes her own choices, and no one, not even fucking Spider-Man, is going to tell her what to do. She yells something to this effect and it is adorable but pointless because as we all know, this is not Gwen’s movie. Still, Gwen pulls out some scissors or a Swiss Army knife or something and hacks away at those sticky webs and then shows up at the big show down between her boyfriend and Electro at some magical place in New York City where all the electricity is kept. Gwen uses her vast knowledge of New York City’s power grid (what?), to help Spider-Man destroy Electro and save New York City from a black out, which is a super dire situation because then planes crash.
Despite Gwen’s key contribution to this epic CGI-battle, the whole scene felt a lot like the scene at the very end of the film (SPOILER ALERT!) when a little boy, dressed up in a Spider-Man costume, attempts to face off against an Oscorp-generated villain, Rhino (Paul Giamatti). It’s admirable and it’s adorable (his costume is too big for him!), but ultimately, we take a deep sigh of relief when Spider-Man finally appears on the scene, thanks the little boy for his bravery, pats him on the head, then delivers him into the arms of his weeping mama. Gwen is like that little boy: we admire her, she’s adorable and brave, but ultimately, she needs to move aside so the real heroes can do their work. Superheroing is a (white) man’s game. It is not for women and children. It’s not for poor, lonely, invisible Electro either.
This became most apparent in the final battle of the film between Spider-Man and the newly villainized Harry/Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan, looking like a cracked out, lost member of One Direction). Because although Gwen reminded Spidey about how magnets work and knew how to access New York City’s power grid (again, I must ask, how does an 18-year-old who jut started working at Oscorp know this?), she is, at the end of the day, just a woman. And a woman’s main value in cinema, especially a summer blockbuster reboot of a successful comic book franchise, is in her to-be-looked-at-ness. That is, Gwen’s purpose is to be an object of the Gaze: Spidey’s gaze, Green Goblin’s gaze, and the audience’s gaze. Her greatest value and power in the film lies in what she means to Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Gwen’s photograph appears all over Peter’s bedroom. She is an image to be adored. She is Peter’s everything. She is his crime-fighting muse. After they break up, Spider-Man sits atop New York City buildings,
stalking watching Gwen going about her day. We watch her too. Her outfits are amazing.
Gwen exists to be looked at and she exists as an object of exchange. Harry/Green Goblin values her only because Peter values her. That is, Gwen’s worth is determined by the men around her. As Gayle Rubin argues in her seminal essay, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex” (1975):
If Harry possesses Gwen, he can exchange her for something he values, in this case, the blood of Spider-Man (which Harry believes will save his life). Gwen gains nothing in this exchange of her body (other than, she hopes, the opportunity to remain alive) because she is the object, the gift, that the powerful white men toss back and forth like a beautiful little rag doll. In the film’s (almost) final battle scene, Harry, now in full Green Goblin mode, scoops up little Miss Gwen and carries her off to a Dangerous Place. Spider-Man, predictably, chases after his love, intent on both saving her life and stopping Green Goblin.
And so, near the end of Spider-Man 2 we find ourselves in a familiar situation: our beautiful damsel, our muse, the gift/ransom exchanged between two men (one selfless, the other selfish), is literally dangling by a string. Here Gwen becomes more valuable than ever because she is now the audience’s gift. Because we identify with Spider-Man, the protagonist, Gwen’s peril is intended to fill us with the worst kind of dread. If she dies, how will Spider-Man feel? I mean, it’s gonna really fuck him up, right? Gwen’s life is the film’s climax.
Look, I get it. The movie’s title is The Amazing Spider-Man 2, not Gwen Remembers How Magnets Work or Gwen Goes to Oxford. Of course every supporting character’s role is there to do just that — to support the story of the Amazing Spider-Man. But I suppose it’s Gwen’s postfeminist accoutrement that leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I almost wish Gwen were more helpless and passive, stupider and more frightened. But it’s the fact that Gwen is so damn capable: she’s pretty and smart and plucky and brave and has the love of a good man. She is living the postfeminist dream (until she dies, that is!) and for that, she gives the film an appearance of some kind of gender equality. “Look, she helps Spidey! Look, she’s pursuing a career!” At the end of the day, these stories belong to the same white men they’ve always belonged to.