The Curious Case of Gwen Stacy

Caution: Massive spoilers for The Amazing Spiderman 2 movie ahead.

emma stoneI love my superhero movies. They are (usually) so formulaic, with those dependable bits like hero discovering his powers, hero going through some angst related to parents (this can come before or after the discovery of powers), hero falling in love with plucky, ‘independent’ woman, hero’s nemesis being born, hero’s nemesis pursuing whatever shady goal he has, hero confronting nemesis and being thrashed (this can go for two rounds), hero going through dark phase of self doubt until someone says something inadvertently wise and hard-hitting, and finally, hero defeating nemesis and peace reigning. All set to epic soundtracks, usually crafted by Hans Zimmer.

The latest instalment in Sony’s reboot of the Spiderman franchise, The Amazing Spiderman 2, follows this pattern.  It’s well-made, entertaining and has exactly the sort of humor and emotion that one can expect from a big-budget superhero movie. Spiderman has always been ‘lighter’ in tone than Batman (especially the latest avatar of Batman, Christopher Nolan’s s triplets), so you can expect less philosophical reflection on the state of man’s existence and more feel-good quips and homely spiels about bravery and hope that go well with the popcorn.

What’s different about Amazing Spiderman 2 (and AS 1 for that matter), is the hero’s ‘love interest’, Gwen Stacy. I know it’s unfair to compare Emma Stone’s sassy, smart, science-loving Stacy to Kirsten Dunst’s more ‘traditional’ girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson, but the differences between them, really, is where the former’s importance lies in superhero (comic and especially movie) canon. I, for one, fell hopelessly in love with Gwen in this instalment, and this post is going to function both as an obit and a love letter to her.

Gwen Stacy is a living, breathing negation of the Loving Hero Paradox. She looks it in the face and she seems to say, ‘to hell with it’. At the start of the movie, Gwen confronts a dithering Peter, who is going on about how he ‘cannot lose her’ and hence ‘cannot be with her’. She calls him out on the stupidity of that statement straight up, before going on to say that she’s had enough of it and is breaking up with him. ‘I am breaking up with you,’ she stresses, highlighting who’s taking the final call in this case.

And then of course she goes about her life, meeting her friends, applying to kickass Oxford scholarships, and generally ignoring poor lonely Peter, who skulks about in Spiderman gear spying on her. Finally, it is she who takes the decision to meet him ‘as friends’, she who calls him and says she’s gotten into Oxford and that’s she’s leaving (note: she does this on her way to the airport, stating that it’s ‘easier this way’, reversing the usual equation where it’s the boy who summarily cuts off the beloved with a phone call) and inciting him to come after her and state that he will ‘always follow wherever [she] goes’. It’s her career and location that is important, he stresses; there will always be crime to fight, no matter where in the world he is, so he is completely at her disposal. Amazing-Spider-Man-Peter-and-Gwen

All this is great, and a very refreshing change from the usual girlfriend in superhero movies, wherever the girlfriend does exist. Compare Gwen’s assertiveness, for instance, to Natalie Portman’s Jane in Thor (1 and 2). Jane is a brilliant physicist, doing cutting edge work in her field, very attractive and certainly not lacking in a support circle. Yet, she is the one who is left waiting for Thor to show up, who rails at him rather ineffectually for a while (in Thor: The Dark World) for not calling, and then needs to be rescued because the ‘ether’ has, rather conveniently, infected her mortal system. Jane then gets hauled around the Nine Realms whether or not she wants it, and forced to undergo various treatment attempts.

As far as I’m concerned, Gwen’s greatest moment (in a series of great moments) is when she cuts herself free of the webbing binding her to a car (this after Pete’s declaration about ‘following’ her everywhere) and turns up to help him fight Electro. ‘This is my choice, mine!’ she declares and then proceeds to be as indispensable and instrumental to the villain’s destruction as her boyfriend. After all, it’s she who finally releases the electric charge  that gets rid of him.

