I’m a sucker for a good love story, especially when it involves superheroes. They have such a different existence from us that I feel like they almost need a normal person at their side to keep them grounded. Sure, that leads to some predictable plot points: villains taking loved ones hostage and exploiting the weakness of a hero’s love for someone who can’t protect him/herself, the hero putting the one he loves aside for his or her own sake because of the danger, and in more than a few cases, the girlfriends and boyfriends of superheroes meet untimely deaths because of who they love. Matt Murdock’s lady friends come to mind. Predictable doesn’t mean bad, and it definitely doesn’t mean unoriginal. As with any other good vs. evil story we’ve read, it just takes the right storyteller.
I was prepared for all the usual twists and turns with Spider-Man’s relationship. Notice how that’s singular. As someone who’s not been reading comics for a long time I knew about a few heroes and their significant others: Superman and Lois, Batman and Vicki Vale, and Spider-Man and Mary Jane Watson. I learned about these from television, movies, or just knew them as pop culture facts without remembering the source. Until the announcement for the upcoming The Amazing Spider-Man I had no idea who Gwen Stacy was. Based on the lack of anger from online geek community (and thanks to Google) I learned she wasn’t a new character for the film. She was Peter Parker’s first love and probably still would be if not for a fatal encounter with the Green Goblin.
I was introduced to Gwen through Loeb and Sale’s Spider-Man: Blue. The retelling of how Peter Parker and Gwen fell in love was moving and sweet. I was surprised to see that Mary Jane was around at the same time and that they both vied for his affections. When I finished Blue, I went back to the issues of Amazing Spider-Man the love story was pulled from. Their courtship was charming, and I found myself rooting for them and hoping MJ would get out of the picture (I’m not charmed by the comic book version of her yet).
Spider-Man and Gwen had a tough run. They fall in love, but life and circumstance come between them. Gwen blames Spider-Man for the death of her father and goes to Europe to deal with her pain. She eventually returns to New York and resumes her relationship with Peter, but that doesn’t last long. The Green Goblin kidnaps her and throws her off the side of the bridge. Spider-Man stops her fall by snagging her legs with webbing, but the sudden stop actually snaps her neck. It’s tragic and heartbreaking (just looking for images of the panels makes me tear up) Though Peter doesn’t realize what caused her death for a while, the loss has a huge effect on him.
The loss of Gwen coupled with the death of his Uncle Ben may just be two tragedies, but two is enough. Uncle Ben indirectly died because Peter didn’t use his powers to take out the thief that would kill him. Gwen died because he intervened his powers; she may not have survived the fall but specifically going out because of webbing is… well, I couldn’t even imagine dealing with it.
I was talking with a friend last night about Spider-Man and how I was having a hard time “getting” him. She struggles with that, too. At one point I said, “Look, he’s funny. That’s all I got.” The two general points I take from Spider-Man are that he’s clever and “with great power comes great responsibility.” I didn’t know what drives him – was he just a hero for the fun of it and was that enough – and I was frustrated. The discussion reached a point where we wondered if we actually were wishing more tragedy upon Spidey because he rarely broods. Maybe the death of his uncle wasn’t enough. But it was. Couple that with feelings of responsibility over Gwen’s death and the dude has issues.
After giving it a lot of thought, I realized the most obvious thing: he uses humor to cope. He internalizes his pain and puts on a smile for the world. And as far as questioning his drive for continuing to be a superhero, that was obvious too. I think that one moment with Uncle Ben set his life in motion. There was no turning back, no alternate solution. With one simple act, he could have saved his Uncle. He doesn’t want that to happen to someone else. He doesn’t need any other motivation. So he moves forward, always fighting, always web-slinging. And I should be happy that he actually has fun with his powers and cracks ridiculous jokes. The world (I) doesn’t need another dark and depressed hero. There are other ways to respond to tragedy. Now that I get it, I prefer Spider-Man’s way.