Gwen Stacy started out as Spidey’s tragic love interest. The ‘Spider-Verse’ fixes that

Tribune Content Agency

Her name is Gwen Stacy. She was bitten by a radioactive spider. And since then, she’s been the one and only Spider-Woman — at least in her dimension.

Gwen quickly summarizes her origin story in 2018’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” after displaying her expert web-slinging abilities to assist a couple of her fellow Spideys. With her cool confidence and graceful moves — not to mention her sleek, hooded costume — she makes being a superhero look like a breeze. And she definitely makes a big impression on that film’s newest Spider-Man, Miles Morales.

But Gwen’s full story isn’t as simple as her brief recap makes it seem. No Spider-Hero ever has it that easy.

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” out this week, offers a closer look at Gwen and her life back in her own world. Directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson, the sequel to the Academy Award-winning “Into the Spider-Verse” is set more than a year after Gwen (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld) and her fellow dimensionally displaced Spideys made it back home after helping Miles (Shameik Moore) save the multiverse.

Gwen played a supporting role in Miles’ journey to becoming Spider-Man in “Into the Spider-Verse.” “Across the Spider-Verse,” written by Phil Lord and Chris Miller and David Callaham, is a coming-of-age story for both teenage superheroes. And as much as their situations are similar — they are both dealing with the solitude of being the “one and only” Spideys of their dimensions — they have their own individual struggles as well.

“One of the main things that [Gwen’s] dealing with this time around is her relationship with her father, and the sort of shift in [their] dynamic,” Steinfeld said. “She’s becoming her own person and she’s only ever wanted that to be someone that her dad will be proud of.”

The thought that her father might disapprove of her secret double life as Spider-Woman has been “incredibly difficult” for Gwen, Steinfeld explains. And, like Miles, Gwen’s journey in “Across the Spider-Verse” involves figuring out her place in the world and how to be true to herself and what she believes in.

“Everybody has to grow up a little bit in this movie,” said Lord, who along with his filmmaking partner Miller also served as producer on “Across the Spider-Verse.” “Part of growing up is deciding what your values are, and sometimes those are revealed by affirmative experiences … and sometimes, there are negative experiences … where you think you’re doing the right thing and you realize you were wrong.”

Parent-child relationships factor into the storylines of a majority of the Spider-Heroes in “Across the Spider-Verse.” Some, like Gwen and Miles, are trying to figure out how to deal with keeping their true selves a secret from their parents, while others, like Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) and the newly introduced Jess Drew (Issa Rae) are navigating their roles as Spider-Parents.

Gwen’s dilemma is more complicated than most. In her dimension, Spider-Woman has been wrongly accused of murdering her best friend, Peter Parker, and her father is leading the police hunt to arrest her.

“Spider-Man is always seen as a vigilante in the comics … but Gwen is quite literally a fugitive from the law in her universe,” Powers said. “I think it was really important to drop an audience into that, and into her POV, to help them understand why her character is … so strident, why she is so cautious about friends and relationships.”

This back story, as Lord points out, originates from the first pages of her comic book debut.

The Gwen Stacy who became her dimension’s Spider-Woman first appeared in 2014’s “Edge of Spider-Verse” No. 2 by writer Jason Latour and artist Robbi Rodriguez (with colors by Rico Renzi and letters by VC’s Clayton Cowles). The single-issue introduction was among the lead-ins to a special event story line that involved an army of Spidey variants — established and new — from across the Marvel multiverse teaming up to take on a clan of supernatural supervillains that has been hunting them.

The popularity of Gwen’s incarnation of Spider-Woman — commonly referred to by readers as Spider-Gwen and now officially known as Ghost-Spider — led to the launch of her own comic book title, and the Latour and Rodriguez-led creative team was reassembled for a “Spider-Gwen” series that launched in 2015.

Spider-Gwen is a new spin on a “Spider-Man” character who dates back to the 1960s. Created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, the original Gwen Stacy was Peter Parker’s girlfriend, who is most remembered for being killed when Spider-Man failed to save her. She was one of the first female comic book characters whose shocking death was primarily a way to serve her male, superhero romantic partner’s story and character development. On screen, a version of Gwen adapted from the original incarnation and portrayed by Emma Stone appeared in “The Amazing Spider-Man” (2012) and its sequel (2014). That Gwen suffered the same fate.

“In every other story Gwen Stacy has a tragic ending … she dies,” Miller said. “But in the world where she gets bitten and Peter doesn’t, she can’t save Peter, instead of Peter not being able to save her. … So you get to have a whole different language with her.”

The “Across the Spider-Verse” filmmakers took more than narrative inspiration from the “Spider-Gwen” comics. The comic book series, particularly the cover art by Rodriguez, also inspired the look of the film’s Earth-65, Gwen’s home dimension.

These comic book covers “are really painterly and they’re really subjective,” said Lord. “They’re really idiosyncratic, so they don’t necessarily follow a logic of light. They follow a logic of feeling.”

The filmmakers describe Earth-65 as a mood ring that reflects Gwen’s emotions. The colors and transitions are “not literal,” with details that fade in and out depending on what Gwen is feeling. Rendering such a “bespoke” world was an enormous undertaking that required the development of new tools and lots of teamwork. Scenes set on Earth-65 were one of the first things the filmmaking team started working on, and one of the last things to be completed.

“Gwen [is] going through these very emotionally deep, painful things, but there’s also beauty in all of that,” Thompson said. “Trying to find a way to express all that beauty of what she’s going through … was an opportunity for us to tell story at every single level.”

Earth-65 is objectively stunning, with its watercolor-like hues that drip and morph in reaction to Gwen. It’s just one of the ways “Across the Spider-Verse” pushes the expressive possibilities of CG animation, but it’s more than just spectacle.

“I love that people are drawn in [to Gwen’s world],” said Thompson. “But I think the reason they’re drawn in isn’t because it’s beautiful. They’re drawn in because it helps you understand her.”

Lord and Miller were just as deliberate when narrowing the roster of the film’s supporting Spideys. Wanting a mentor figure for Gwen led to the inclusion of Jess, an alternate Spider-Woman and expectant mother who has moved beyond operating behind the mask. Hobie Brown (Daniel Kaluuya), Gwen’s new ally also known as Spider-Punk, is a perfect foil for the rules-and-order-obsessed Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), the leader of the massive team of Spideys trying to save the multiverse. (O’Hara who was first shown in the post-credits scene of “Into the Spider-Verse.”)

Plus, Hobie “was instantly someone that Miles could think was cooler than him and feel threatened by,” said Miller.

The filmmakers see Gwen’s arc in “Across the Spider-Verse” as one that mirrors Miles’.

“She already was a character that played everything really, really close to her chest,” Dos Santos said. “She has to learn sort of the opposite end of what Miles is going through, [such as] doing things not only to protect herself, but this other family that she’s taken in.”

But ultimately, the biggest thing Gwen has to figure out for herself over the course of this next adventure is not too different than Miles’: How to be the truest version of Spider-Woman she knows she is meant to be.

“In the first film, we learned that anyone could wear the mask,” Steinfeld said. “This time, it’s about what you do when that mask is on and how you wear the mask. Everybody has a different version of that and what that looks like.”