Jul 3 2012 3:00pm

Before There Was Mary Jane: Spider-Man’s First Real Love

For many people, the blockbuster 2002 movie Spider-Man was their first exposure to its wisecracking, web-slinging superhero outside of childhood Saturday morning cartoons and half-remembered Halloween costumes. For these people, Tobey Maguire is Spider-Man, in the same way that Daniel Radcliffe is Harry Potter, or Colin Firth is Mr. Darcy; and his hapless alter-ego Peter Parker’s romance with ambitious girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) has, with one legendary upside-down kiss, become the standard for all such secret identity-fuelled sexiness. The two, less successful, sequels that followed–less successful artistically, if not in terms of box office revenue–only served to solidify Peter and his MJ as comic land’s It Couple, up there with Superman and Lois, or Scott Pilgrim and Ramona Flowers. (For more on comic land’s It Couples, see Forced to Marry, Fated for Each Other and More: Superheroes and Romantic Heroes.)

But in this, the fiftieth anniversary year of the Webhead–he debuted in the Marvel comic  Amazing Fantasy #15 in August of 1962, a copy of which sold for a cool $1.1 million last year–he’s getting himself a cinematic reboot in The Amazing Spider-Man, and with it an altogether different origin story… which is actually much closer to his original origin story. The words “reboot” and “reimagining” get flung about a lot nowadays, like they’re something ingenious and previously unheard of, but such things have been the norm in comic book titles for decades; the word “retcon” was coined in comics, is short for “retroactive continuity” and essentially means that the past has been rewritten to suit to current facts and circumstances. The retcon is a movie franchise reboot’s best-friend.

We have always been at war with Eastasia.

Spider-Man has always had a first love called Gwen Stacy.

For those who recall Spider-Man 3, it’s possible that you remember the preternaturally beautiful Bryce Dallas Howard already played this role, though in her case it was a thankless one, smacking of “The Other Woman.” Daughter of New York City’s Police Chief (played with irascible, if stalwart, glee by James Cromwell), she was Peter Parker’s lab partner at Columbia–because Spidey’s no mere superhero and freelance news photographer; he’s also really into physics!—and was thrown into the romantic fray when Peter, under the influence of a dark alien entity from space, asked her out to make Mary Jane jealous. (Damn dark alien entities from space. Always messing with the HEAs.) This development was bound to annoy the more pedantic comic book purists in the audience as Gwen Stacy, far from being some kind of brilliant scientist-cum-interloping home-wrecker, was in fact Peter Parker’s very first young love, from way back as far as 1965, when the two attended college at Empire State University together and were introduced by Peter’s only surviving relative, the venerable Aunt May.

Now, this is not to say that Gwen was the first girl Spider-Man ever dated. She didn’t even get introduced until The Amazing Spider-Man #31, soon after replacing the largely-forgotten Betty Brant in his affections. And Mary Jane was (and is) not even Spider-Man’s last love, what with all of the superheroes and disguised aliens and time-traveling companions who have caught his eye, and heart, over the years—remember, dude’s 50. (Not to mention the thousand or so times Mary Jane has died, or the timeline has been altered, or whatever other hazards have been cast in that tortured couple’s four-color way.)

Mary Jane and Gwen StacyIn the original comics, MJ and Gwen were around at the same time, were in fact friends and rivals, and each of them had their adherents, in a kind of proto-Team Edward/Team Jacob kind of way—but largely cared about by ten-year-old boys. Comic book Gwen Stacy was a creation of the ’60s, so for all that she’s studying at Peter’s college and is a fairly liberated sort, she is largely a Damsel in Distress whose Daddy is Big and Important and who exists only as she is significant to Her Hero. She just wants to Get Married and whenever she doesn’t get Her Way she runs into the arms of Another—usually one of Spider-Man’s nemeses, Flash Thompson, or Harry Osborn. Meanwhile, film Gwen Stacy, played with her usual enchanting cheekiness by Emma Stone (and with a return to her natural blond hair coloring), is rebellious and spunky, less-inclined towards histrionics and certainly smarter–in many ways, preferable as a heroine to Dunst’s petulant Mary Jane of the original Sam Raimi movie trilogy, and one we’d probably even like to imagine getting her own HEA.

Except that, we know she won’t.

That’s what’s most interesting about bringing on this new Spider-Man, and giving us a whole different romantic entanglement in this alternate filmic universe–alternate universes being a profoundly comic-y way to explain inconsistencies as well as to play around with different relationship dynamics (hello, Spider-Man/Kitty Pryde and Spider-Man/Silver Sable!). For all that it’s a retelling of a story we’ve already heard, it also has a bit of the prequel about it, most especially in the almost intangible feeling that Gwen, while heroine and love interest of this piece, is merely Peter’s Ms. Right Now. Because we know that out there, in the future, will be Mary Jane, his Ms. Right.

My spidey-sense is tingling.(We know this, of course, because we already saw three movies about it.)

So, what happens to Gwen Stacy on the page, thus enabling the Spidey/MJ love to bloom? Well, let’s just say, no one in comics ever stays completely dead… And through the magic of Hollywood, no comic book franchise need do so, either. Especially when our comic book heroes’ backstories are populated with so very many love stories from which to choose, and with which to kickstart their origin stories all over again.

Hmmm. Wonder who they’ll cast as Betty Brant in 2022?


Rachel Hyland is Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.

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Christopher Morgan
1. cmorgan
As always I love the extra love you throw around Rachel. Particularly the Sable/Spidey love. Happen to read the recent Ends of the Earth storyline where she tried to pick him up and he turned her down for MJ...again.
Heather Waters
2. HeatherWaters
Poor Gwen...gotta say, I feel like I'm going to like Emma Stone's Gwen MUCH better than I ever liked Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane.

Awesome post, Rachel! This is definitely the Summer of Marvel for me--still digging Avengers and really looking forward to seeing Spider-Man.
Claire Louise Thompson
3. Nefersitra
MJ in Sam Raimi's films was awful. - I found her really unsympathetic - and I hated the way the end of the first one saved her. Especially as they seemed to have erased Gwen to big up Mary-Jane, then for her to be saved that way and survive!

I say if they bring back MJ, bring her back with "face it, Tiger, you hit the jackpot!" mode.
Emily M
4. polishedbookworm
Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane really did nothing for me. It was as if the characters were together because they were supposed to be. Didn't really see any other reason for Peter to be so smitten.

I adore Emma Stone, so maybe this is coloring my opinion. Hey, maybe she can return to being a ginger and be MJ in the rebooted reboot? ;-)
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