Relationships should never be taken for granted. It may sound clichéd but it's true. And while I'm sure all that bullshit probably applies to real life and stuff, it's never been more true for writers. Without a relationship of some kind, be it literal, metaphorical, abstract, or otherwise, you can't have a story. The more developed the relationship, the better your story will be.
Batman has Alfred and Commissioner Gordon. Superman has Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen. Harry Potter has Ron and Hermione. Frodo has Sam. The List goes on. Relationships drive a story forward, provide conflict, and give characters something to struggle for or against. No relationship, no story, and Spider-man is not an exception to the rule.
Let it NEVER be said that Spider-man shies away from a... good relationship.
Obviously then ROMANTIC relationships can be an obvious and effective way to provide conflict AND something for a character to fight for, which is why almost every Superhero in existence has had at least one major love interest. Spider-man has had a few leading ladies over the years, giving filmmakers their pick of the litter, but in the end each of them serve the same purpose, namely, to give our hero a dilemma. To give him someone to fight for.
He could do a lot worse
It's a perfectly valid way to tell a story, but of course women usually get the brunt of being 'the object of a someone's (usually a man) desire'. That means if you're going to tell that kind of story one has to be careful not to write their characters as objects, and actually give them some substance. Not the least of which because it's kind of offensive to portray women as a prize, but also because if your lead character is fighting for a fully developed person instead of a prize wrapped in the body of a pretty girl it actually makes the story, well, better. More engaging, certainly.
So here we are. We have two movies starring Spider-man with different characters for the leading ladies in each. Mary Jane Watson, and Gwen Stacy. Arguably they are the two most historically significant love interests to our beloved wall crawler. Let's take a look at the characters according to the comics shall we?
Initially she was an intelligent young woman. And she was beautiful. Her bleach blonde hair and her kind personality were, of course, major reasons as to why she was deemed so attractive. She lived a fairly charmed life, as the daughter of the beloved Police Captain, and she, herself, was also loved by many. Of course she and Peter hit it off (after a bit of a rocky start), but even then numerous factors kept getting in the way of their relationship, most of them involving Peter's alter ego as Spider-man. Their relationship ended when Gwen was killed, caught in the crossfire of battle between The Green Goblin and Spider-man. Many will argue that she was a great character, but if we're being truthful she can best be described as a pretty face with a kind demeanor whose defining attributes were that she dated Spider-man (although she never knew) and that she died.
MARY JANE WATSON:
MJ, as she is often called, is the hot fiery red head who could have you in an instant if she wanted you. But she doesn't. She met Peter and found him immediately as intriguing as he found her. However, when it became clear that she wasn't interested in being tied down to one man Peter quickly moved on. While she gave the impression of a shallow party girl she later opened up. It turns out she had a less than idyllic family life, with an abusive father and a battered mother. Her whole life she lived pretending to be 'fearless and fun' to hide her uncertainties and doubts about love, relationships and herself. Ultimately (long after the death of Gwen) her and Peter reconciled, became friends, and married. It turns out that she pretty much always knew about Peter's secret but didn't let on, hoping that one day that he would tell her willingly himself.
And that's them in a nutshell. The two girls.
Now, if someone asked me to write a story featuring one of those two characters, I would pick Mary Jane. It's not that I have anything against Gwen, but that's actually the problem. No one does. If you actually consider the foundational ground work for both girls Mary Jane just has more to work with. Gwen has a decent family life, and most people like her. Conversely, Mary Jane has an awful family life, and very few people like her beyond her superficial appeal. Mary Jane is a flawed character, and writers thrive on character flaws.
Mary Jane is easier to write.
So if that's the case, why did I leave the films hating Mary Jane? And loving Gwen for that matter? Possibly the actors? Possibly, but presently I'm not interested in assigning too much blame or credit to the performers. To get a more satisfying answer we'll have to compare the characters in the comics to their cinematic counterparts.
You see, in the comics she shows off more skin. I never felt the films properly captured that.
SPIDER-MAN 1-3 (2002-2007) - MARY JANE
The first problem I had with MJ in the film is that all throughout she's treated as THE MOST DESIRABLE WOMAN EVER, but then we're not really given a reason as to why. It's not that I have a hard time believing that Peter would ever find Kirsten Dunst/MJ attractive, but he's been worshiping her from afar since kindergarten even though she's basically ignored him the entire time. Why? I could MAYBE understand it if there was something that set her apart; perhaps if she were gifted in the arts, or highly intelligent like Peter. I would even be willing to understand his infatuation if she was simply an overtly charismatic and outgoing woman, like in the comics.
She was none of those things.
The writers kept trying to convince us that she was special, and that we should love her. They played the sympathy card; her family is dysfunctional, and she dreams of a better life, of being a star etc. And that's fine, but what part of that makes her appealing? Don't get me wrong, I know and love plenty of dysfunctional people, but never BECAUSE they're dysfunctional.
