‘To be human is to love’: Wonder Woman review

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To be human is to love.

The superhero movie is many things: a reliable return on investment for producers and studios, a space within which the hottest actor/actress of the day can flex their muscles (literally) and ham it up, a bone for diehard comic fans to chew up and over as they argue about Easter eggs and continuity and elaborate theories. It channels explosions of energy and machines onto the screen, and provides some sort of entertaining catharsis; good wins the day, ultimately, after cheesy speeches about hope, and evil is safely put away, even if there is a hint (in post-credits scenes) that it will rise again.

bale With the glut of superhero movies and dramas reaching screens in the past few years, no filmmaker has left as indelible a mark on the genre as Christopher Nolan, with his Dark Knight trilogy. Nolan reminded viewers that superhero movies can be ‘profound’, and underlined this by drenching his screen in darkness, and giving his Batman a moodiness and pathos that sets him apart from the far more campy versions brought to life by Michael Keaton or George Clooney. Bale’s Batman was so successful, critically and commercially, that DC, Batman’s owners, decided they would continue this formula for their other films, with varying results. Most of DC’s efforts have been panned, with Batman vs Superman reach particularly low standards, but finally, they seem to have gotten the memo that not all superhero films need be extended meditations on heroism and goodness in a dark world. Some of them can be this, and fun as well.

Enter Wonder Woman. Directed by Patty Jenkins, whose previous credits include the Charlize Theron-starring Monster,  the movie stars Gal Gadot, former Miss Israel and a total badass. There was some griping when Gadot was cast (mostly because she was a relative nobody), but from the moment she lit up screens in Zach Snyder’s otherwise forgettable B vs S, I think most critics have been silenced. She is, to put it succinctly, effortlessly charismatic in this role, and brings Diana Prince’s blend of naivete, strength and integrity to life.

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Wonder Woman is a first for many reasons, most importantly its place as the first female-led and –directed superhero blockbuster in more than a decade, the first movement of a Queen in this elaborate game of chess DC and Marvel have suckered us into watching them play. How does it fare in these contexts, as a superhero movie in general, and one that stars a woman?

The answer: pretty damn well.

Wonder Woman is an origin story, a flashback shown to us after Diana Prince (Gadot) receives an old photograph from the seemingly-all-knowing Bruce Wayne. It’s a picture of her in her Amazonian armour, standing on a battlefield with a group of men. ‘Maybe some day you’ll tell me your story,’ Wayne writes. Diana reminisces, looking at the picture, and her memories unspool before us in the form of the film.

Wonder Woman, the comics character, has been around for decades, so her origin isn’t all that mysterious. She is an Amazonian princess, raised on the idyllic island of Themiscyra, by her mother, the queen Hippolyta. She is trained in warfare and combat by her aunt Antiope, trained ‘harder than any Amazon before her,’ though why is left unclear at first. The Amazons, a race of demigoddesses, were created by Zeus to promote a ‘greater understanding among men’, but retired to their mysterious island when Ares, God of War, corrupted the world of men and destroyed the gods. The Amazons hold Zeus’ last weapon to defeat Ares, and prepare for the day when they will have to rejoin the world, and destroy him once and for all.

Or so Diana has been told.

When Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a spy assigned to British Intelligence, crashes into the azure waters off the coast, he drags with him the fury and chaos of World War I. Diana finds herself confronted with what she sees as a ‘sacred duty’: to return to the world of men and save them from the corruption caused by Ares. She steals away with Trevor, asking her disapproving mother ‘Who would I be if I stayed?’ Self imposed duty and belief call her to arms, even if it means never seeing her mother, or Themiscyra, again.

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Thus begins Diana’s time in the world of men, a world that, Hippolyta claims, ‘does not deserve’ her. She and Trevor, accompanied by a band of misfits with their own sad stories, head to where the fighting is most intense: the Western Front. They are aided off-field by Steve’s secretary, Etta Candy (Lucy Davis) and the pacifist Sir Patrick (David Thewlis), a Cabinet member who insists on funding their mission to destroy a secret German weapons facility run by Dr. Isabel Maru (Elena Anaya) and General Ludendorff (Danny Huston). Maru has created a horrendous weapon that has the potential to wipe out ‘millions’; Trevor and Diana believe that she and Ludendorff must be stopped at any cost.

