The Amazing Spider-Gwen
|July 10, 2012||Posted by Jess under Comics|
Somewhere in the haze of last week’s confusing schedule (one sick day, one half day, and one holiday left me never knowing where I was or what I was doing), I saw The Amazing Spider-Man. And I thought it was pretty good! It didn’t win my heart the way Avengers did, but that’s okay; I’ve already seen Avengers four times and am planning on a fifth, and I don’t think my bank account could handle ten Marvel movies in a summer.
My general impressions are pretty succinct: I thought the cast was excellent all around. I thought the pacing dragged in quite a few places – when I looked at the time after the movie I was shocked that it was only about 2 hours. And I really didn’t like the way they tied Peter’s father into his origin, which kind of flies in the face of the whole “random chance” aspect of Spider-Man.
But right now, I just want to talk about two things: one thing I really, really hated, and one thing I really, really liked.
The thing I hated: Okay, Peter. You’re such a science whiz that I’m shocked I have to explain this to you, but here goes: when a man and a woman love each other very much, they sometimes decide to have a nebbish little baby with gravity-defying hair.
Or, to put that another way: DID NO ONE IN THE MOVIE REALIZE THAT PETER’S MOTHER DIED TOO?I’m tired of this, you guys. I’m tired of Steve Rogers joining the army to be in his father’s platoon. I’m tired of Howard Stark and whatever baffling daddy issues were resolved or not-resolved during whatever the hell happened in Iron Man 2. I’m tired of Thor and Loki weeping big manly tears as they struggle for Odin’s approval while Frigga’s lucky to get three lines. I’m tired of Jonathan Kent’s death in Superman and Jor-El’s mind-numbing speeches and every single stupid frame of Superman Returns. (Seriously, that entire movie is an extended metaphor about Jor-El’s sperm. The crystal seeds? Right? I just blew your mind, didn’t I.) I’m tired of Hal Jordan’s noble dad and I’m tired of Britt Reid’s jerky dad. I’m tired of Norman and Harry Osborn and I’m tired of Thomas Wayne and I’m so, so tired of Two-Face threatening Jim Gordon’s pastede on son because no man could ever possibly love a little girl.
And now I’m tired of Peter having not one, not even two, but four oh-so-tragic father figures to angst over. I’m tired of Captain Stacey’s noble death while Mrs. Stacey cooks and squeaks out a couple of lines. I’m tired of Uncle Ben making an inspirational speech every time he opens his mouth while Aunt May can only cry at the TV in silence.1
But mostly I’m tired of Peter’s endless tantrums about his missing father; of Ben and May’s breathless fear of speaking about him; of Connors’ stammering grief over the loss of that shining beacon of Richard Parkeriness that has now gone out of the world. I found every digression into Richard’s secret past incredibly derailing and boring, but the fact that no one ever seemed to remember that Mary Parker had a) existed; b) given birth to Peter; and c) presumably loved him and was loved in return really grinded my Spider-gears.
Mothers exist, comic book writers and movie directors. They exist and they give birth to us and they (usually) raise us. And sometimes they’re good and sometimes they’re bad, but they mean something. Their lives mean something, and their deaths mean something, even to sons. So do the lives of daughters and sisters and aunts, actually. They all matter. I know it’s hard to conceive of a woman mattering to a male protagonist when there’s no possible way he can sleep with her, but trust me: they do.2
In other words, I better see a lot of Diane Lane as Martha Kent, Man of Steel.3
The thing I loved: There was one female character that the movie did well, and that was Gwen.4
Not to say there weren’t rough moments – I still have absolutely no idea what they were trying to accomplish in her opening scene, where she defended Peter from bullying, but not that other random kid, and also not until the bullying was over and everyone had walked away. And as cute as her wardrobe was, quite frankly I’m not sure I buy that the 17(?)-year-old daughter of a cop could get away with thigh-highs to school. But these are minor quibbles.
What I really liked was the utter lack of Slap the Joker Moments. What’s a Slap the Joker Moment? Well, since the advent of the phrase Strong Female Character, some writers seem to feel that the only way for a female character to be strong (or “Strong”) is to engage in physical violence.5 On the other hand, love interests can’t possibly actually be written as competent, intelligent, or capable of rescuing themselves, because then what would the hero have to do?
So what we get instead is a heroine who has no motivation, backstory, or general narrative purpose other than to sleep with the hero or die tragically or both. She has no combat skills (which is totally okay! not all strength is physical!) and has not been shown to be particularly resourceful, plucky, or defiant (except in defying the hero’s advances until the final frame, of course). But when she’s confronted with the villain, she tosses her hair, cries “You monster!” and slaps him, because that’s what Strong Female Characters do.