And then, after all this rubbing in of her awesomeness and general ability to fend for herself and make her own decisions, Gwen…dies.

Anyone who’s familiar with the comics knows the fate that awaits her. Editors at Marvel remarked that they had ‘killed Gwen because [they] didn’t know what to do with her’ any more. She was too close to Peter, too much of a dependable source of support. The only way in which the relationship could progress was for the couple to get married, and that didn’t sit well with anyone in the publishing house. Marriage, they felt, would be a betrayal of ‘everything Spiderman was about’, dissing the notion of ‘personal tragedy’ that forms the motivation for Peter’s whole superhero gig. Of course, in the comics, there is the added detail that Gwen doesn’t know Peter’s secret identity, and marriage (and greater closeness) would entail divulging this to her, again something the bigwigs at Marvel didn’t want happening.

gwen 2What does this say, really? Here we have a girl who’s willing to take risks, to stand up for herself and not just be the passive following girlfriend, and she gets axed because there doesn’t seem to be a future for the man. Not  Gwen, but Peter. Who cares if Gwen wanted to go to Oxford and be a famous molecular biologist; what matters is that Peter needs more tragedy to fuel his Spiderman-self and the only way we can have that happen is by killing her off.

Considering that the comic is called ‘Spiderman’ and not ‘Gwen Stacy’, this might be expected. But I can’t shake off the feeling that, coming after all Gwen’s insistence and desire to be a part of Peter’s Spiderman-life, her death is more than a little disturbing. Does it add credence to Captain Stacy and Peter’s agreement to ‘leave her out of it’? Does it somehow insinuate that the men were right after all, that they knew better how to police and direct her life than she herself did?

By giving her a degree of agency and then killing her almost as a direct result of her own choices (after all, if she hadn’t cut herself free and come to his aid, Gwen wouldn’t have been around the electricity grid for the Green Goblin to kidnap), the makers and writers of Spiderman seem to be saying that yes, you can defy the Loving Hero Paradox, but only at a great price. You can ‘become hope’, as Gwen says memorably in her valedictorian speech, but only for someone else, and at a great cost. After all, it’s so poetic  when a beautiful, independent woman becomes the fuelling memory for a male superhero and the core of his angst; so much neater than if she lived, went on to do great things in her chosen field and (heaven forbid) married said hero and ‘forced’ him into dreaded suburban domesticity.

Whatever, Peter Parker. I hope you make Gwen’s ‘sacrifice’ worth it in the next movie. I won’t count on it, though. She was and is my favourite part of the rebooted franchise (in fact, the entire franchise) after all.

 

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The Magic of Prague

Earlier this week, one of my cousins came to visit. He lives in Dusseldorf in Germany, and during the course of our conversation, we wandered onto the topic of living in the grand old continent, Europe. My European experience is fairly limited; I spent ten days in and around Berlin, traveling outwards to Prague, Vienna and Salzburg. During that period however, what really soaked into me was a sense of historical weight, the muted but still undeniably present sense of guilt and memory that was laced into every brass square I spotted on the pavements. Each one was a jolt, causing my stomach to drop just a little bit as the immediacy of the World Wars and their consequences was seared into me anew.

I told my cousin that I couldn’t imagine living in a ‘place like that’, where tragedy seems such an inherent part of the city. Sure, Indian cities, especially places like Delhi, have seen more than their fair share of terrible happenings and years, but (for better or worse) those histories are not sanctified and made a part of the everyday in the manner that Berlin (at least) seemed to do for the Second World War and the Holocaust. Perhaps our tragedies are just so overridden by the struggle of making it through a day, with all that dirt and grime and the sheer volume of people and noise, that we don’t really notice it. Or perhaps, as long-term residents, we Indians have sort of immunized ourselves against the daily drama of human suffering that we see every day, and since we already have to shut so much of it out, our senses really cannot take any more in the form of self-flagellation over past sufferings.