As with all stories, there are twists and turns, some surprises, but also sweetness and sadness in equal measure. Diana is shocked by a world that seeks to shut her out simply because she is a woman, where soldiers and civilians are killed with impunity by generals hiding out in their offices. But still, she clings tight to what she knows: that she has a job to do, as an Amazon, and she must do it, no matter what.

What really stands out about Diana as a superheroine is this, her lack of confusion over what it ‘means’ for her to be a hero. Diana does not see herself as markedly different from the people around her. Her gifts are not burdens she carries (like Cavill’s Clark Kent), but things she must put to use to help those who cannot help themselves. She does not waste time wondering ‘why’ she feels the need to help people, what it means in the larger scheme of things. She does not quibble over killing, if it must be done. She’s a warrior, a tool, and she has a purpose. Not for her existential mulling over being a dark knight, or a god among men. ‘I can help them,’ ‘I can do it,’ ‘I am the man for the job’: these are her phrases, and they capture her superheroine manifesto, as well as anything Nolan’s Batman might have said captured his.

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Is Gadot’s Diana a feminist? In an interview, Jenkins pointed to one scene in the movie, where Diana enters the Cabinet Room at British High Command, a place of power from which women are banned. ‘She doesn’t think she doesn’t have a right to be there,’ Jenkins said. She believes these men should listen to her, because she brings important information, and she, more importantly, wants to and can help with the war. Diana has been raised in a place where gender is not seen as something to be commented on, certainly not something that should act as a stumbling block to what one wants to do. Even her first stunned comment to Trevor (‘You’re a man!’) is made as a general observation, rather than loaded with judgment and predisposition of what a ‘man’ might be like. She cannot comprehend why the modern world would not ‘allow’ women to fight in battle, or that her armour is ‘inappropriate’ in any way. It is impossible to stress how refreshing this is, to have a protagonist (who also happens to be a woman) focus solely on her mission and ideals, and refuse to dignify what she sees as amusing, if not outright ridiculous, conventions.

On the flip side, Diana’s confidence and lack of faith in institutions like marriage and sexist biases comes not from any sort of enlightenment, but simply because she was never exposed to the same. She has not struggled ‘out’ of these bindings; she just never had to deal with them. While this works for the movie, it does sort of problematize the idea of her as a feminist icon, a fact that critics of her nomination as a UN ambassador seized upon. But within the echelons of pop culture, and this movie in particular, Diana’s position as powerful woman works. Personally, I loved watching her kick ass, and would watch many more scenes of her doing just that.

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Wonder Woman ends with (spoiler alert) Diana thinking that ‘only love can save the world’. It’s a curiously sentimental line, one that might seem out of place in a movie-verse where we’ve gotten used to darker pronouncements about man’s innate evil, and the futility of effort. But here, it makes sense. There is something hopeful and, well, clear about Diana. It’s refreshing to meet a heroine who just does her job, something she’s basically trained all her life to do, because it is right. Not for her brooding or posturing, or staring into the dark skies, wondering about the personal and metaphysical implications of her actions. She cuts through all that bullshit with one flick of her lasso, and throws herself in headfirst, saving a world that might not always deserve her. But, as she herself says, ‘It’s not about deserve; it’s about what you believe.’ Diana believes she has to be there for the world, and do what she can to save it from itself. If that doesn’t make you love her without complication, I don’t know what will.

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Watching the Watchmen: Part I

(Part II of this post will happen post-Captain America: Civil War. Spoilers for both Daredevil Season 2 and Batman vs Superman going ahead.)