Every significant interaction between Mary Jane and Peter (besides the scenes where they confess their love for each other with tediously awkward monologues) involves her filling Pete in on the latest developments of her unending sob story. Every complaint she has seems to imply that she shouldn't be beholden to the same rules as the rest of the world. Here are some examples of her life dilemmas:
The first scene between Pete and MJ (in the back yard)
MJ: "My parents are the worst. I just want to LEAVE here FOREVER!"
PETE: "Yeah. You're Amazing."
WHAT PETE SHOULD HAVE SAID: "Gosh that's awful. You should start working towards leaving here."
In the city after highschool:
MJ: "My audition SUCKED! They told me I needed acting lessons. A SOAP OPERA told me to get acting lessons!"
PETE: What!? But you're amazing!
WHAT PETE SHOULD HAVE SAID: Well... have you ever considered that maybe you need acting lessons? Maybe you should take lessons. LIKE MOST ACTORS.
In Spider-man 2 after Pete missed her show:
[Note: the Following is Mary Jane's actual line.]
MJ: By the way, John has seen my show 5 times, Harry has seen it twice, Aunt May has seen it, My SICK mother got out of BED to see it. Even my Father... he came back stage to borrow cash. But my BEST friend, who cares SO much about me, can't even make an eight o'clock curtain. After all these years he's nothing to me but an empty seat."
PETE: (watches as she leaves). Gosh she's right. I don't deserve someone so amazing.
WHAT PETE SHOULD HAVE SAID: ... *ahem* ... Shut your dumbass mouth, bitch! Did you ever consider that I had to work over time to pay the bills for my shitty apartment? Or maybe I got caught in a car accident (which is exactly what happened)? Maybe, instead of being a self-centered bitch, just be glad that so many of your friends are coming to your freaking show of WHICH YOU ARE A LEAD CHARACTER! Do you realize how many artists DON'T have the constant support of their family and peers? Have you considered that you're NOT the centre of the whole damn universe. And. What. The. FUCK! are you doing staring into the audience looking for a friend in the middle of your show? Do you have any idea how flagrantly unprofessional that is? No wonder you got fired from your Broadway gig in the third movie! SERIOUSLY, YOU'RE SUCH AN AWFUL PERSON!
I knew I'd find a way to use this picture again.
Sorry. I feel much better now.
Look. Friends not showing up to your events, getting dumped from a show, being told you're a bad actor, are admittedly frustrating things. She's totally allowed to feel disappointed, but all she does is mope and complain (even when her life isn't even that bad). By the second film she's not only in a legitimate play with her face plastered on posters across this little place called NEW YORK, but she's also engaged to a respectable, kind, well paid man who is an astronaut and local hero (because astronauts are still considered heroes by the public at large, apparently).
And what does she do with this man who loves her very much? She uses him as ammunition against Peter's feelings, ultimately leaving the poor guy at the altar without so much as a warning just because "NOW she's ready to be with Peter". Get engaged or break it off all you want ladies, but getting engaged so you can hurt another man ain't nothing but a bitch move. To BOTH men.
"You want to make him jealous? I accept!!"
said no man, ever.
Obviously I'm not saying that we would want Peter to be rude to MJ for no reason. We don't. But the facts don't lie. She never adequately demonstrates an incredible talent or trait, she's a hypocritical bitch who uses other people to hurt the man she supposedly loves out of petty revenge, and in spite of all this Pete STILL seems to have a constant boner for her. The reason is, sadly, all too simple:
Mary Jane, in the movies, wasn't a character. She was a prize. A prize with varying degrees of difficulty one needed to surpass in order to win her. A lady prize.
And not even a good prize. Seriously. THAT's her seduction face.
I could never care about her because the only thing she was good at was being useless. She was a background character with an overabundance of screen time. She was obstacle for Spider-man whenever the villains put her in danger, but I could never understand why Spider-man had invested in her in the first place that she would be considered SUCH an invaluable obstacle to EVERY single one of his enemies. All of her problems, whether it was about her failing career or her being dropped off a bridge, needed to be solved by someone else or not at all, and she had no say in the outcome. She was an object, a bartering tool for bad guys, who was put in life or death situations not by any choice of her own, but because she is a victim. A helpless victim. A victim who needs saving.
Remember what I said about victims last time? The audience HATES victims. Even if we don't know it. We'll often be too distracted to notice, but deep down inside it just grates on us how useless victims are. We want to see a character who fights back. Instead she just hangs around (sometimes literally) waiting for the Superhero to do something. She's an obstacle for Spider-man, and she's a stumbling block for Peter. Half the time she's being kidnapped, and the other half she's criticizing and judging Pete at every turn, never giving him an opportunity to defend himself. Gosh. She sure is amazing.
