Bryce Dallas Howard as Gwen Stacy

The ecstatic young woman approaches the podium before the crowd, who’ve gathered in the park to celebrate the day’s honoree, abuzz with excitement. The woman speaks into the microphone with zest. "When you’re dropping without a parachute or your store’s being robbed or your house is on fire, who is it that breaks your fall, puts out the flames, and saves your children?" The crowd happily shouts back, "Spider-Man!" The woman continues with the thrill of someone who has been given a new lease on life, smitten by a casual crush. "Then, let’s hear it for your one and only friendly neighborhood Spider-Man!"

The speaker is Gwen Stacy, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, and the ceremony in question is to give Spidey a key to the city in gratitude for his heroics in 2007’s "Spider-Man 3." Gwen speaks from experience. After Spider-Man saved her life when a construction beam crashed into a New York City high-rise, Gwen is all-in on the web-slinging superhero.

Howard joined the franchise for its 2007 release; at the time, she was a rising commodity, known mostly for indie films (Lars von Trier’s "Manderlay") and disappointing M. Knight Shyamalan films ("The Village," "Lady in the Water"). She would go on to become her own Dwayne Johnson-like franchise Viagra, prepping up later installments of everything from the "Terminator" to "Twilight" to the "Jurassic Park" movies. But first, she set that template by competing with Kirsten Dunst for the attention of Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker in the final Sam Raimi-directed Spider-Man film.

These days, the daughter of Ron Howard is a Star Wars heavyweight, an actor and social media fave. Two decades ago, here’s how she broke through with a portrayal of an iconic comic book character.

Howard searched for Spider-Man 3 rumors online before being cast

Gwen Stacy glancing behind to smile at Peter Parker

Bryce Dallas Howard was a newcomer in "Spider-Man 3," as Gwen Stacy hadn’t appeared in the first two films. When an actor steps into a movie series or even a television show after the franchise has already been established, audiences might wonder how much familiarity the new actor has with what came before. Are they a fan, or is this just another gig? Some actors come into a well-known series knowing everything about the lore of the world their character inhabits. Others have no clue what they’re stepping into and are merely attracted to the role for what it is (like for example, Christian Bale, who was thinking more of Aphex Twin than the MCU when filming "Thor: Love and Thunder").

As for Howard, she was a spider-fan. Speaking with CBR in 2007, Howard spoke about her obsession with the first two movies.

"I love this franchise. I was a huge fan of the first film," she said. "When I saw the second film, I was completely blown away because I honestly thought it was better than the first one, which I didn’t know was possible. I became one of those people who was going on the internet to see what were the rumors, to see what was going on. When I found out that they were thinking of adding another female character, I was just all over that."

Howard was intrigued by Gwen’s place in comic book history

Gwen Stacy hanging onto swinging Spider-Man

Not only did Bryce Dallas Howard step into an existing movie series, but her character had decades of Marvel comic book backstory. When taking on a legacy character adapted from literature, an actor can either study up and read everything they can get their hands on about their character, or they can go in blind and simply take the script at face value.

In an interview distributed to the press at the time of the film’s release, Howard shared her process. "I started doing a tremendous amount of reading about her and the comic book in a very short period of time," Howard said. "I realized that, all joking aside, it is a big responsibility and I want to portray her in a way that will make people see like they’re really seeing her, like they’re seeing the person they imagined when they were reading the comic book."

In her reading of comics and research of supplemental material about her character, Howard shared with IGN that she was particularly fascinated to learn that Gwen Stacy’s death marked "the end of the silver age of comic books." Knowing that her character epitomized such a pivotal moment in comics history, Howard tasked herself with honoring Gwen’s legacy as she carried the torch.

Gwen’s fate in the movie was public knowledge prior to its release

Gwen Stacy smiling and Spider-Man giving a thumbs-up

Marvel is notoriously secretive about their projects, not wanting to give away major spoilers before a movie debuts. It’s become something of a running joke that actors starring in Marvel films frequently appear on talk shows to promote their work, only to be unable to share much of anything because they’re not sure how much they’re allowed to give away.

This pre-MCU conundrum was not as iron-clad n the mid-2000s. While everybody knows that Gwen Stacy died in the comics, she lives to see the end credits in "Spider-Man 3." This detail was public knowledge prior to the film’s release (the very first bit of casting news reported Gwen wouldn’t die), leaving many fans to believe she’d instead be killed off in a future installment if the Raimi series continued (spoiler alert: it didn’t).

"As fans know, Gwen is the Lana Lang to Mary Jane Watson’s Lois Lane in Spidey mythology; in the books, she was Peter Parker’s high school crush, who died on a bridge during a Spidey-Green Goblin battle," wrote Entertainment Weekly after the 2006 casting of Howard. "While it’s not clear how Gwen will be woven into the ‘Spider-Man 3’ plot, we do know a couple things … first, she’ll be a rival with Dunst’s Mary Jane for Peter’s affections, and second, she won’t die at the end of the movie."

Howard dyed her hair blonde for the role

Gwen Stacy glancing at Peter Parker

Howard is one of the most famous redheads in Hollywood. But for "Spider-Man 3," she ditched her signature look.

Even if the question "How did your hair change colors?" presents itself with only two options — wig or dye — it’s nonetheless a pertinent query for actors starring in superhero films. (Just ask this pint-sized Marvel fan.) While a character’s look in a Marvel movie doesn’t always match their prior physical appearances in comic books and there seems to be leeway for how a new film’s expression of a beloved character can differ from its source material, when it came to Gwen Stacy filmmakers wanted to retain the character’s signature blonde hair from the comics.