But I’m meandering now. What my cousins’s visit, and the conversation we had, really brought back to me was the European sojourn I had enjoyed, and I found myself, continue to find myself, thinking of Prague.

prague

Prague played host to me for two days and one night. My mother and I stayed in a little hotel walking distance from Wenceslas Square, one of the hubs of culture and business in the city. We walked around our part of the city, past old towers and museums and concert halls, took a bus to Prague Castle and St Vitus’ Cathedral, panted up the cathedral’s bell tower, saw the famous Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Square, visited a synagogue, cruised along the Vlatva and (my favourite part) visited Franz Kafka’s house. We also managed to watch a production of Swan Lake before boarding the midnight train to Vienna.

Yes, it was all most wonderfully culturally enriching.

I suppose it is natural for me to be fascinated by Prague. I’m a fantasy enthusiast, and Prague is so very rich in the mystical and magical. More than the surreal struggles recorded by Kafka in his work, what tugged at me was the layers of folktale that seemed to cast a mist over everything in the Old Town: tales of the golem, of ancient magics, of powerful words that could make and unmake life, all these secrets hidden away in narrow, stone-paved lanes and shuttered houses. Fantasy writers have of course celebrated these aspects of the city in their work, usually in connection with the legend of the golem, that animated clay-guardian of the Jewish quarter. Jonathan Stroud, for instance, in The Golem’s Eye (the second book of The Bartimaeus Trilogy)has a few chapters set in a slightly altered, but nonetheless recognizable Prague. The sinister, morbid magic of this bohemian capital brings out the melodrama in staid British gentlemen and plays host to life-draining, archaic magics that our hero, Nathanial, can barely comprehend.

Another book that slips in and out of Prague (very quickly) is Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.  Though this is not, strictly speaking, a fantasy book (it’s got very little ‘magic’ or otherworldly stuff happening), there is a kavalier and clayportion— set in Prague—that gave me goosebumps. It’s right at the start, when Jakob Kavalier is smuggled out of the country in a golem’s coffin, with the golem inside. Jakob leaves Prague right before things become truly terrible for the city’s Jewish population, and when he next meets the golem, it has attained quite a different, and rather chilling, form.

Both these books play on that one aspect of Prague: its dark, understated tone of magic, a kind that manifests itself not in flashes and sparkles and tight little spells (as ‘English’ magic seems to in Harry Potter), but one that came into being as a defensive force, built from the viscera of its people. Magic is in the cobbles of this city, flowing in broken currents down the Vlatva, embedded in the stones of St. Vitus’. That was the sense I got from my short visit, standing in the Old Town Square, or even in front of my little tucked-away hotel.

Or perhaps that’s what I saw, since I expected it. Perhaps I just closed my eyes to the ‘mundane’ things: the showrooms, the cars, the people with lives not much different from me, walking to work and back. Instead of light and quick reads, I saw second hand bookstores stuffed with obscure texts written in Cyrillic script. Instead of work-exhausted office workers, I saw brooding café patrons who, no doubt, inspired Kafka.

I think I usually see the world through a patina of literature, anyway, and Prague, being the kind of city it is, fit admirably into that frame. All said and done though, I stand by my statement: I couldn’t live there. Call me a coward, but that kind of magic, that sense of tragedy would do me in all too soon.

This post will annoy Snape fans

It’s always amusing when a character changes (and sometimes, for the better) in the transition from book to film. This holds for Arwen from The Lord of the Rings, Andy Sachs in The Devil Wears Prada and Robb in A Game of Thrones. Actors bring with them an interpretation that you as a reader had never considered, and often do more than their fair bit in cementing a character’s popularity within the fandom.

But what happens when an actor’s rendition of a character is so good, so much classier than how he is presented onscreen (in-book, if you will) that he ends up eclipsing the ‘canonical’ version?