Of course, such sassy slaphappiness just piques the villain’s interest and he grows even more menacing – just in time for the hero to show up and save the day. Boom. Love interest shown to be Strong, hero actually accomplishes things. Except since the love interest’s entire characterization consists of slow camera pans up and down her body, it doesn’t come off as strength; it comes off as the screenwriter trying to disguise his lack of effort by throwing those mean ol’ feminists a particularly measly bone. “What do you mean, she wasn’t a Strong Female Character?” they seem to say. “She slapped the Joker!”
See: Rachel Dawes, mere cannon fodder with inconsistent motivation, punching the Joker in the face in The Dark Knight. See: Carol Ferris, downgraded from CEO to pilot for Green Lantern and little more than the object of Hal and Hector Hammond’s antler-bashing, shooting some missiles at Hammond after he kidnaps her and uses his telekinesis to display her prone, helpless, as attractive as possible for the viewers.
Gwen Stacey did not Slap the Joker.
Now, Gwen is not a combatant of any kind. She has the physical skillset of a typical teenage girl. She is, however, smart, resourceful, and brave, which is shown throughout the movie: she’s top of her class, she has a ludicrously high level of freedom and respect at her very competitive internship, she’s able to cover for Peter quickly when he sneaks into the lab. Her patter is snappy and her hair is impossibly neat. This is clearly a girl who is on the ball.
And she contributes to the plot. Her moments of badassery aren’t just there so that the filmmakers can check off the Strong Female Character box. Peter asks her to go to OsCorp because she has access and because she has been shown to have the technological acumen and knowledge of the lab to find/make/whatever the antidote. (Which strains credulity a little, but so does Peter’s scientific know-how. Ludicrous scientific ability and poor lab security are par for the course in comics.) When Peter tells her to leave, she refuses, insisting on evacuating the building (something Peter never even thought of doing – but then, Peter is fairly self-involved, even by the movie’s end). When she finds out that Connors is after the Plot Point Machine (so I forgot the name – sue me), she disables it and prepares to protect it with her life. She’s clever enough to buy herself some time by setting off the fire alarm lockdown, and to arm herself with something that could do a lot of damage to non-lizard men. She doesn’t have one moment of plucky defiance – she has an entire sequence of smart solutions under pressure.6
Even her most ineffectual moment of physical defiance – throwing a chair (or something? I don’t honestly remember) at Connors in the school – works. Too often that’s a cue for the monster to shrug off the blow and then grab or hit the heroine to show how very frail she is. Instead, it provided a crucial distraction in Peter’s favor. So. Great.
Emma Stone has implied that Gwen will not make it out of this round of the franchise alive, which saddens me. But she’s also said that she was committed to making Gwen smart and tough and resourceful to counteract that eventual end, and as far as I’m concerned, she and the entire Spider-Man team were successful on that front.
Now if they could only apply that to every woman in the Spider-Man franchise – well, that’d really be something.
- I did like that she’d figured out that Peter was Spider-Man by the end, but in general I find Aunt May to be one of the most frustrating things about the Spider-Mythos. Yes, Uncle Ben was great and his death inspired Peter to be a hero, but Aunt May raised him too, and continued to raise him alone. She made him a hero just as much as Ben did. ↩
- Trust me, I love narratives about daddy issues. My favorite story ever is Annie, which is all about finding a father figure. But even Annie remembers that our heroine once had a mother – in fact, it gives her three stand-ins. The fact that superhero movies can’t seem to come up with any other source of inner turmoil speaks both to their lack of imagination and to their enormous disdain for the contributions of women. ↩
- Haha, no, not in a Zack Snyder-directed Christopher Nolan-produced grimfest. She’ll be lucky if she makes it out alive and/or not in a leather bustier. ↩
- I did like Sally Field’s Aunt May a lot! I just wish she’d been given a little bit more to do. ↩
- I am not one of those people who cries for an end to the phrase “Strong Female Character” because it’s so often co-opted to mean babes in armored bikinis who have no actual narrative power. If we got rid of every useful word or phrase because it’s misunderstood by misogynistic idiots, we’d have to get rid of “feminism” too. ↩
- See also: Pepper Potts escaping Stane in the first Iron Man. I seriously thought he was going to catch her and cackle evilly while Tony said things like “Let her go! I’m the one you want!” But no; Pepper was calm and brilliant and got her own damn self away from Stane and surrounded by government agents. God I love that scene so much. ↩