The MCU Spider-Man movies get a lot of things right. Romance is not one of them. Take for example the end of Spider-Man: No Way Home, in which Tom Holland’s Peter Parker says goodbye to MJ (Zendaya) before magic erases her memory of him. MJ stares into Peter’s battered face and says, “I love you.” Before Peter can respond in kind, MJ interrupts him. “Just wait,” she says behind tears. “Wait and tell me when you see me again.”
The strings in Michael Giacchino’s score begin to rise, and the two come together in a passionate kiss, their faces eclipsing the sun and bathing in the haze of a digital golden hour. The scene genuinely moves us, but only for a moment. Because then, the camera cuts away to Doctor Strange casting a spell and reaction shots from the various multiversal characters, taking the emphasis away from the kiss and putting it instead on Willem Dafoe and Jamie Foxx.
For viewers like me, it’s frustrating that Marvel Studios wouldn’t even give Peter and MJ this one moment. Holland and Zendaya have chemistry, and Kevin Feige and director Jon Watts built tension between the two in the previous films. This half-hearted bit of romance falls far too short of some of the most iconic moments in the original Spider-Man trilogy, in which Tobey Maguire’s Spidey and Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane smooched upside-down in the rain or snuggled in a giant web.
But even those iconic moments are topped by Holland and Maguire’s No Way Home co-star, Andrew Garfield. The Amazing Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 may be the least loved of the three live-action Spider-Man adaptations, but they outdo the others in one regard: the undeniable chemistry between Garfield’s Peter Parker and Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy.
Hewing to the comics by John Romita Jr. and Stan Lee, Peter’s first major love is not aspiring actress Mary Jane, but the dutiful Gwen, daughter of anti-Spider-Man police Capt. George Stacy (Denis Leary). Directed by Marc Webb, The Amazing Spider-Man reboots the series with Garfield playing a more angsty version of Peter Parker, a lanky loner who recalls artist Steve Ditko’s original intention for the character. And yet, when he’s with Gwen, Peter lightens considerably. The brooding breaks and the defenses drop, and Peter becomes boyish, happy.
We see this in the couple’s first proper meeting, which comes after a misjudged scene in which the newly empowered Peter mocks his bully Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka) and shows off his skills with a backboard-breaking slam dunk. The dressing down by Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) that follows feels almost perfunctory, but the tone of the scene shifts when he notices Gwen standing in the hall. Ben teases his nephew before walking away, leaving Peter and Gwen to stammer together.
Webb shoots the scene to maximize the body language each actor brings to the character, allowing us to see how the two communicate, even as their words fail them. Stone nods and makes uninterrupted eye contact with Garfield to express Gwen’s interest in Peter, while her scene partner waves his hand and glances about nervously. The camera sits back in the hallway for a wide-shot, capturing the twirling dance Stone does when she tries to stifle her excitement about an upcoming date. We then turn the corner to watch Garfield literally skip down the hall with joy.
On a plot level, there’s little difference between this scene and any of those shared by Holland and Zendaya. Both involve a cool girl fighting to downplay her interest in awkward Peter Parker. Both spark relationships doomed to fail, even before Gwen dies during a fight with the Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan) in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. For Holland’s Peter, it’s the aforementioned memory-wipe. For Garfield’s Peter, it’s the promise he makes at Capt. Stacy’s death: he won’t endanger Gwen by staying with her.
But the difference between the two movies is how the Garfield film emphasizes romance. During their goodbye scene in The Amazing Spider-Man, there’s no cutaway to guest stars. Instead Webb lets us sit in the heartbreak, again focusing on the actors’ performances. Standing under Peter’s doorway after her father’s funeral, Gwen names all the people who came to support her, a list that does not include him. But the power of the scene comes from the things neither can say, from Peter’s struggle to honor his promise to Gwen’s hope that he won’t.
The scene almost plays as an echo from the earlier hallway moment with Gwen once again being forward while Peter shies away. Garfield refuses to look Stone in the eye, letting helplessness and anger darken his brow and weigh down the corners of his mouth, replicating the look Peter had when he failed to stop Uncle Ben’s killer. Stone does not twirl or bounce this time, but she does creep closer, lightly nodding her head when she describes the funeral attendees and swaying when Gwen realizes that they’re breaking up. Instead of closing with childlike skipping, the conversation ends with Peter leaning against the door in exhaustion, his shoulders bent by the burden placed upon him.
Much has been made about the chaste nature of modern superhero movies, in which Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans will show off their gorgeous pecs, and Scarlett Johansson and Zoe Saldaña wrap themselves in leather, but almost no one kisses each other, let alone sleeps together. The end of No Way Home underscores this tendency, as the movie likes the idea of intimacy but is more interested in cameos and worldbuilding.
To be sure, cameos and world-building are some of the central pleasures of comic book-style storytelling. But so is romance. From the very first superhero story in Action Comics #1, in which Superman smiled in admiration as Lois Lane clobbered a harasser to the latest bump in the relationship between Batman and Catwoman, writers have grounded their costumed characters with emotional entanglements. Romance plots underscore the stakes of the adventures, reminding us that a hero doesn’t fight alone. Their victories and failures affect people who care about them.
As much as No Way Home failed to restore romance to the Spider-Man story, one moment did resonate. When MJ falls from a girder, Garfield’s Spider-Man leaps into action, catching the civilian and saving her from Gwen’s fate. Watts holds his camera for a moment, letting us see the sorrow on the face of Garfield’s Peter mix with the pride he feels at preventing another tragedy. It’s a scene that works, not because we know how MJ and Holland’s Peter feel about each other, but because we remember the bond formed between Garfield’s Peter and Gwen. That memory stays with us because Webb took the time to follow the couple’s courtship, because we saw with our own eyes how the actors danced and swayed with each other.
That memory stings, not just from the painful recollection of characters we love, but also because we fear that we’ve forever lost scenes like this.