A lot has been made of the argument that The Amazing Spider-Man is a superhero movie for girls. Indeed, comparisons have been made to Twilight of all things, suggesting that The Amazing Spider-Man has been constructed in such a way as to appeal to younger female audience members. I think that’s a fair point, even if mentioning the “T-word” inevitably provokes fanboys to foam at the mouth. Gwen Stacy, as brilliantly portrayed by Emma Stone, feels like a much more central and important part of this film than any female character in any major superhero blockbuster produced over the past few years. However, there’s also a sense that while there are some quite conscious and deliberate similarities between the Twilight franchise and this “new and improved” superhero reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man manages to fulfil all these tropes and conventions without resorting to the uncomfortable sexism and stilted emotional responses that have prompted a lot of critics and viewers to so loudly criticise Stephenie Meyers’ vampire franchise.
Let’s look at the similarities. Both films are or claim to be, essentially, love stories. Sure, there’s a gigantic lizard man in The Amazing Spider-Man who plans to turn New York into a city of lizards for some reason, but his motivations are very decidedly of secondary importance. Unlike the other villains in the other Spider-Man films, who all had some measure of autonomy Curt Connors is intriguing only as he relates to Peter Parker. Oh, and because he’s a giant lizard man, and giant lizard men are inherently cool – but that’s not the emotional crux of Connors’ story. Connors seems to exist merely so Peter can feel guilty about him.
“I gotta stop him, because I created him,” Peter tells Gwen while breaking out his “it’s all about me” t-shirt. Let’s gloss over the fact that the lesson that Uncle Ben was trying to teach Peter was that he is responsible for slightly more than cleaning up his own mess. Though the city of New York is apparently under threat, the climax of the film is only really concerned with four people: the Lizard, Gwen, Peter and Captain Stacy. There’s a point where the Lizard turns a bunch of cops into fellow lizard men, but we don’t see them do anything. We get shots of them changing and then shots of them changing back. It seems like the movie floats the possibility of city-wide implications of this climax, but the heart of the action is always based around those four people.
Because The Amazing Spider-Man is about Gwen and Peter, and not about Spider-Man and New York. The film features an origin for Spider-Man, and we’ve seen most of it before. There’s some new stuff about his parents, because apparently the angst surrounding his uncle’s death wasn’t quite enough, but none of that is resolved. It’s all left open for the inevitable sequel. The film is more concerned with the relationship between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy. She’s immediately taken with the guy once he shows a hint of mystery, even though she knows little about him. It’s implied that she doesn’t even know his name, despite being in his class for years.
She becomes even more curious about Peter when he sneaks into Oscorp, stealing a badge from an intern, which leads that intern to get forceably removed from the premise. He refuses to explain what he’s doing, covering with the most obvious lies – and she sees right through them, but remains curious despite that. When he starts showing up at school with strange bruises he refuses to explain, she seems to become even more intrigued – despite the fact that he’s a potentially dangerous individual.
It’s revealed that the object of her affection is a strange, super-human being with impossible physical abilities. Like Edward, Peter’s faster and stronger than any mortal teenager. Like Edward, he exudes a sense of danger, and any involvement with him could potentially be disastrous for Gwen. “Oh,” she remarks to herself, as he swings away like a hero, “I’m in trouble.” Peter himself amps up the romantic angst towards the end of the film when he tells his aunt, “I’m no good for her.” Peter might brood slightly less, but there’s a lot of the similar themes and ideas. He even uses his gifts to sneak into her room at night.
However, Marc Webb and his actors manage to avoid many of the pratfalls that Twilight brought to that sort of relationship. I’m tempted to be glib and to argue that Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are simply far better actors than Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, but there’s more to it than that. Stone’s portrayal of Gwen is light years more compelling and fascinating than Bella could ever hope to be, but the credit must be shared between the actress and the script.
