[The following contains SPOILERS for The Amazing Spider-Man 2.]
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ends in a battle between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin, with the fate of Peter Parker’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy hanging in the balance. Spider-Man wins the fight, but at a terrible cost; Gwen falls, and Peter is too late to save her. She dies in his arms.
The inspiration for the sequence comes from one of the most famous Spider-Man comics of all time, Amazing Spider-Man #121, when another Green Goblin killed another Gwen Stacy by dropping her from a great height. There are cosmetic differences between the version on the page and the one on the screen—the former’s Green Goblin is Harry’s father Norman; its fight takes place on the Brooklyn Bridge rather than in a clock tower in DUMBO—but the most important changes are in context, not content, and involve the relationship between Peter and Gwen.
In the comics, Gwen Stacy is beautiful, kind, and little else, and she never discovers Peter’s secret identity. She dies as a pawn in the Goblin’s scheme. Onscreen, Gwen knows Peter is Spider-Man, and helps him fight crime. She’s smarter than Peter, and she dies heroically, helping him stop Electro. To put it another way, Amazing Spider-Man #121 was about the end of a relationship, while Amazing Spider-Man 2 is about the end of a partnership. It’s an interesting change in light of the recent news that two of Amazing Spider-Man 2’s co-writers, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, are dissolving their own partnership after decades of collaboration.
In almost every interview Kurtzman and Orci give, this is what they harp on as the key reason for their success in Hollywood: They write blockbusters like independent movies. Though they’ve focused almost exclusively on massive tentpoles and sequels—they co-wrote the first two Transformers and Star Trek movies, along with The Legend Of Zorro, Mission: Impossible III, and Cowboys & Aliens—they insist they tell small stories on a large scale. “We always try to approach these big action movies from a place of: Could you remove the robots and the spaceships and aliens and whatever it is and take that character story and make an independent film out of that little story?” Orci told The Los Angeles Times in 2009. “If you can and then you sprinkle back in the giant robots, you have something very unique.”
Whether Kurtzman and Orci’s work is truly unique—or whether they really do make character studies disguised as action films—is up for debate. What isn’t up for debate is their success. In less than 10 years as Hollywood screenwriters, Kurtzman and Orci’s films generated more than $3 billion in revenue, an average of $365 million worldwide per produced script. Their movies don’t always make critics happy (their average Rotten Tomatoes score is 55, and that number drops to 44 if their two Star Trek films are excluded), but they do make money. And lots of it.
Kurtzman and Orci will likely continue to make lots of money, for themselves and the major studios—Orci is angling for the directing gig on Star Trek 3, while Kurtzman will direct the Spider-Man spinoff Venom—but from now on, they will do so separately. Which makes this the perfect time to reckon with their film careers to date, and their time as perhaps the most emblematic screenwriters of the last decade, when the basic unit of Hollywood storytelling evolved from movie to franchise.
Their collaboration began not far from where it ended, at an elite private school in Santa Monica, California. They met in a high-school class about the French New Wave and immediately bonded over their mutual love of Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, And Videotape. Devout cinephiles and kindred spirits, the two began writing together almost immediately. “By the time we were in the 11th grade,” Kurtzman told The New York Times in 2007, “we were doing Marxist analysis of RoboCop.”
Criticism quickly gave way to screenplays, and though Kurtzman and Orci went to different colleges, they continued to work together over the phone and during summer vacations. After graduation, Kurtzman got a job at Sam Raimi’s Renaissance Pictures, which was then known as the home of syndicated series like Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Kurtzman and Orci wrote an episode on spec, then were commissioned to write two more; by the following year, they were the show’s head writers. From there, the duo jumped to J.J. Abrams’ spy show Alias; three seasons later, they made a further jump to big-screen work.
Kurtzman and Orci’s work is easily identifiable, regardless of director, by the themes they weave through one screenplay after another. The most common and important is their fascination—or perhaps obsession—with shadowy conspiracies. Nearly every one of their films feature protagonists working to expose corrupt companies or governments. In The Island, a couple discover they are actually “products” of an amoral biotech company that’s been housing and deceiving their illegal clones in an underground facility. In Transformers, Shia LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky finds a hidden race of robots, along with a classified branch of the military known as Sector 7 that’s covertly reverse-engineered every technological breakthrough of the last century. Star Trek Into Darkness has the crew of the starship Enterprise uncovering a traitor in Starfleet, who is using an unfrozen tyrant from the past to destabilize the galaxy and bring about a war between the Federation and the Klingons. And in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy battle the unholy creations of Oscorp, New York City’s leading technology company.
Over the years, Kurtzman and Orci’s screenplays have been criticized for their absurd twists and gaping holes of logic. The duo tend to write films, like Star Trek Into Darkness, that are thrilling to watch, but instantly collapse under the slightest bit of post-screening scrutiny. Many of their plots are ridiculous, and complicated to the point of incomprehensibility. The first Transformers, for example, follows no fewer than four different strains of parallel action, several of which dead-end long before the finale. The second Transformers, Revenge Of The Fallen, is more focused but also stupider, with robots that look and talk like racist caricatures, lowbrow slapstick and bodily function humor, and scenes that start on one side of the United States (in Washington D.C.’s Air And Space Museum) and inexplicably end on the other (the Air Force Boneyard in Tucson, Arizona). Calling these choices lowest-common-denominator is an insult to fractions.
Complaints about their complete inattention to detail might be accurate, but for Kurtzman and Orci, they might also be completely beside the point. They make conspiracy-theory movies with the rambling, connect-the-dots (and-ignore-the-ones-that-don’t) logic of conspiracy theorists. (On his now-deleted Twitter account, Orci often questioned the prevailing wisdom about the 9/11 attacks.) Certain elements of the team’s screenplays may seem implausible, but conspiracy theories always seem implausible to people who don’t believe in them. Believers select and trust the pieces of truth that fit their worldview, and simply avoid the rest.
