WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS
Seriously, don't read this if you haven't seen the films and you don't want to be spoiled. Because I am spoiling All The Things here. Okay?
So, I liked the first film - I enjoyed it. I thought that the story was a little incoherent and that the filmmakers failed to explain certain elements sufficiently in their quest to avoid imitating the Tobey Maguire version. But I loved Andrew Garfield's young, vulnerable rendition of the character. And I adored the female hero of the piece - smart, funny, brave Gwen Stacy, brought to life by Emma Stone.
Note that I call Gwen's character here a female hero rather than a 'love interest'. That's what she is. Her first speaking scene in the film is where she puts herself between Peter and Flash, who is kicking the cr*p out of Peter outside their school while the other students look on with various levels of amusement and concern. Gwen is the one who helps Peter sneak into the Oscorp facility to find out about his parents (albeit she just thinks he's there for the love of science). Gwen is the first and only person Peter tells about his abilities. Gwen goes up against the frankly terrifying villain, the Lizard, without any superpowers at all, twice. Once to defend Peter and save his life by distracting the villain at a crucial moment. Once to try and hide a piece of equipment vital to the Lizard's plan and to synthesize an antidote to stop him, and also to evacuate the building where she knows he's about to go on the rampage.
Gwen has agency in this story. She is the one who first talks to Peter, she is the one who asks him out. When she's in the lab that the Lizard is about to break into, and Peter orders her over the phone to 'get out of there', Gwen ignores him, triggers the blast shutters to buy herself some time, and keeps on doing what needs to be done. Her actions, in fact, save the entire city - without the antidote that she risks her life to create, the entire of New York would have ended up as giant green lizards. Gwen may not get to do cool stunts in a fancy yet implausible superhero costume - but she is so much more than a 'plucky', 'fiesty' (eugh) love interest. She's the female protagonist of the film. She's a hero.
In the second film, her heroic nature is less well utilised because she and Peter break up right at the beginning of the story. Peter is haunted by his memories of Gwen's father, the police chief who died fighting by his side at the end of the first film. His last words to Peter were to beg him to break up with Gwen to keep her safe. Peter actually wasn't able to stay away from Gwen like he promised, but by the beginning of ASM 2 Gwen is so sick of Peter's guilty attempts to make her decisions, 'for her own good', that she breaks up with him for good.
Peter then spends a worrying amount of time stalking her around the city, and pinning multiple pictures of her to his wall. It's not great behaviour for a hero, but sadly we're all long innured to the fact that Hollywood thinks stalking is hot. In the meantime, Gwen moves on with her life in a very heroic way, applying for a scholarship which will allow a remarkable student to study at Oxford in England.
While Peter meets - and forgets - Max, the man who will become electrically-fuelled villain Electro, and tries to support his friend Harry Osborn over the death of Harry's father from a genetic illness which, sooner or later, will probably kill Harry too (Harry will later become the film's second string villain the Green Goblin) Gwen is discovering shady goings on at the Oscorb lab where she does her work-study, and offering Peter friendly support whenever he barges back into her life. Just as she is about to leave for England, Peter comes after her and tells her that wants to be with her, but he won't hold her back. If she's going to England, he will follow her. Still a tiny bit stalker, but a sweet sentiment anyway.
In the final third of the film, Gwen is the one who gives Peter the answer that allows him to Electro-proof his web-slingers. He responds to this by once AGAIN trying to take away her right to make her own choices, webbing her hand to a car so that she can't go with him to try and stop Electro. Gwen manages to cut herself free, and it's a really good thing she does, because when Electro shuts down the entire city's power grid, putting thousands of people's lives in danger, she's the one who figures out how to restart the system and put Electro down for good, which she proceeds to do, with Peter's help.
She also gives Peter a great speech about how no one, including him, has the right to make her choices for her, that she has made the decision to be there, and how she will not stand for him acting the way he has been anymore. It's fantastic. I nearly stood up and cheered, especially since the film supported her words by having her immediately save the day.
Then the filmmakers shoved Gwen Stacy right in the fridge.
What does this mean? It's slang for when writers or producers basically throw away a female character - by killing her or having her 'ruined' (blech) in some fashion, which is often a sexual assault, or a catastrophic loss of agency - in order to motivate a male character to greater depths of manpain. It disempowers the female character, turning them from a person into a symbol whose real worth, traits, and possible suffering are meaningless in the face of the overwhelming, sacred pain of the male character who has lost them.
Why does Gwen's death count as a fridging, you ask? Haven't I just spent this entire post talking about how awesome and heroic Gwen was? Maybe the writers really loved her and felt she deserved a grand and heroic death?
Yeah, except she didn't get one.
Gwen didn't die heroically putting herself between Peter or some other innocent person and danger, or saving thousands of people. She died at the last minute, after being snatched up by the Green Goblin, the film's second string villain. He didn't even know Gwen. But he knew that she was Peter's girlfriend - and he wanted to hurt Peter. That was all Gwen was to him, a female piece of meat whose destruction would upset the object of his ire. So he dropped her from a great height, and Gwen died because Peter failed to save her.