Peter’s stalkerish tendencies are downplayed. Jokes about his photoshopping skills aside, he respects Gwen a lot more than Edward ever respects Bella. He always knocks before entering her room. He reveals his secret identity to her without being forced. There’s none of the connotations of physical abuse in any of their interactions. Indeed, Gwen and Peter seem far more tender and sincere with one another than Bella or Edward could ever be. For lack of a better phrase, The Amazing Spider-Man is Twilight done right, without any of the unfortunate implications or undertones that viewers take for granted in that series.
Gwen and Peter are both damaged individuals, dealing with their own troubles, but both feel far more real than Bella or Edward ever could, there’s a rich layer of psychology to each of the pair. Crucially, while she has her own issues to work with, Gwen feels like more of a person than Bella, who might as well be a piece of cardboard caught in a draft. The main thing Bella does during the Twilight films is simply stand around and get fought over. In the last film, she got pregnant. She’s hardly the most dynamic of characters.
Gwen, on the other hand, decides to help Peter during the Lizard’s assault on the school. Sure, it might not be the smartest move, but it’s far more proactive than anything Bella does. She’s also the one who produces the antidote to Connors’ “lizard juice”, and rather pointedly refuses to follow Peter’s instructions to get the hell out of the building when the Lizard drops by. Again, not the smartest move, but one that shows far more character and initiative than anything Bella does. In fact, Gwen is introduced saving Peter from a beating being administered by Flash Thompson.
And yet, despite that strength, there’s still a sense that Gwen Stacy is dealing with her own stuff, as much as Peter is. She seems aware that her attraction to Peter is less than healthy – but at least the movie admits that it is probably not the healthiest relationship for either. In particular, the movie makes a point of illustrating that Gwen is attracted to peter for the same reasons he respects and admires her father. “I know what this is,” she remarks to Peter, looking at his chest emblem. “Every day for as long as I can remember, my father has left every morning and he’s put a badge on his chest, and strapped a gun to his hip. And every day for as long as I can remember, I haven’t known if he was going to make it home.”
The similarities between the pair run deeper than that – with J. Jonah Jameson entirely absent from the film, Peter and George Stacy are the two characters defined by their sense of humour. Uncle Ben and Curt Connors joke a bit, but Captain Stacy and Peter Parker are both the sharpest guys in the film. “Thirty-eight of New York’s finest versus one guy in a unitard.” Stacy even has enough awareness to crack Godzilla jokes when Peter shows up to warn him about the Lizard.
You could argue that most superhero films are about boys and their fathers. Thor is the most obvious example, and perhaps the finest illustration, but Iron Man 2 was also preoccupied with the idea, while Iron Man pit Tony against his father-figure. Even movies featuring both parents – like Batman Begins or Richard Donner’s Superman – seem more preoccupied with the father figure. On the other hand, The Amazing Spider-Man is perhaps the first superhero film that is at least as concerned with the idea of girls and their fathers.
Gwen is shaped and defined by her relationship with her father – even though we only see a handful of shared scenes. When she’s interested in Peter, the first thing they do together is to meet her father. When her father has to leave to go across town, he still calls his daughter in. While the climax of the film sees New York make its peace with Spider-Man, the more crucial reconciliation is between Spider-Man and Gwen’s father. as such, there’s an uncomfortable suggestion that Gwen is responding to a lot of the shared traits between her father and Peter Parker.
However, the film doesn’t gloss over that – it emphasises it. And, as a result, it almost seems to foreshadow tragedy. Gwen is knowingly and inherently attracted to dangerous men. Bella has a similar problem. The difference is that The Amazing Spider-Man acknowledges it as a flaw that will have consequences – if only because we suspect Peter an Gwen won’t get a happily ever after. Twilight ignores these implications and ideas.
In that respect, I think that it’s fair to argue that The Amazing Spider-Man is “Twilight done right” – a story addressing the same themes and ideas, but with a smarter and more grounded attitude, exploring the logical conclusions of the suggestions that have been made. I wasn;t massively impressed with the film as a whole, but I did really like the way that Peter and Gwen’s relationship was explored as an inherently tragic one, and one with a bit more depth than most teenage romances.