Severus_SnapeI’ve never been a fan of Severus Snape. I was in no hurry to find out which side his ‘true allegiance’ lay with, I didn’t particularly care why he had switched sides at all, and I didn’t think the grand revelations at the close were all that grand. Nor do I think the fact that he was in ‘love’ with Lily Evans excuses any of his behavior. Consequently, I find the popular urge to view him as some kind of martyr or tragic hero rather perplexing.

In the books, Severus Snape is a nasty, greasy, rather out-of-control bully. In the films however, Alan Rickman transformed him into a smooth-talking, dour presence. A lot of Snape’s more manic and truly alarming moments are smoothed over by Rickman’s portrayal. One example I can recall is in Prisoner of Azkaban, where Snape gets truly alarming when presented with the Marauder’s Map. He rages at Harry, ‘baring’ his teeth at him and even acting extremely rude to Lupin when he is summoned. In the movie, Rickman played a far more in-control character, drawling his questions at Harry rather than biting them off in a rage.

I will accept that a great deal of the ‘tragic romantic hero’ tag is due to Rickman’s depiction of the character. Indeed, I think Rowling herself allowed his portrayal to influence Snape’s presentation in the later books. From a yellow-toothed, greasy haired professor he becomes something of a suave intellectual, most notably in the scene in Half-Blood Prince where he serves the aristocratic Narcissa Malfoy elf-made wine and discourses smoothly with Bellatrix on the nuances of his double-agent role. The precariously held together Snape from Prisoner of Azkaban, whose hatred of Lupin was so obvious to Harry, seems to have undergone a sea change here.

And, superficial as it is, Rickman’s handsomeness no doubt played a role in people warming to him. In the books, Snape is far from good-looking after all.

Now, to examine a claim that Harry makes at the close of Deathly Hallows, that Snape was ‘the bravest man [he] knew’. I think this was a completely uncalled for statement, one that has little evidence supporting it in the books and, to be completely honest, paints a far more heroic picture of Snape than he really deserves.

I’ve always found it’s easier to go over things point-wise. It makes the otherwise hard-to-navigate skeins of emotion so much easier to decipher. So here, let’s examine Snape’s achievements, whatever we know of them, and see whether or not Harry’s naming a son after him (and not, say, Hagrid or Remus or even Arthur Weasley) is justified at all.

1)       Snape was a double-agent for the entirety of the Second War, and for about one year of the First (give or take six months). He made this switch from Voldemort’s side not because of principles but because he was sort of blackmailed into it by Dumbledore. When he begs the Headmaster to keep Lily safe, Dumbledore asks him point blank what he will ‘give [him] in return’. In response to this, Snape rather dramatically declares, ‘Anything!’ Note that the spying role was, therefore, something that was extracted out of him by a master manipulator rather than something he came up with and offered on his own.

2)      Now let’s examine that role. What exactly did Snape’s spying accomplish? From what I can see, it did a hell of a lot more to further Voldemort’s cause than the Order’s. He fails to suitably control the Carrows in Hogwarts, allowing them to go ahead and use Cruciatus and other torture on the students. He gives Voldemort the correct date for the removal of Harry from Privet Drive, countering Yaxley’s (mis)information that he will be moved on the thirtieth of July, the day before Harry turns seventeen. Snape, at the meeting in Malfoy Manor described in the first chapter (The Dark Lord Ascending) says that he will be moved ‘the Saturday next’, a much closer date. And since ‘days’ pass at the Burrow before Harry’s birthday, we can assume that he was indeed moved well before the 30th and that, therefore, Snape probably was the one who gave Voldemort the correct information.

3)      Speaking of which, where on earth did he get this info from? Mundungus?

4)      Snape apparently did ‘all’ he did because of his love for Lily. He makes this obvious in that memorable scene where he conjures a doe Patronus and intones, heart-wrenchingly, ‘Always’. But, I have to ask, what was this ‘all’? Did he help the Order make any moves that completely foiled a Death Eater plan? Did he give Dumbledore vital information that brought about the defeat of Voldemort? From what I can see, it was the Horcruxes that played the real role in ending the Dark Lord’s reign, and Snape did not contribute to any of those famous memories.