In another era of moviemaking, Kurtzman and Orci’s obsession with the big picture at the expense of the finer points might have derailed their careers. But in the movie industry of the 21st century—where building a world is far more important than building a story—it’s propelled them into the upper echelon of Hollywood screenwriters. The pair had the fortuitous timing to enter the movie business right as it began looking for writers with their skills: a deep understanding of geek culture, a complete lack of fear about epic-scale storytelling, and a rare ability to distill complex multimedia franchises with decades of impenetrable continuity down to their core concepts in a way that makes them accessible to mainstream viewers, but still appeases hardcore fans who demand their cherished memories be honored and celebrated. Their reboot of the Star Trek franchise, which found an in-continuity way to restart the entire Trek timeline from scratch without completely erasing the decades of stories that came before, is an ingenious example of how a franchise can please a mass audience and a niche fandom simultaneously.
They also maintained Star Trek’s fixation on gadgets, another theme that runs through most of their work, from the quick-changing robots of the Transformers series to the identity-stealing masks of Mission: Impossible. The churn of modern Hollywood and its perpetual summer-movie season demands a constant stream of new weapons, stunts, and setpieces, which Kurtzman and Orci have been more than happy to supply. They write tech-obsessed movies for tech-obsessed audiences. The gizmos in their movies are sometimes more well-developed and thought-out than the people in them; more time is spent on the inner workings and origins of Daniel Craig’s wrist-gun in Cowboys & Aliens than on the inner workings and origins of Craig’s character.
Kurtzman and Orci’s background in television, writing and producing shows like Hercules, Alias, and Fringe, has served them well in a Hollywood increasingly fixated on replicating television’s serialized storytelling model by focusing on series rather than individual movies, and by considering sequels as episodes in a larger, ongoing narrative. They’re also also arguably more comfortable with existing properties than with concepts of their own, another advantage in an age when studios have strip-mined every conceivable corner of popular culture for properties with name recognition. Kurtzman and Orci’s “original” franchises—The Island and Cowboys & Aliens (barely based on an obscure comic book of the same name)—were mostly expensive duds. Their takes on established brands like Mission: Impossible and Transformers were hugely successful.
The one anomaly in the Kurtman and Orci filmography is 2012’s People Like Us, seemingly the only film they’ve written that doesn’t involve aliens, robots, or alien robots. (It’s also the only one either—in this case Kurtzman—has directed). By their own admission, it was a labor of love; the pair worked on the screenplay for almost a decade between other, more lucrative gigs. The core premise was based on Kurtzman’s own life; like the character played by Chris Pine in the film, he has a half-sister he only met as an adult.
As People Like Us begins, Pine’s Sam reluctantly returns to his family home after his father’s death. That’s when he learns about his sister Frankie (Elizabeth Banks) and her son Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario). Sam’s father left Frankie and Josh a large inheritance that Sam wants for himself, so when he talks to Frankie for the first time, he pretends he doesn’t know who she is. (Why he doesn’t introduce himself, but simply not mention the money, is never addressed.) Rather than having the siblings meet and seeing where their lives go from there, Sam repeatedly refuses to tell Frankie about their father. The more time they spend together, the more their meetings begin to look like dates, and the more the film takes on vaguely incestuous dimensions. For a long stretch of the story, it seems like Pine is romancing his sister.
People Like Us may have started from an autobiographical impulse, but it ended up looking like everything else Kurtzman and Orci write: a heavily (but not tightly) plotted story of buried secrets, double identities, and shocking conspiracies. For some screenwriters, the premise of a man who discovers a family he’s never known would have been enough material for a grounded, nuanced character study. But Kurtzman and Orci don’t do those; they write the biggest movies history has ever seen, and in trying to wrap their minds around this relatively simple scenario, they made it needlessly complex.
Ironically, they found far more poignant expressions of personal feelings in giant, impersonal franchises, as in the charmingly oil-and-water friction between Star Trek’s impulsive Captain Kirk and logical Mr. Spock. Halfway through writing the first Star Trek screenplay, Orci told The Los Angeles Times, the pair realized they were actually writing about themselves; Kurtzman is the “intuitive” one like Captain Kirk, while Orci is the “logical…devotee of science” like Spock. “The story of this film,” Orci said, “is about two guys who are such opposites that they might end up strangling each other but instead they bond and thrive together. That’s us. We can go warp speed together.”
Many of their blockbuster films follow similar opposites-attract partnerships. In The Island, skeptical Lincoln (Ewan McGregor) joins forces with trusting Jordan (Scarlett Johansson) to topple an evil corporation. In Transformers, nerdy Sam teams up with voluptuous Mikaela (Megan Fox) to repel the Decepticon invasion. Cowboys & Aliens’ main protagonists are a mysterious bandit (Daniel Craig) and a corrupt cattle rancher (Harrison Ford) on opposite sides of the law, who need to learn to trust each other to defeat another batch of meddlesome extraterrestrials. Even People Like Us is about a pair of mismatched siblings who realize they need one another. All these partnerships result in victory, triumph, and happiness—except The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which concludes with Gwen Stacy’s death.
That lone unhappy ending comes right as Kurtzman and Orci’s own warp-speed journey through Hollywood is coming to an end. (Although, according to Variety, they will continue to work on television projects together, like their version of Sleepy Hollow that reimagines Washington Irving’s classic story as a time-traveling mystery involving the Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse.) That lends The Amazing Spider-Man 2, their final joint effort, an extra layer of poignance. Somewhere beneath its mountain of fan service and table setting lies an extremely personal story.