There’s a virtual flood of superhero-related things coming to the visual medium, both in the form of TV shows and movies. I’d barely finished digesting Season 2 of Daredevil before dragging people to a showing of Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (or Just Us, if you’d believe this incredibly well edited trailer), and it seems like I’m only going to be waiting  a few more weeks before Captain America comes back with all his blonde-haired, blue-eyed prettiness in Captain America: Civil War.

To me, the glut of superhero sagas can only be a good thing. More epic battles, more eye-Tom-Hiddleston-Loki-Costume-Chest-Shouldercandy prancing about doing noble (and in Loki’s case, not so noble) things on screen, increasingly more women kicking ass (my favourite things about Daredevil and B vs. S were Elektra and Wonder Woman respectively), and energising music. Also, more fodder to compare to others in its category. It’s evident that the three major superhero releases of the first half of the year—the ones I’ve outlined in the para above—share similar themes: not what the individual does with ‘great power’, but how the world around them can (and maybe should?) put a check on it.

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What’s arguably the most oft-quoted line from superhero movies is Spiderman’s Uncle Ben’s homely adage: ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ It interests me that instead of focusing so much on individual ‘responsibility’, Daredevil and B vs. S (and the Civil War comics) looks at the broader question of what forms the ‘responsibility’ of the community in which these powers are being used. Daredevil brings this question to gory punisherlife in the figure of the Punisher, a rogue self-designated vigilante who assuages his personal grief and loss by killing off what he sees as ‘scum’ who ‘deserve to die’. Frank Castle, an ex-Marine with a celebrated war record, uses his training and expertise to gun down gang bosses, rapists, murderers, drug pins, child pornography distributors—in short, anyone who threatens the safety and sanctity of Hell’s Kitchen (though Castle’s own house is far off in some suburban outskirt, and he is from Queens). Unlike Daredevil, who uses much less lethal methods, Punisher does not look to reform or rehabilitate his prey. He seems to believe that the system is broken, and given how events play out in the show, he may have a point.

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Daredevil takes it upon himself to stop the Punisher, but in an ironic spin, he finds himself defending him as Matt Murdock, understanding that putting away one vigilante (who, no matter how violent and misguided, was only trying to do the same thing he is) might have serious repercussions on his own actions as the devil of Hell’s Kitchen. Murdock’s willingness to use the law, the very system he skirts around as a vigilante, in order to exonerate Castle, is striking. Throughout the series, Murdock’s actions as a costumed superhero plague him with doubt and guilt, which he looks to the Father at his chosen church to assuage. His stint as a lawyer, and his upbringing as a Catholic combine to give him a load of questions and a need for forgiveness, that forms a complete contrast to the amoral Punisher. Indeed, towards the middle of the series, when things seem to really be spiralling out of control and Murdock sees his hard work unraveling around him, he says, ‘I thought it could work, the law, but it feels so useless. Everything I’ve done just gets undone.’

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Even then, Murdock/Daredevil refuses to go all the way and take up the sheer butchery espoused by the Punisher. ‘You cross over to my side of the line, you can’t come back from that, ever,’ Castle tells him during one of their longer nightly conversations, and Daredevil seems to keep that in mind. Daredevil leaves open-ended the question of supervision of vigilante figures, with the Punisher’s excess almost excused and justified (horrifying as his methods are, there seems to be a general consensus, whether among the ‘heroes’ or the jury members at Castle’s trial, that they are effective), the show moving on quickly to its second storyline with Elektra, but it leaves those questions in viewers’ heads: how much vigilante-ism/power is too much, and who can you trust with it?

B Vs. S

Though it’s opened to largely negative reviews, I quite enjoyed Batman vs Superman. Sure, there were some stupid moments, but it was entertaining, and like I’ve said before, Wonder Woman’s entry was well worth the build-up. I also liked Affleck’s turn as a dour Batman, despite his rather flip-flopping morals when it came to killing people.