This completely undercuts Gwen's fantastic strong stance on her right to make her own choices about where she wants to go, what she wants to do, and the risks that she intends to take. By killing her right then and in the way they did, the filmmakers are retroactively validating Gwen's father's passive aggressive interference in her life, and Peter's constant attempts to keep her out of danger by taking her choice away. The filmmakers are basically saying that Peter's behaviour was warranted. Gwen didn't have the right to make her own choices after all, because look what happened - exactly what Peter told her would happen. She died.
She died because of him.
I think that's actually the worst part of all. The blaring message that Gwen died because of Peter. Not because she was a hero, putting herself in danger to save thousands of people - people in planes and hospitals, people who without a doubt WOULD have perished if she hadn't been there to take action.
No, Gwen died because Peter didn't protect her well enough. Didn't manage to take her choices away from her, wrap her up in cotton-wool, and keep her out of the conflict well enough.
Literally nothing in the scene where Gwen died reflected Gwen's bravery, heroism and intelligence. They stripped her of everything and left her dangling from one of Spidey's webs like a classical damsel in distress. Her father got to die fighting. He got to offer up some last words. Gwen got to fall, photogenically, and then lie there photogenically in Spiderman's arms while he expressed his beautiful grief over her lovely corpse.
After Peter has finished crying (but not making any attempt at CPR - that wouldn't have been photogenic, after all) we get a brief flash of Gwen's mother and brothers at her funeral, and then lots of shots of time passing as Peter, having given up his web-slinging ways, broods, alone, over her grave. What we don't see is any acknowledgement of a hero's passing. There's no speech from Peter at her funeral about how brave and amazing she was. There's a news bulletin about how the people of New York miss Spiderman, but nothing from anyone about how Gwen Stacy, Chief Stacy's little girl, turned out to be just as great a hero as him in saving the city of New York from Electro. No one seems to know or care that if Gwen hadn't been there that night, the power grid would not have been restored and Electro might well have killed Spiderman and still be terrorizing the city.
Even when Peter watches Gwen's valedictorian speech, which he missed at the beginning of the film, the part of the speech that the filmmakers chose to use is a section which falls squarely under the heading of 'supportive girlfriend', in which Gwen tells the listener not to give up hope, and that they are enough. We saw the beginning of this speech earlier on and it was kickass and heroic, with Gwen stating that life is precious because it is finite and that we have to chose to be brave even knowing we will all fail along the way - but they didn't use that. Why? Because by this point in the movie Gwen is no longer a hero.
Gwen doesn't get to talk about bravery anymore. Peter is the Lonely Hero standing at her grave filled with a manly pain that no one - not his aunt May, who lost her husband, not Gwen's family, who lost a husband and father and a sister and daughter in the space of a year - can possibly understand. Gwen herself couldn't understand it. She's been reduced to a symbolic saintly girlfriend, a sacrifice. She's safe. She's blonde and pretty and smiling softly in the pictures on Peter's walls.
Because that's why Gwen had to die here. She was too strong, Too heroic. Gwen was going to go to England and take Peter with her, and we couldn't have that, now could we? She would have been taking Spidey away from NYC! When the filmmakers decided to kill her off in such a meaningless way, I'm sure they felt it was 'for the best' and that they were doing her justice by making sure she looked tragically gorgeous the whole time she was falling to her death and being a dead body.
In fact, they stripped us of a heroine and gave us a dead damsel in distress. They stripped Gwen Stacy of her soul before they did her body in. They took away the tragedy of the fall of a hero and made it into the tragedy of the loss of Spiderman's girlfriend. As Peter is kneeling over Gwen's body, with a tiny trickle of dark blood coming out of her nose, the filmmakers don't want you thinking: Poor Gwen. You're supposed to be thinking: Poor Peter.
Probably the reason why Gwen was allowed to develop into such a strong, funny, brave, kickass female protagonist in the first place is that the writers and producers always intended to transpose Gwen's death from the comics into the films. They had the confidence to allow her to be ballsy and unapologetically clever and ambitious because they had her meaningless, pointless fridging to look forward to. Ultimately, Gwen was never going to be allowed to truly influence and change Peter's life. She was never going to be acknowledged as a hero or get to die as one. Everything was always going to be about Peter, in the end.
She was always intended for the fridge.
Look, as a writer, I know full well that sometimes characters have to die. Sometimes female characters have to die. But what doesn't have to happen to female characters (and ONLY female characters) is for them to die solely to motivate a male character into a long, dark night of the soul. If you create a female character with the endgame of killing them off, let their death be more than a prompt for manpain.
Let them die the way they lived, whether that is heroically or stupidly or utterly mundanely.
Do not make a female character's death all about the man in their life.
For the love of God, at least allow her DEATH to be about HER.
If you can't do that, if there's no other reason to kill her off than to stimulate manpain, or if there's not enough of her as a character to make any kind of death meaningful other than one motivated only by and meaningful only to the men in her life? Please, please... think again.