With SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING set to begin production very soon, it’s worth looking at how the last Spider-Man film adapted one of the most acclaimed comic books ever (the best Marvel comic ever according to one fan poll). One thing that becomes apparent is the way certain plotting decisions changed the context of the film’s big scene, and limited the options of the director and writers. In some cases, this was all part of a set-up for sequels that ended up not happening.
In the last entry, I covered the effects of multiple villains on the narrative but there was one other major structural difference, which represents a significant lost opportunity for the film.
In the comics, Gwen Stacy is famous for being the first love of Peter Parker’s life, and for getting killed by one of his enemies. “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” is literally the end of an era for a major genre, marking the conclusion of comics’ silver age. It’s that significant. A few years ago, when Gwen Stacy was announced as a supporting character in the first Amazing Spider-Man, there was a lot of speculation about whether Sony would repeat that arc with Marc Webb’s reboot. And if so, when?
The answer came in the last fifteen minutes or so of The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Gwen had helped Spider-Man defeat Electro. The Harry Osborn Green Goblin had been knocked unconscious, but not before he sent Gwen falling from a rooftop. Spider-Man tries to catch her with his webbing, but it snags too late to prevent her from hitting the ground.
The death itself is pretty well done. It’s an appropriately tense sequence. The audience I saw the film with gave a collective gasp when she hit the pavement. On the Empire podcast Spoiler special for the film, director Marc Webb talked about the metaphoric significance of the scene happening in a clocktower with Spider-Man trying to stop time. He said that this was the sequence the entire film was built around.
The last ten minutes of the film show Gwen’s funeral, and Peter mourning her over the course of the next few months, as the public wonders where Spider-Man went off to. An imprisoned Harry Osborn gets ready to use his father’s resources to create the Sinister Six. The film ends with Spider-Man back in action, ready to fight the Rhino. They might even have a better handle on the long-term aftermath of Gwen’s death than the comics. If that story of the kid who liked Spider-Man had been in Amazing Spider-Man #123, it could very easily appear on best of lists. However these decisions had some drawbacks. By structuring the story the way they did, they skipped over the events of possibly the best issue of the Spider-Man comics: the entire second half of “The Night Gwen Stacy Died.”
In Amazing Spider-Man #122, Gwen Stacy is dead and Peter Parker is grappling with that, looking to make sure that Norman Osborn is going to join her. I don’t know if any superhero has ever been this pissed off.
I understand why the pacing was different in the film than in the comics. Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy was essentially advertised as the co-lead of the Amazing Spider-Man movies. So it makes sense to keep her around in the film as long as possible. Several scenes of an angry Peter Parker hunting down Osborn in the aftermath of her death means that she’s not gong to be available for a good chunk of the film. Especially if they wanted to keep that epilogue.
Another difference between the comics and the film is that the movie Gwen knew that Peter Parker was Spider-Man. So she had to choose to put herself in danger. She helped Spider-Man defeat Electro, one of the major villains of the film, saving two packed airplanes worth of people. As a result, it also makes sense to keep the antagonist’s defeat as close to the end of the film as possible. Especially since it would be followed by a fight with the Harry Osborn Green Goblin, a five month interlude and a fight against the Rhino. However, material is lost in the translation.
A problem Sony would have had going going forward with an Amazing Spider-Man sequel was the lack of people who knew Gwen, and would care that she died. I understand why they cut out Shailene Woodley’s Mary Jane, but at least she would have worked in that role.
There is a snag with seeding Peter’s relationship with Mary Jane in the same film in which Gwen Stacy died. The original comic readers had a month between Gwen’s shocking death, and that famous moment between Peter and MJ. Later readers aren’t as surprised by the big twist, and are able to determine the pace at which they experience the storyline. For the most part, filmgoers don’t have that advantage. So it might be off-putting to have a tender moment between two characters who most viewers know will be romantically involved in the future twenty minutes after the most magnetic character in the film was killed off.
