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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

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I’m teaching my Playwriting course this semester, and the first scene I showed my class was from The Amazing Spider-Man. My colleagues could use this as evidence of an obsession gone too far, but hear me out. It’s the Peter-asks-Gwen-on-a-date bit, and it says everything a playwright needs to know about external and internal conflict.

The scene started back in 1965, when Stan Lee and Steve Ditko introduced Gwen Stacy in Amazing Spider-Man #31. The two don’t actually go out on their first study date for another thirteen issues, so we’re going to look at the shorter version.

I’ll wait while you cue your DVD players to minute 36.

Ready?

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First time I watched this was in our local theater with my teenage daughter, and I don’t know which of us was giggling louder. I know James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves got credit for the screenplay, and I’m sure Marc Webb’s direction was perfectly impeccable, but I can’t help thinking Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone improvised most of that stammering, self-effacing, toe-curling flirtation.

The question is how.

And to answer that, I need to switch to Playwriting lecture mode.

The odd thing is the lack of overt dramatic conflict. Character A (Peter) has a goal (ask out Gwen). But for there to be conflict, there has to be an obstacle, otherwise the scene would last two lines:

PETER: Want to go out on a date?

GWEN: Yes.

Usually Character B (GWEN) would provide the obstacle (no, you freak, I don’t want to go out with you!), producing plenty of external conflict. If you like formulas, it looks like this:

Character A (goal) + Character B (obstacle) = dramatic conflict (character v. character)

In the comic book, Gwen plays Character A and has to chase the distracted Peter for a few issues before he even notices her. But Andrew Garfield’s Peter is all eyes for her. And Emma Stone makes it equally clear that Gwen wants to got out too.

So what the hell is driving the scene?

An easy trick is to throw in some convenient external nonsense. As in Amazing Spider-Man #44 when Mary Jane Watson suddenly struts into the diner and pulls Peter away. Or Webb could have sent the Lizard smashing through the wall of lockers just before Gwen can finish saying yes. That would be fun for the folks down in the CGI lab, but for the writing staff it spells B-O-R-I-N-G.

No, this scene has a much smarter engine: internal conflict. Peter WANTS to ask out Gwen, BUT he’s too damn bashful. Again, if you’re an algebra person, here’s the math:

Character A (goal) + Character A (obstacle) = internal conflict (self v. self)

But that’s only half the equation. You still have to factor in Character B. And, by my count, you only have seven options:

1. Character B is absent. Peter is rehearsing his lines before the big approach. It’s cute, but dramatically a stall. We need Gwen.

2. Character B is neutral. Peter’s stammering is so intense, Gwen literally has no idea what the he’s trying to ask her. Again, potentially cute, but it gets you maybe thirty seconds of dramatic action before the gimmick wears off. Quit stalling.

3. Insert a circumstantially opposing goal/obstacle. Is Gwen on her way to the Girls Room? Maybe the door to her classroom is closing and she can’t afford another tardy? You just bought yourself a few more seconds, but we’re still waiting for the real thing.

4. Character B opposes Character A’s goal. Now that’s what you call dramatic action. And, oddly, that’s NOT what Gwen is up to here. If she were, the scene would be two lines again:

PETER: Hi, Gwen, I was wondering if, you know, maybe, you might, maybe want to—

GWEN: No.

5. Next option: Character B opposes Character A’s goal, BUT with her own internal conflict (partial obstacle). In other words, Gwen doesn’t want to go out, but she also doesn’t want to hurt Peter’s feelings either, so she can’t say no directly. All sorts of dramatic possibilities there, but that’s still not the scene we’re looking at.

6. Gwen actually shares Peter’s goal. She WANTS him to ask her out. (Back in 1966, she did the asking herself, but apparently times have a-changed for the worse.) That describes Gwen’s goal, but if that’s all that’s going on, you’d have yet another two-liner:

PETER: Hi, Gwen, I was wondering if, you know, maybe, you might, maybe want to—

GWEN: Okay.

Which, actually, she does say, but the scene keeps going, and instead of the tension dissolving, it actually spikes. How??

7. So  what we have here is a real rarity. The last arrow in the love scene quiver. Character B shares Character A’s goal, but she has her own internal conflict preventing her from fully helping him/them achieve his/their goal. In other words, Gwen is just as bashful as Peter.

So the complete lack of external conflict is dramatically balanced by a double dose of internal conflict. They have the same goal (each other) and the same obstacles (themselves).

And that’s what we Playwriting professors call pretty freaking adorable.

Happy Valentine’s Day, people.

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