batfleckI thought Affleck’s Batman provided a nice parallel to the Punisher. He seems to have no qualms with mowing down people he believes ‘deserve’ it, literally doing so while chasing a shipment of Kryptonite. What’s interesting is that here, the Punisher figure is the one suspicious of the man lauded as a hero, a ‘god’. While it’s a suspicion partly fuelled by what he knows Superman is capable of (destroying an entire city centre is a fair demonstration of his ‘gifts’), it’s also more than a little obvious that Batman’s dislike of Superman is also a product of envy. Though the movie never outright says it, Batman seems to have little going for him personally—shutting himself away from emotional entanglements outside of his taciturn manner with Alfred. Luthor is able to play on his guilt in order to drum up his hatred of Superman—there’s a strong implication that Bruce feels himself responsible not only for his parents’ death, but Robin’s as well. To see someone else being hailed as a hero, when he sees the cost of the man’s powers probably doesn’t do wonders for Batman’s self esteem (hey, no judgement here), and he ends up taking it upon himself to bring him down.

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In both Daredevil and B vs S then, there’s a sense that people who seek to protect others, when not appointed to do so by the law, must be answerable to it, and their methods ‘approved’ by some sort of governing body. Daredevil is largely able to get away with his hijinks because he does not veer into the territory of taking life— a decision that only ‘God’ can make (he seems to imply as much in one of his tete a tetes with Castle). Superman, who has God-like powers on Earth, must be made accountable to some kind of committee, that seeks to discipline him for his irresponsible use of them, a theme that will be taken up, presumably, in Captain America. Though the Marvel movie (if it stays true to the central conflict of the comics) will take this question one step further: should a community curtail the freedoms of its superheroes/individuals in an effort to protect the many? What does a superhero do when the law says that his actions, even if they be saving a bus full of children from a grisly end, are illegal if he does not submit himself to government-sanctioned registration? It’s interesting that Daredevil, who stands ‘for the law’ (as much as any vigilante can be said to) in the Netflix series takes the side of the rogue heroes led by Captain America in the Civil War comics, becoming, in the process, a criminal.

These are all questions that have a sort of relevance in a world of increasing surveillance, questions of identity and protecting individual rights over those of the community. It’s quite fascinating that superhero movies and shows are doing their bit to answer them, some more and some less satisfyingly.

Considering the King of Kings: Watchmen’s Ozymandias

Warning: Spoilers for Watchmen and Before Watchmen: Ozymandias ahead.


Before_Watchmen_Ozymandias_Vol_1_1_Variant_AThere’s no graphic novel/comic book character who has impressed me or made me think as much as Ozymandias (Adrian Veidt) from Alan Moore’s classic, Watchmen. As a power hungry, megalomaniac figure, his type is familiar in the superhero universe. Nor is his ‘damning the world for its own good’ an entirely new concept—what makes the difference in his case is that, unlike many of his fellow antiheroes/straight-out villains, Ozymandias’s scheme, so far as we can see, is successful.

I read Watchmen close to two years ago. The experience was, to say the least, unsettling. Moore’s novel has been called many things: a ‘tour de force’, a ‘masterpiece’, ‘gritty and realistic’ and a ‘watershed’ for superhero comics. It portrays a close-to-realistic universe, New York during the height of the Cold War, where scientists watch a ‘doomsday clock’s’ minute hand move closer and closer to total destruction. The United States government has hired the services of two ‘vigilantes’: a sociopath who calls himself the Comedian (a sort of deranged Captain America type) and Dr. Manhattan, an omnipotent being whose quantum powers have been bestowed upon him by a (wait for it) scientific experiment gone wrong. In a world of rising suspicion and fear of nuclear holocaust, one retired vigilante takes it upon himself to ‘save’ humanity by creating a faux war and, regrettably, losing a few million lives in the process of saving the whole.

That man is Ozymandias.

I suppose it’s not very surprising that I ‘fell for’ this character the moment his scheme became clear. Not only is he power hungry and super intelligent, but he also confesses to having found the inspiration for his scheme in classic science fiction. I also love those corny scenes where the villain explains his ultimate agenda, though they usually end in the hero besting said villain and ensuring that agenda never gets fulfilled (and I do have a well-known soft spot for charming megalomaniacs, like Blair Waldorf and Magneto). In Ozymandias’s case, the ‘heroes’ (always a questionable term where Moore is concerned) realize there is nothing they can do to foil his plan. What’s the point of telling an already panicked world that a well-known businessman, the ‘smartest man in the world’, is terrorizing them in order to achieve peace? AdrianVeidt

Yeah, no one would buy it.