The most important difference may be Gwen’s killer. In the comics, it was Norman Osborn. This meant that a grief-stricken Peter Parker had to balance his anger at Norman, his grief at losing Gwen and his friendship with Harry Osborn. When Harry Osborn is the one responsible, Peter doesn’t have to worry about the guy’s feelings as much, and the conflict changes.
In Amazing Spider-Man #122, Peter spent some time searching for Norman Osborn. It is a bit different to have a superhero hunting down a middle-aged businessman, than it is to have the lead searching for a teenager. A teen also doesn’t have as many obvious places to go. The scene where Spider-Man asks Robbie for information on properties owned by Osborn also doesn’t work if this is the first we’ve seen of Bugle staff.
Sony also decided that Harry has to be kept around to lead the Sinister Six in The Amazing Spider-Man 3. This means he couldn’t die in the confrontation with Spider-Man, the way Norman did at the end of Amazing Spider-Man #122. He can’t be too sympathetic, although it’ll be tough for someone to gain the audience’s understanding after killing Emma Stone. If Peter Parker spends a few minutes beating the holy hell out of him, it makes him less effective as a villain in the next outing. And it could have made the next film more dramatic if the inevitable encounter between Spider-Man and Harry marked their first encounter after the death. This ended up being a moot point since Sony decided to reboot the Spider-Man films again. The low domestic box office and middling rotten tomatoes score probably didn’t help.
In the new films, Peter’s supporting cast was essentially limited to Gwen and Aunt May. In the comics, he also had Mary Jane, Harry and the staff of the Daily Bugle. So there were also more people for a pissed off Spider-Man to interact with. That made for powerful moments.
If this film was built around the death of Gwen Stacy, as Webb said, there was a lot of additional material that wasn’t specifically part of that story. There were probably too many villains in the film, although that’s an inevitable result if this film was used to introduce half of the Sinister Six for a potential spinoff. There was the leftover mystery about Peter’s parents, which meant that a teenage hero had to learn about things that happened when he was about five years old. Sony also didn’t believe in giving Marc Webb 3-4 years to come up with the best possible sequels, luxuries afforded Sam Mendes with the James Bond films, and Christopher Nolan with the Batman movies, which meant that Webb had to worry about all these other considerations for his third movie. Something had to give, and it just wasn’t as good as it could be.
There is still one significant cut that could have been made. The subplot with the parents probably took up too much time, with the opening plane crash, and the whole scene with the abandoned subway station, especially since it had so little impact on the rest of the film. It’s arguably necessary at some point in the trilogy to resolve the questions about why the Parkers died, and to demonstrate how Richard Parker’s discoveries won’t be able to help Harry. But it seems that most of these twenty minutes—all of which take away from Peter and Gwen’s story—and don’t involve Spider-Man beating up any supervillains, could have been saved for the next film. Aunt May’s disclosure that Peter’s parents were considered traitors is more intriguing if the film doesn’t start with the heroic way in which they died. It could work as something for the audience to mull over as they wait for the next one. Now you would have more time to show Peter and Gwen hanging out with people who would care that she died, and an angry Spider-Man lashing out against the world before he realizes that he still has great power and great responsibility. Granted, there didn’t end up being a next one. Although if the film had been better, that might not be an issue.
Jon Watts, director of Spider-Man: Homecoming, is going to have to deal with some of the same stuff Webb did, in addition to navigating the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and making sure that Spider-Man’s character development fits wherever Disney wants him to be for Avengers 3, to say nothing of any other sequels. Watts can still avoid some of the mistakes Webb and Raimi made. If the first film is a bit more self-contained, it provides greater flexibility when it’s time to work on the sequel. If someone wants to make a film built around a particular sequence—such as the scene from Amazing Spider-Man #33 where Spider-Man is trapped under tons of machinery—it works better if the audience isn’t also expecting the continuation of various seeded storylines, which will take screentime from the main narrative, in additon to whatever decrees higher-ups at Disney and Sony come up with. It’s possible that producers will look at Spider-Man 3 and Amazing Spider-Man 2 and realize that their involvement was often counterproductive, although that’s not something that can be relied on.