Don’t read if you’re still planning on seeing it! Avert your eyes!
The Silver Age of comic books arguably ended with a two-part Spider-Man storyline from 1973 titled “The Night Gwen Stacy Died.”
Written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Gil Kane, the story delivers exactly what the title says—though, to Marvel’s credit, they didn’t reveal the title until the end of the first part. Unlike in today’s spoiler-filled world, Gwen Stacy’s death came as a shock to ‘70s readers.
In the comics, Gwen was Peter Parker’s first love, first appearing way back in The Amazing Spider-Man #31 in 1965. Mary Jane Watson, whom Peter would eventually marry, was introduced as a romantic rival in #42. But Mary Jane wound up being the livelier character—a vivacious young woman who initially came across as shallow and flighty but was simply masking her true heart. Gwen, on the other hand, was just a nice girl.
So, to prevent Peter Parker from marrying a one-dimensional woman, the folks at Marvel decided to kill off Gwen.
It was one of, if not the first time the hero failed to save the girl—and not just Spider-Man, but super-heroes in general. Sure, they’d screw up from time to time, especially the Marvel ones, but outside of their origin stories, they seldom or never experienced irrevocable failure.
The comic storyline was pretty simple. Harry Osborn was suffering from a drug habit he picked up after Mary Jane broke his heart. The situation caused great stress for his father, Norman Osborn, who, due to a convenient bout of amnesia, had forgotten he was the villainous Green Goblin. But the stress forces his memory back to the surface. He snaps, remembers that Peter is Spider-Man, and kidnaps Gwen when he finds her in Peter and Harry’s apartment. Spider-Man and the Green Goblin tussle over the George Washington Bridge. The Goblin shoves Gwen off the tower, and Spider-Man catches her with his webbing. The sudden stop snaps her neck (though the fall also would have killed her, so it was a no-win situation for Spidey).
The moment Spider-Man realizes what happened is especially well handled, aside from some dated dialogue, as he initially believes he’s saved her as he’s pulling her dead body back up to the tower, but the truth slowly dawns on him.
There are some key differences with how Gwen Stacy’s death is handled in the most recent movie. That movie didn’t do much right, but it did succeed in making Gwen an actual character with her own agency. Comic book Gwen spent her last conscious moments worrying about Harry’s condition, and then she was out for the entire fight at the bridge. No last great heroic act for comic book Gwen. She was just a victim who didn’t have much to say or do.
Movie Gwen, played by Emma Stone, was instrumental in Spider-Man’s defeat of Electro right before the Green Goblin (the son Harry, not Norman) swooped in and snatched her. She insisted she be there to help, going against Peter’s wishes. She behaved like a person whereas comic Gwen was little more than a prop.
But the movie got it all wrong from there, as the death itself felt obligatory and had little in the way of dramatic repercussions. Peter had spent much of the movie trying to respect the wishes of Gwen’s dead father by keeping her out of harm’s way, even going so far as to break up with her, and when he stops honoring that wish…she dies. And he takes some time off, of which we see only the tail end, and then…he’s back because, hey, someone needs to stop the Rhino from trashing New York.
In the comic, however, the public blamed Spider-Man for Gwen’s death as readers watched their grief-stricken hero confront his girlfriend’s murderer, who also happened to be the father of his best friend. This led to a climactic showdown in a warehouse, which was reproduced in the original 2002 Spider-Man movie and reached the same outcome of the Goblin accidently impaling himself with his own glider. And unlike most villains, the Goblin actually stayed dead for more than twenty years (of course he wouldn’t stay dead forever).
The final page of the storyline organically begins to move us forward into future storylines. Mary Jane visits Peter to comfort him. Still angry with grief, he snaps at her, cruelly dismissing her feelings and telling her to get out as he wouldn’t want to spoil her fun. She almost leaves, but decides to stay with him. And from there, a friendship begins to grow.