At the close of Watchmen, the remaining superheroes are divided. Nite Owl and Scarlet Spectre II have taken off to try and eke a normal life together, gathering their scattered and damaged selves in a mutually supportive relationship. Rorschach is dead, Dr. Manhattan has taken off to outer space, unable to care any longer for the ‘microcosm’ that humanity constitutes; and Ozymandias is staring, teary eyed at his own success, watching as channel after channel broadcasts the devastation his crazy scheme has wreaked in New York City. 

In a world as grimy as the one Watchmen portrays, Ozymandias is a scarcely believable idealist. This is a world where the ‘heroes’ have lost faith, where they’ve, one by one, been hunted into darkened, rat-infested corners and, where they’re not killed out of hand, withered away in cynicism. Ozymandias, arguably, has a much more privileged  background than any of his fellows, being from a well-to-do family and then, after years of self-inflicted hardship, rising to  become one of the richest men in the world. He seems a reimagining of Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark, both billionaires who invest their time and energy in making the ‘world a better place’ in their own way. Unlike them, Ozymandias is not content to fight local crime in hand-to-hand combat. The ‘smartest man in the world’, his vision is much more universal.

Ozymandias combines the skill set of Bruce Wayne (and the assets) with the benevolent dictatorship espoused by a figure like The Avengers’ Loki. Like Wayne, he is a loner, a recluse who hides aspects of himself and his final plan from everyone. Fittingly enough, according to the non-Moore written prequel Before Watchmen: Ozymandias he takes up crime-fighting in order to avenge the loss of his lover, Miranda. After Miranda, his relations with women (and people in general) seem few and far between, surface at best.

Like Loki, Veidt is ‘burdened with glorious purpose’. His role model and personal hero is
Alexander the Great, the near-legendary warrior king who conquered most of the then known world at the age of 33. As the alleged ‘smartest man in the world’, he believes he has a duty to helping humanity, to guide it towards a better future, one not wracked by petty conflict and ensuing misery. Like Loki, he believes that taking the freedom of choice and knowledge from his ‘herd’ is a good thing, and only helps humanity. Unlike Loki, he is doing this not to obtain open and obvious power. The world does kneel to Adrian Veidt, but it does not know it. Tom-Hiddleston-Loki-Costume-Chest-Shoulder

Interestingly, I think Tom Hiddleston might have done a great job as Ozymandias. He gets that tortured genius thing so well. Then again, I think Tom Hiddleston could do great in most roles.

The superhero universe is filled with characters who are driven, ruthless, charismatic and romantic. Ozymandias has all these qualities. But Ozymandias towers above his fellows, in my opinion, because he owns his power and potential in a way that many don’t. He has an almost inhuman sense of duty, one that flogs him on to devastating acts. He is both so in love with humanity and thoroughly disgusted by it. He is the worst kind of sociopath—one who believes that everything he does is for the ‘greater good’. Albus Dumbledore couldn’t match up to this guy, Elder Wand or no.

tumblr_mg3d7kyvlL1qfxwtoo6_1280Is Ozymandias a hero or a villain? He is both. Moore intertwines his story with that of the tortured castaway from the Black Freighter, a man who damns himself and all those he loves out of his own despair. Watchmen’s narrative ends before we can find out the long-term effects of Ozymandias’s scheme, so we don’t know whether he did wreak more evil than good, but perhaps the story is an indicator, from Moore, of where things will go. Ozymandias is the smartest man in the world, but his very name indicates eventual ruin. After all, it’s the name given to the statue of king, fallen in a desert and scoured by the sand.

