Superheroes are intensely problematic. When I was about 19, I wrote a comic book script to attempt to describe why. The plot centred on a young man, probably in his early twenties, who becomes unemployed. He begins to fall into crime as result of this, stealing as a means to survive. At the end of the comic, a superhero beats him up & hands him to the police. There was nothing particularly interesting in the writing or the plot, but it underscores the kind of moral absolutes & class politics posited by the superhero archetype – Watchmen does so far better. Probably worth mentioning that I don’t want to do anything with the script, ever. I wrote a lot of shit when I was 19.
So, I went to see Amazing Spiderman 2 last Tuesday. I want to highlight that I didn’t read any reviews & still haven’t. I have no idea what you guys think of this. Anyway, I thought it was a really fun film. The pacing was a bit off & the tone felt quite forced at points but I did actually enjoy it quite a lot. Underline that point, we’ll come back to it at the end. However, we aren’t interested in value judgements. What I want to talk about are some problems with film, in terms of its presentation of women. This problem seems to be quite widespread in the superhero genre.
Gwen Stacey is possibly my favourite character in the Spiderman universe. Certainly, there are enormous problems with the manner in which she has been sexualised by various artists & writers. However, on the whole, she is presented as a strong female character. Incidentally, 1 of my favourite portrayals of Gwen is in the 1st Amazing Spiderman film, largely due to the writing & Emma Stone’s acting. The single greatest moment in that film is a 2-fingered salute to the genre convention begun by Spiderman in 2002. There is no ‘with great power’ bollocks: Gwen & Peter stay together because they want to be together. The film even baits the convention, with Peter promising Gwen’s father that he will stay out of her life, just before his death. Amazing Spiderman 2 fucks this up in seconds. Gwen & Peter break up in their 2nd scene together.
Now, why is this problematic? It is problematic here for the same reasons it was problematic in 2002, albeit worse. Peter & Gwen break up because he has been having repeated visions of her father, who he “betrayed” by “allowing” Gwen to make her own decisions. The patriarch of Gwen’s childhood communicates to the patriarch of her present, with the sole purpose of telling him that he isn’t being enough of a dick. The manner in which this portrayed in the film has nothing whatsoever to do with Gwen, who is quite clear that she wants to be with Peter & that she’s talked to him about this before. She even tells him that men don’t get to make her decisions. Peter insists that he still has issues being “a douche” to his “bro”, so Gwen breaks up with him.
Now, you might think that this shows Gwen making a firm decision for herself. You’d be wrong. Peter was breaking up with her, she was angry & so she attempted to salvage her dignity. People do that in reality, it happens. The problem with it, here, is that the film treats Gwen’s reaction as if it was entirely unprovoked. The entire reason that Gwen does this is to aesthetically justify Peter’s actions toward her for the rest of the film. We’re going to discuss 2 instances of this, which pretty much summarise the film’s opinion of women.
After an extended period of selfish moping to acoustic music, Peter meets with Gwen. This is shot as if they are filmic soulmates, slow panning cameras & soft focus lenses dominate. They talk & Gwen tells Peter that she wants to be friends. They then begin to flirt, which is actually quite charming & cute. The acting & writing is very well done & it’s hard not to want Peter & Gwen to get back together. The immediate problem should be obvious. The film comes so close to using the, inherently sexist, term “friend-zone” (if you need clarity as to why that’s sexist, get off my blog now) that it’s actually embarrassing. What follows is so obviously problematic it’s unreal. Peter says something he shouldn’t have, revealing to Gwen that he’s been stalking her in his spider-duds. Apparently, both the film & Gwen find this endearing. Yeah…
Now, obviously, I do not need to tell you why stalking itself is sexist. What does need to be elaborated is how the film attempts to present this as acceptable. Remember when Gwen broke up with Peter? Apparently that justifies this. Y’gotta remember our “bro” Pete has been sad about this; it wasn’t his fault at all, yeah? & he misses her. Really, following her her around is no different to repeatedly checking her Facebook page & we all do that, right? So says the logic of this film. Another way of wording it would be, oh I don’t know, “Gwen is Peter’s property & he can do what the fuck he wants with her”? Aesthetically, the film justifies his actions with its tone, by focusing upon Peter’s loneliness & heartache, which it luckily forgets are entirely his fault.
(Also, I do think that checking some1’s Facebook endlessly amounts to stalking & I do have a problem with that.)
We now come to the last scene to be discussed. Gwen & Peter are back together & shit’s going down. Electro & Peter fight & Gwen comes to help. Peter tells her not to but she reminds him that she is an independent human being, capable of making her own decisions. The film kills her for having such ludicrous notions.
I’m not going to go into detail on this, I don’t want to ruin it. Whilst, on some levels, I applaud the decision to actually kill Gwen off, sticking to some of the source material, the manner in which it is presented here amounts to exactly what I have described: Gwen is killed because she wants to make her decisions. Gwen dies because she does not listen to either her father or Peter, the film’s patriarchs. There isn’t even a grey area: Gwen’s death occurs in the same scene as her “disobeying” Peter’s “divine right” over her. Pullman dealt with a similar thing rather well in his commentary on Narnia.
Now, we come to the point. This is 1 of several problematic aspects in Amazing Spiderman 2, the others including the fact that the film is racist & that it advocates a really, really strange kind of opinion on youth culture. These are all huge problems in the superhero genre. Kick Ass 2 provides a rather wonderful emblem for this. Don’t get me wrong, Kick Ass 2 is not Amazing Spiderman 2. Kick Ass 2 is a heinous, cruel, spiteful piece of shit, which features utterly misogynistic rape jokes & open racism, juxtaposed against repeated references to Twitter in a ridiculous attempt to appear contemporary. I could write books about how horrible Kick Ass 2 is. However, it serves as useful illustration of where superhero films are “at” right now, woefully sandwiched between insulting women & screaming “I TALK ABOUT FACEBOOK & LOVE MUMFORD & SONS! LOVE ME!” Despite this, I genuinely love these films (apart from Kick Ass 2) aesthetically, as entertainment.
This contradiction allows me to elaborate something that I’ve been saying for quite a while, but that nobody seems to understand: it is entirely possible to enjoy a work of art aesthetically, without agreeing with it. It is entirely possible to enjoy a work of art, without advocating its message. Aesthetics guide our emotions, that is the purpose of form within a work of art & they operate in a similar fashion irrespective of a work’s politics. That is because they are, to a large extent, cultural signifiers, which can be learnt in the fashion of science. Enjoying the form of art does not necessitate enjoying the content. This does, however, mean something. Instead of simply recommending this or that, we must always criticise based upon both aesthetics – ie, a value judgement – & content, which is immediately political.