If I were to rate Mary Jane as a character based solely on the movies I'd give give her: 2 out of 10.
She's as Infuriating as she is worthless. Every scene featuring her character made me wish that Spider-man had just let the Green Goblin drop her. She DOES get two points for at least TRYING to knock out Doctor Octopus when she could have run instead. Even there, however, it can be argued that she knew running would do her no good. At the end of the day, however you look at it she is still a white trash bitch who ditched her fiancé at the altar for another man, and didn't even have balls (lady balls?) to tell him herself; ALL this while passing judgment on the man who saved her life three times too many.
"If I drop you now I'll be saving everyone a lot of trouble in the future."
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (2012) - GWEN STACY
You know what my first thought was when I heard Emma Stone would be playing Gwen Stacy? "Why are they wasting her on Gwen Stacy!? She would be a PERFECT MJ!" [Note: In truth, I must confess that I had believed her to be a natural red head at the time]. After all, Gwen was the boring girlfriend. Dying is what made her interesting, and I wanted a girl that would keep my interest while she was alive.
"You know, if you just pretend she's sleeping its really not that bad"
Thankfully the writers did something very unexpected. They made me care.
Did they change anything from the comics? A few things, but only to solidify the character. They played down her 'popularity' a bit and focused more on her intelligence. Externally however, she's very similar to the comics; a bright, attractive girl, with a police captain for a father.
So what made it work? I could list off all the minor changes here and there, but it all boils down to one thing. They didn't make Gwen a victim.
It's as simple as that.
"What are you talking about? The Lizard ONLY didn't kill her because she was BENEATH him. Nothing she could have done would have stopped him from ending her life on the spot!" you say.
And you are right. She could have died. She probably will in one of the sequels, sadly. But here's the kicker; she was in that situation (with the lizard) by choice.
Looks like a consenting adult to me!
Her actions may have failed to stop the lizard but she was still willing to do whatever it took to stop him or slow him down. Had she been killed I suppose she would have been a victim in the strictest sense of the word ('cuz she'd be dead, and very few people try for that), but she wouldn't have been a victim in a literary sense.
Still don't get it?
Lets look at an example from STAR TREK (2009).
Captain Kirk's father is technically a victim. He is dead. End of story. The thing that stops him from being a victim as far as story telling goes is that he is dead only as a result of his willful actions. He could have escaped but chose to sacrifice himself and go down with the ship to buy the survivors more time. It is the consequence of his particular choices that turn him from a victim into a hero. If he had tried instead to escape but died anyway despite his intentions THEN he would have been a victim.
"What do you MEAN I have to die when the ship explodes?"
Keep in mind that Gwen not only stood up to the Lizard when he finally confronted her, but she actually CHOSE to stay behind in the first place to evacuate the building and finish the serum KNOWING that the Lizard was on his way. Gwen may have been powerless to stop the Lizard in the long run (that's why Spider-man is needed after all) but her choices made her heroic.
Also Emma Stone has a better seduction face.
The other nice thing was the distinct lack of cornball sappiness in the relationship. Yes they were lovey-dovey cutesy and awkward, but they also talked to each other much in the same way people do using conversation instead of, say, boring speeches about our hopes for the future, and proclamations of love.
I'm just now a married man, and in the five years prior to our wedding date I did proclaim my love to my future wife on more than one occasion. But I ALSO got to know her and spend time with her before spouting generic declarations of my feelings all willy nilly. When I'm watching a movie or reading a story I have almost no interest in 'love at first sight'. I'm okay with 'immediate attraction' or 'we had this crazy connection' but LOVE needs to be earned. Peter and MJ never earned it, they were just inexplicably 'in love' all of a sudden. There never seemed to be a reason for them to feel so strongly about each other beyond that they were romantic leads in a summer blockbuster.
I'm not claiming that Gwen and Peter have the deepest of romantic beginnings, because they don't. They're silly teenagers with raging hormones and they have good chemistry. What makes it appealing in the long run is that their relationship develops from there to him opening up about his secret and ultimately to them dealing with the complications that come with the death of her father. The writers actually let the relationship build and grow out of the characters experiences together (much like some kind of... RELATIONSHIP, if you will), all while ending the film with room for more expansion in the sequels.
If I were to rate Gwen Stacy based solely on her appearance in 'The Amazing Spider-man I would give her: 10 out of 10
Gwen was a cool chick, likeable and spunky. I found myself rooting for her almost as much as for the lead character.
WRAPPING THINGS UP
But enough about all these good guys and pretty women. Next time around I'm going to talk about the stuff people actually care about. BAD GUYS! Specifically The Green Goblin and the Lizard. Which one was a better cinematic choice? Which was a better choice for a first installment? The answer will not be as simple as you think when I talk about...
See you then