Maya and the Mutants

How do you  know you’re a literary superstar? When you can say sappy things and have people read them as profound and status update worthy. angelou

Last week, Maya Angelou, writer, activist and feminist icon, passed away. As expected, Facebook and Twitter erupted, people outdoing each other in a bid to provide the most thought-provoking quote they had come across either through reading her work or, if you subscribe to the more cynical school of thought, via a quick Google search. I wasn’t surprised, really, given that this was exactly what had happened when, earlier this year, other literary/political greats passed away.

My own reading of Angelou has been very limited: I was introduced to her through a credit course I did in my first year of undergrad. She was part of a collection of writers brought together under the heading ‘Gender’, ostensibly placed there because the piece we were reading, ‘I rise’, was meant to be studied (in that particular course) in its feminist context. Beyond that poem, I have read nothing of Angelou.

Until the status updates appeared.

Among the many beautiful pieces I was thus treated to was one that a friend of mine had chosen to use, for whatever reason, as her display picture on a messaging app. The quote, which trailed above a picture of Angelou, was this:

Have enough courage to trust love one more time, and always one more time.

Now, plenty of people have said similar things. For instance, Auden declared, rather melodramatically, ‘We must love one another, or die’. Singers and songwriters state that love makes the world go around in various ways and Harry Potter, arguably one of the most influential literary icons of the last century, wins because he symbolizes and fights for, at some level, the power of love.

In all these cases, love does not restrict itself to the sense that it has gained in most commercial domains: that of romantic attachment. Yes, this is probably the most lucrative form of it, selling as it does cards, perfumes, books and loads of jewellery, but it is not the only one out there. What a lot of these writers, Rowling included, gesture towards with the term is a sort of universal agape, a feeling of hope born out of the hero’s ability to connect with and care for his fellow beings.

I am at an age where the idea of ‘happily ever after’ and perfect worlds seems laughable, where to even hint at believing in such things is to invite ridicule. The ‘adult world’, I’ve been told time and again, is no place for such escapist ideals. This is a land where to be open with your feelings is to expose yourself as a weakling; where courtship, whether romantically inclined or not, is a game that you play with half your attention on the board, the other half plotting ways of ensuring that you don’t ‘lose’ more than your opponent does. You can’t ever look as though you are completely earnest in what you do or feel or say; that’s just not safe anymore.

So, given all this scepticism and general cynicism that usually floods conversations, it was more than a bit surprising and, really, refreshing to see tributes to a woman who, quite vociferously, argued for the power of love. And argued for it despite having a life that no Disney moviemaker would touch with a ten-foot pole.

Angelou’s words came back with a bit of a bang when I watched the latest superhero blockbuster to hit screens: Bryan Singer’s X Men: Days of Future Past. Unlike its cousin, The Amazing Spiderman 2 (which released a little earlier this year and that I blogged about here), X Men is not halfway as stereotypically feel-good. X Men, arguably, never has been, chiefly because its primary villain, Magneto, is such a complicated, shades-of-grey character whose agenda of a mutant-run-world is all too close to the reality of sentiments that govern (and, to many eyes, justify) the behaviour of the state of Israel.

But Magneto and his almost-Zionism are a topic for another day.

Like any good superhero movie however, Days has its soaring speeches and breakdown moments. At a particularly low moment, young Charles buckles under the pressure of all the ‘despair and pain’ he sees in the world: ‘I don’t want your suffering, I don’t want your future!’ Then comes a heartwarming speech from a mentor figure, about finding the power of ‘hope’ within all that morass, the strength that people like Charles need to exude to their friends and followers. ‘We can bear their pain’, he is told, if he can bring himself to ‘hope again’. x-men-days-of-future-mcavoy-patrick-stewart-636-370

Isn’t that a superpower? The ability to look the world head on, see its evil, and yet find reserves of hope to take it on? Angelou basically said what every superhero movie, even the stylishly dark Nolan-Batman, depict. No matter what dross the world throws at you, what terrible agenda the villain has cobbled together, always trust hope, love, basic human goodness, one more time and always, one more time.

It’s the only thing, apparently, that can save the world.

 

 

 

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.