5)   Snape’s greatest achievements in the series were to protect Harry during that Quidditch match in his first year (when Quirrell was jinxing him), place the Sword of Gryffindor rather inconveniently in the pool (yes, yes, it had to be retrieved in circumstances that required ‘bravery’, and how was Snape to know that Harry, like a complete idiot, would jump into the water wearing cursed jewelry) and finally, to pass on the memory that Harry had to die in order to defeat Voldemort. These are important acts, sure, but enough to exonerate him for all the crappy things he’d done to Harry and company before the epiphanies in The Prince’s Tale?

I find it extremely odd that people dismiss James as a bully but rarely pay attention to Snape’s own talents in this area. I would put this down to the common tendency to sympathize with the underdog (after all, Snape didn’t have the best childhood while James, we’re fairly sure, was loved and pampered), but the problem is, this particular underdog doesn’t learn from his own past—he inflicts the same sort of injuries on underdogs in his turn. The manner in which he treats Neville, for instance, or Harry and Hermione, is quite disgraceful and it’s a wonder that he remained a teacher at all.

If it weren’t for the fact that Dumbledore wanted to keep an eye on him, I’m pretty sure he would have been sacked.

Now, for that last bit—that Snape was the one who passed on the information about the final Horcrux to Harry. Was, in fact, probably the only person Dumbledore confided this information to. I think that is telling. Dumbledore obviously assumed that:

a)      Snape would linger long enough to tell Harry this (which honestly was rather presumptuous, considering it was a goddamn war and Snape, as a ‘traitor’ to the Order, would have been high on everyone’s hit-list. This begs the question of how competent Dumbledore thought his own Order members were. Did he not think any of them capable of vengeance?).

b)     That Harry would trust him enough to believe him (again, rather stupid because, let’s face it, Harry has not exactly been shown to be the type to listen first when he has a grudge. The only reason Sirius survived that night in the Shack was because Lupin turned up and calmed everyone down) and

c)      That Snape was probably the only person who would not get too emotionally overhauled by the revelation and withhold it in a mad desire to protect Harry.

That last point is very, very telling. Obviously Snape, for all his vaunted love for Lily, didn’t care enough about her son for this truth to throw him completely off his game. He even tells Dumbledore this: ‘For him?’ he sneers.snape-and-dumbledore

I find it incredible that Harry, who saw this in a memory, still thinks he should honour a man who blatantly told someone else that he didn’t give a damn about him. I find it alarming that he would excuse Snape’s past behavior based on this one revelation about teenage love. Even this love seems strangely wrong, since Snape is described as looking ‘greedily’ at Lily, a rather disturbing image and not one that really evokes the sense of tragic romance that everyone seems to insist on wreathing around the pair.

You could accuse me of being partisan, I guess. I do love the Marauders, I do  love James and Sirius, so perhaps it’s only natural that I dislike their schoolyard enemy. The thing is, I don’t see why people should pardon Snape all his offences, when they are so quick to call out people like James or Sirius or even Percy for the same things. James and Sirius were bullies—we remember that and we deplore it, but does anyone say the same of Snape? Percy sold out his family and followed his ambition, but then came back in regret—so he remains the most disliked Weasley sibling. Percy, arguably, saw the error of his ways and hence returned to the fold. Snape? Came out of a strange sort of ‘love’ that was ready to accept the death of Lily’s husband and child as a natural price to pay for her.

Snape is interesting, Snape is important in illustrating certain moral dilemmas, and perhaps in a weird way he is admirable (he does remain faithful to an ideal, however twisted that devotion is). But is he worth the blind adulation and ready forgiveness so many people seem to extend him? In my opinion, hell no.

Alan Rickman, I sincerely believe that we owe the deification of this character to you. For that alone, congratulations. It says something about an actor when he can manage to overturn six years of canon with one amazing utterance, Always.