Gwen Stacy is a big deal.
There’s no need for “kind of” or any other caveats. It’s just a fact. Following that logic, if Gwen Stacy is a big deal, then Spider-Gwen is pretty damn important.
For many out there, that last part is kind of just implicitly accepted. After all, insane sales and vocal clamoring by fans all over the internet led to a character that was just supposed to be part of the overall lead-up to the massive Spiderfest that was Spider-Verse. She was just supposed to be another ‘what if?’ realized in universes that weren’t 616 or Ultimate-verse. Nothing more. Now look at her.
For the non-believers, the on-the-fencers, and the somewhat confused, I’ll try to explain what all the fuss is about. Why Spider-Gwen’s important in a world full of “original” superheroes and old standards.
If you’re passingly familiar with Spider-Man, then chances are that you’ve probably heard of Gwen Stacy. She’s appeared in most adaptations in some form. Her role is a typical one: the love interest. Some could almost argue that she’s the love interest in Peter Parker’s life, second (or just ahead of) Mary Jane Watson (again, it depends on who you ask). The Night Gwen Stacy Died had such an impact on the character and the larger world (both in Marvel comics and outside of it), that Gwen managed what is joking’ll referred to as impossible: she’s stayed dead in the 616-verse since 1973.
Gwen’s death came about largely because the writers just didn’t know what to do with her anymore. She was Peter Parker’s girlfriend and very little else. Killing her off was a good way to generate content. One altercation with Green Goblin, one failed rescue attempt (that may or may not have been what killed her) and boom! instant angst. It’s been forty-odd years but Gwen still lurks large over the life of Peter Parker (and the rest of Marvel).
With all of that in mind, think about Spider-Gwen. Here is a Gwen Stacy who didn’t die. Whose entire life and story does not exist to give fodder to Peter Parker. She’s got agency, she’s got dreams, she’s got a life that we actually know about1.
On top of all of that, the role that she typically fills is partially filled by Peter Parker. In this ‘verse, Gwen and Peter hadn’t actually become Gwen-and-Peter in the way that their mainstream counterparts, so instead it’s a could’ve been that feels a bit more universal. Far more of us has people that we’ve lost (or lost touch with) that we sometimes wonder about in a “road untravelled” sort of way. Combine that natural wistfulness for the unknown with the fact that in Peter’s attempt to be something other than a nerd, he turns himself into The Lizard. This Peter’s death is both by Gwen’s hand and his own and she has to deal with that guilt. It instantly colors who she is as a character and highlights how she’d take on the mantle in a way that is different from Peter Parker.
Plus you can’t decide the whole turmoil of taking the already somewhat fraught dynamic of father-daughter relationships and adding the whole “she’s a super-powered vigilante and he’s the police captain responsible for catching her” is an angle that’s never really been explored. The closeness of the relationship blurs the lines, making each of Spider-Gwen’s actions a necessary betrayal. This series is already setting up to be a touch more serious than the first outings of Spider-Man and I’m excited for it.
The broader cultural impact can also be felt. For all of the ranting and raving that Spider-Man can only be a white dude that exists out there, it’s simply not true. Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider. This time, Gwen’s the one who got bitten by said radioactive spider. It’s all a matter of chance. It was a freak accident. This just emphasizes the universal nature of the character in a way that’s different from other Spider-People2.
Spider-Gwen is an Everywoman, just as Peter Parker was an Everyman turned hero. This version of Gwen gives little girls (and grown women and grown men) yet another version of the iconic webslinger to see themselves in. Having more female heroes is important. Having one that’s not sexed-up from the get go is doubly so. It gives the four-year-old girl who dresses up in a Spider-Gwen (or Spider-Man) costume for casual daywear someone to point to when someone tries to needless police her by pointing out that only boys can be Spider-Man. It’s sad we need that at all, but at this point any little bit helps.
She’s angry, she’s hurt, she’s confused. It’s been two issues, but Gwen Stacy is a person in the way her mainstream counterpart didn’t really get a chance to be. She feels lived in, even if she’s filling somewhat familiar webbing, she’s not the same character as Peter Parker just with a different set of pronouns. It’s a disservice to Gwen and to fans to think otherwise.
Gwen’s a teenaged girl who just wants to not be late for band practice3 and pass high school. Who can’t see the importance of that?
1. To be fair, we did know some things about 616-Gwen during her time out. Like where she studied, her friendship with Mary Jane Watson and who her father was. But that’s about it.
2. No offense to 616!Jessica Drew, but her being Spider-Woman is the product of an experiment on her. While that poses its own problematic set of agency questions, she was somewhat bred for her heroic life. It’s not the same as being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
3. The band! Can we just lust after the band? Everything is better with a kick ass all-girl rockband. That’s just science.