From the moment that radioactive spider decided to chomp down on Peter Parker, the most average boy in Manhattan’s life was never the same again. But despite becoming the flying, web-slinging defender of New York City, at his core Peter was still a teenager struggling to figure out his place in the world. Each and every one of Peter’s moves upon becoming Spider-Man depended on three crucial factors: Mary Jane Watson, Gwen Stacy and Aunt May. The three main women in his life.
Though their timelines and characters have changed over the years from their depictions from comic books to film, their relevance to Peter Parker’s story remains the same. Without MJ, Gwen or May, he wouldn’t have had much to care about or many personal reasons to keep fighting.
MARY JANE WATSON
She’s the redheaded girl of many a comic book reader’s dreams, and for many years, the main squeeze in Peter Parker’s life. First appearing in “The Amazing Spider-Man #25,” Mary Jane Watson actually stayed out of Peter’s line of sight when he refused his Aunt May’s gentle prodding to meet his cute neighbor. But when he finally did get around to doing so, sparks flew; the now infamous line uttered by MJ, “face it Tiger…you just hit the jackpot!” has rung true on so many levels, as seen in the comics and in the 2002 film Spider-Man between Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst.
The relationship between Peter and Mary Jane greatly impacts the Spider-Man universe, even when the couple isn’t together romantically. When Peter begins dating Gwen Stacy after his first, brief fling with MJ ends, she starts dating Harry Osborn – and the consequences of their subsequent breakup are disastrous. As you might imagine. It leads Harry to a drug overdose (there are other fish in the sea, dude), and the grief from his son’s OD causes Norman Osborn to teeter on the edge of insanity, bringing back his Green Goblin tendencies. Who knew that one little broken heart could spark the evil in a supervillain’s cold and damaged mind?
After the death of Gwen Stacy in the comics, Peter and MJ’s close friendship blossoms into so much more, and they begin the epic romance that eventually characterized the majority of the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy. While that timeline progresses differently than the comics, it’s true that Peter’s love for MJ greatly influences his decisions and actions as a superhero and as a human being. Later on in the comics, Peter and MJ even wind up getting married and having a child, though that hasn’t yet been depicted in the movies; it’s a pivotal part of the Spider-Man franchise that Peter vows to stay away from MJ in order to protect her from the newfound legions of murderers in his life, though the rekindling of their romance in Spider-Man 3 (even after he literally punches her in the face during his bad Spider-Man/symbiote suit phase…we could probably talk about that for hours) means that could have happened down the line if the franchise hadn’t been rebooted.
Peter’s deep love and adoration for MJ, a character with depth and dreams of her own outside of her romances, puts a bullseye on his back and hers – hence his desire to stay away. Her beauty and importance to Spider-Man are tantamount to luring him to his death, at least in the eyes of New York’s most like-minded villains. MJ wins the award for most patient girlfriend after being kidnapped too many times to count and still staying with a man in a luchador costume in spite of it.
Gwen Stacy is Peter Parker’s long suffering, once unknown girlfriend, the gal who took a backseat while Mary Jane Watson got the spotlight for years in the Raimi films. Though she appeared in Spider-Man 3 (Bryce Dallas Howard), her portrayal was whittled down as a foil to MJ and Peter’s relationship – a fling that merely stood in the way of wuv, twue wuv. Well that’s just simply untrue. First appearing in “The Amazing Spider-Man #31,” Gwen is an Empire State University classmate of Peter’s who sparks his interest because she’s not superficial and flighty like a certain redhead he knows. Their relationship is brief, but meaningful; her father, Captain George Stacy, is killed during a fight between Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus, and Gwen blames Spider-Man for his death – not great for a budding romance.
In Mark Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man reboot, Gwen (Emma Stone) is adapted into a different sort of girl, but one who’s equally important. Now a high school classmate of Peter (Andrew Garfield), Gwen is an intern at Dr. Connors’ lab at Oscorp and a key player in bringing down the Lizard when she drafts an antidote to his evil serum. Gwen becomes aware of Peter’s secret identity, a stark contrast to the comic book world in which she never put two and two together, unlike Mary Jane. In this rebooted franchise, she plays as more of a partner to Spider-Man, working alongside him even when he’s vowed to her dying father to stay away – as opposed to the first trilogy, where a mostly uninvolved Mary Jane tried to stay out of the way and focus on her acting, only to get kidnapped by Spider-Man’s enemies again and again.
But it’s the death of Gwen Stacy that brings down the most impact on the Spider-Man universe. It happens in “The Amazing Spider-Man #121,” and remains an impressively memorable moment in comic book history. The Green Goblin identifies Peter as Spider-Man and holds Gwen hostage on a tower of the George Washington Bridge, so the two duke it out. The Goblin tosses Gwen off the bridge and Spidey believes he’s saved her with a web to the leg; when he pulls her up, her neck is snapped and she’s already dead.
Her death has a dire impact within the universe. Peter is tormented by wondering if he caused her death (via web tensile strength and physics), and turns to Mary Jane for comfort.
Additionally, one of Gwen’s professors is so distraught by the news of her death that he channels his grief into evil and insanity; thus, another Spider-Man villain, the Jackal is born. Intelligent, brave, capable, and crazy-making. You must have been one hell of a girl, Gwen.
At the end of the day, the most important woman in Peter Parker’s life was always his Aunt May. The woman who raised him was his highest trusted ally and friend, even if she wasn’t aware that he was actually Spider-Man until much later in the game. Aunt May was a kindly old woman who took pleasure in tending to the needs of her fragile little nephew, even after he bulked up post-radioactive spider bite. With his parents gone and Uncle Ben dead, May was the only family he had left – and she would see to it that he would have that stability and love no matter how old or hardened he became. Many of Peter’s decisions rested on this as well; he never wanted to reveal his identity to his aunt because he worried that learning he was Spider-Man (someone she largely feared) would fatally shock her.
However, she’s a lot feistier than Peter believes. In the comic book world, over the course of the years after Ben’s death, May takes on Doctor Octopus as a lover, then goes on to marry John Jonah Jameson, the father of J. Jonah Jameson (Peter’s boss at The Daily Bugle). Girl’s got game – and when Peter eventually reveals his Spidey secret, it’s really not a big deal at all. How we underestimate the elderly.
Throughout the Raimi films, the Aunt May portrayed (Rosemary Harris) is Peter’s moral compass. She isn’t given so much to do as she is given inspirational speeches to offer; she’s the guiding light that allows Peter to stay grounded in his normal, human life while trying to focus on the reasons why he wants to be Spider-Man. She discovers his secret early on and encourages him to keep fighting crime, even when she’s frightened for his safety, because he’s making the world a better place.
In the Webb reboot, Aunt May (Sally Field) is reimagined as a younger, less sunshiny version of the classic character. She’s stricter with Peter, and her tough-as-nails approach to his foolishness is appreciated; at the end of the day, Spider-Man is just a teenager, and though in this version of the story Aunt May doesn’t know what her dear, dumb nephew is up to after school (she probably thinks he’s skateboarding or dealing drugs or dealing drugs while skateboarding), someone has to be the voice of reason and let him know that maybe he’s in over his head with this whole “fighting adult supervillains” thing.
She’s probably going to be the one who starts dating Doc Oc, isn’t she?