The reboot of Spider-Man: Mary Jane Watson versus Gwen Stacy

This was originally published at The Edge SUSU on May 4th 2014.

Most people have decided what their stance is on Sony’s Spider-Man reboot by now. There are those who are in favour of restarting the franchise to give it back some of its dignity and get things back on track after the catastrophe that was Spider-Man 3. Others are more critical of what they see as a cynical cash grab in order for Sony to hold onto the rights to their property a little while longer. Whatever your position, it’s hard to say that the reboot is without its merits. Some inspired casting, closer faithfulness to the source material and Marc Webb’s stylish direction all provide the reboot with its own raison d’être. Naturally some of those who are opposed to the very idea of the reboot deny these legitimate virtues that are to be found in Webb’s perfectly valid franchise. At the same time they are equally ready to deny the flaws that can be found in Sam Raimi’s interpretation of the comic book hero (even the first two films have their problems).  It seems to be the done thing; that is, to glorify the original as soon as a new version of something is announced, turning the predecessor into some kind of infallible Holy Grail.

Now it seems a little pointless attempting to convert the haters, and no one is saying that the original trilogy (well the first two films anyway) are in any way inferior. But there seems to be room for the two franchises. No one seems to mind Nolan’s Batman starting after a similar period of time following the tragic Batman and Robin. The comics start things over all the time!  All of this reboot-hating just seems a little fashionable, although obviously some people will have genuine reasons for disapproving of the new films and I totally respect that. That’s fine. But just because something is a remake, a reboot or whatever doesn’t mean we should shoot it down preemptively. And Rami’s films are not perfect. Ignoring the easy targets in Spider-Man 3 we can find plenty of questionable choices in the original trilogy.

But I don’t want to extensively criticize Raimi’s trilogy. Spider-Man 1 and 2 are two of my childhood favourites and still favourites to this day. I love them. But I don’t have to hate the new ones as a result. I love them too. Rami’s films certainly have pulled off the villains better so far (although Dane Dehanne is superb as Harry Osborn) but Webb’s have nailed the whole teen angst thing in a much more believable way.  I could compare the two series all day long and it would be more or less neck and neck for me. But there is one area where no one can convince me that the original franchise is superior… The romance.

Even prior to Garfield and Stone’s charming pairing in the 2012 spidey flick I always had a major problem with the love story central to the first series of films. I’d struggle to identify any serious problems with the first couple of films apart from those god awful ‘romance’ scenes. With Webb’s credentials from cool music videos and (500) Days of Summer it’s not difficult to comprehend how he’d handle the more adolescent aspects of the story with ease  (just note how the first Amazing Spider-Man focusses purely on Peter’s high school days whereas Raimi’s version ploughs straight through to the Daily Bugle era in just one film).  But it’s not just Webb’s sensitive handling of the endearing relationship between Gwen and Peter that elevates the reboot’s portrayal of the love story. There’s also the pitch perfect casting of Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield who have undeniably adorable chemistry. Then there’s the fact that the films allow for time to focus on the sweeter moments in the relationship, as opposed to the originals which only focused on the relationship between Peter and Mary Jane when a problem arose.  The Amazing Spider-Man seems a lot more committed to its love story than its predecessors. It takes its time to justify and enjoy the relationship instead of just tagging it on as an obligatory requirement to the story.

stoneBut above all else there is one significant reason why the Peter/Gwen relationship works so much better than the Peter/MJ one, and that is the actual girls themselves.  Gwen Stacey is by far the most endearing love interest to be found in any comic book movie. She’s funny, witty, understanding and can handle herself without resorting to playing the usual damsel in distress. She’s able to actually support Peter’s life as Spider-Man and never becomes the tiresome nag that MJ did. For instance, at the end of the first Amazing Spider-Man when Peter tells Gwen he can’t see her anymore in order to protect her from harm, everything became very reminiscent of the end of the first Spider-Man film where Peter tells MJ a similar thing. The difference? Gwen is smart enough to realize Peter is just trying to protect her. In each of the multiple screenings of the film I attended, when Gwen turned around to ask Peter if her recently deceased father made Peter promise to leave her out of his life, there was a legitimate sigh of relief from the audience. It was as if everyone was as relieved as I was that Gwen was capable of understanding, and of putting two and two together.  Nobody wanted all that ‘why can’t you just be with me 24/7’ crap again. Nobody wanted the constant irritation of a love interest who was nothing more than an inconvenience and whinny pain in the ass. Gwen understands. Gwen even helps out! On top of this, when it comes to the sequel Gwen makes it really clear that it’s her choice who she’s with. Not anyone else’s.  She doesn’t need someone to protect her. It’s such a breath of fresh air from the rest of the women we’re used to seeing in these films.  She has more than one aspect to her personality, she doesn’t rely totally on the men in her life (in fact Peter relies on her more).

dunstMary Jane meanwhile spends an entire trilogy oscillating between shrieking hysterically for help from Spider-Man when she needs saving and then complaining that he spends too much time saving people and not enough time going to see her plays. I struggle to think of a single romantic interest in superhero cinema that’s more selfish and immoral. Not only does she unfairly criticize Pete, frequently lead his best friend Harry on, but she also feels the need to destroy the life of that nice astronaut fella in Spider-Man 2. The poor guy does nothing to deserve his heart being torn to pieces and stepped on; we have no reason to believe he is anything other than a nice, honest young man. In fact when she ditches him at the altar, she runs away from the church laughing and grinning! How cruel and merciless can someone we’re asked to sympathize with be? And then on the same day she announces her love for Peter. How this manipulative piece of work could be anyone’s dream girl is totally beyond me. And as a character she never manages to be anything other than a two-dimensional hysterical girlfriend or a two-dimensional hysterical damsel in distress.

You could make a drinking game out of the newer Spider-Man films; ‘take a drink every time Gwen Stacey does something that Mary Jane would never do… like understands… helps out… cracks a smile… shows a glimpse of compassion’. Like I said this is all coming from someone who grew up with and loved the original Spider-Man films.  But the character of Mary Jane was always incredibly frustrating for me.  So whatever problems there are with the Sony reboot, I have to thank everyone involved for finally bringing me a love interest I can actually care about.  I have to say ‘thank you’ for creating a girlfriend character who is more than just a girlfriend. And I have to say ‘thank you’ for sparing me the pain of another Mary Jane Watson.

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