"I got to dye my hair blonde," she recalled in 2019. "I had to do it, like, every 10 days because I’d have red roots, which was really weird, but I got to be Gwen Stacy, which I absolutely loved."

She tried to do as many of her own stunts as possible

Gwen Stacy hanging onto side of building

Most of Gwen Stacy’s screentime in "Spider-Man 3" involves her character grounded in a completely nonthreatening environment, whether that be attending science class or going dancing. One scene, however, sees Gwen at the center of her very own action sequence as a modeling gig goes terribly wrong.

When a construction beam knocks her out of a building in Manhattan, Gwen escapes tragedy by swinging to safety with Spider-Man. The sequence involved a heavy amount of preparation, from visual effects to actors rigged on harnesses. As someone who loves the moviemaking process, Howard jumped at the opportunity to perform stunts when appropriate.

"What’s so great about movies is you get to really experience these crazy, crazy incidents … things that would never happen in real life and you would emerge alive and you know that you’ll be 100% safe," she said in a behind-the-scenes featurette. "I know that if there’s something that’s really dangerous, there’ll be someone available to do it, but even in that scenario, they are very, very safe, so I try to do as many things as possible because it’s really fun."

Howard’s Gwen Stacy would not be a man-stealing tart

Gwen Stacy speaking at Spider-Man rally

Bryce Dallas Howard was intentional about Gwen being a fully realized person rather than someone whose only purpose was to prompt romantic tension with Peter Parker. She had her work cut out for her, given the awkward state the threequel finds Peter’s relationship in with Mary Jane Watson. While Peter is ready to propose, Mary Jane isn’t so certain about their future. Peter, oblivious to his own lack of self-awareness, gives Mary Jane the impression that he’d rather be with Gwen.

This presented Howard with a delicate challenge. In the comics, Gwen Stacy was Peter’s actual girlfriend before Mary Jane, not just a casual acquaintance. In the movie, with Mary Jane already established but the precedent existing in "Spider-Man" lore for Gwen and Peter to be attracted to one another, how would Howard approach Gwen?

"I have so much reverence for their relationship, just as a fan, and so I didn’t want to show up and be some kind of man-stealing tart," Howard said in a 2007 interview. "I tried to establish that Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy were friends from school and she was part of their circle and MJ just misinterprets some of Gwen’s actions."

Kirsten Dunst was glad to have Howard around

Mary Jane looking at Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy

Kirsten Dunst played Mary Jane Watson, aspiring Broadway performer and girlfriend of Peter Parker. Gwen’s interactions with Peter — and Spider-Man — rightfully prompt Mary Jane to reconsider her relationship status. Gwen never means any ill will toward Mary Jane. After all, Gwen doesn’t know Peter is Spider-Man, doesn’t realize Peter is using her as a pawn during their date to a jazz club where Mary Jane sings, and apologizes to Mary Jane when she discovers the truth. Nonetheless, the onscreen dynamic between the two women always carries some tension.

The same was not true for the characters’ real-life counterparts. In a decidedly male-dominated cast, Dunst was happy to have Howard as a co-star and wished they had more scenes together.

"It’s exciting. I loved working with Bryce," Dunst said in 2007. "I wish we had had more scenes together, but it was nice to share [leading lady] duty. To have another girl on set was nice to experience all of it with me."

Howard had high hopes for the unmade Raimi sequel

Gwen Stacy smiling at Eddie Brock

In 2010, news broke that a proposed fourth Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire film was being scrapped. Instead, Marc Webb and Andrew Garfield would eventually come in to make 2012’s "The Amazing Spider-Man."

If the series had continued under Raimi’s direction, it’s possible that Bryce Dallas Howard’s version of Gwen might have been given more time to develop the character — or perhaps, recreate that famous death scene.

In 2009, Howard said Marvel hadn’t contacted her about a fourth film, which was still in development at the time, but she was ready to take on whatever the franchise decided to do next. "It was really made clear to me when we all did ‘Spider-Man 3’ that it was entirely possible that a character could come back or a character could not and this could be just a specific plotline to that film," Howard said, "because there’s so many stories in the comic book series and you want to pack as much in as possible."

"I had an incredible time," she said of making the third Spidey film. "But more than anything, what I want is for that franchise to just continue to kick butt and to really appease the really, really, really loyal fans, including myself."

Gwen was Howard’s first Marvel role; she’d like more

Gwen Stacy and models looking curiously out the window

The vast world of Marvel encompasses many different factions, even within the same medium. In film alone, multiple different studios have connections to the company due to various legal agreements struck at different points in Marvel history. This sometimes means the same actor ends up playing multiple superheroes across films helmed by different studios attached to the Marvel name. For example, Chris Evans played the Human Torch in 20th Century Studios’ "Fantastic Four" films, years before he became Captain America for Marvel Studios.

Using this same logic, Bryce Dallas Howard is not completely ruled out from entering the MCU proper just because she was Gwen Stacy in "Spider-Man 3," a film produced by Sony before Marvel Studios made their own movies. In 2015, long before Brie Larson became Carol Danvers, Cinema Blend asked Howard if she’d have any interest in playing Captain Marvel. Howard replied, "That would be so rad" and emphasized her enthusiasm to be part of the MCU.

In 2022, as rumors swirled that Howard could become the MCU’s Invisible Girl in the 2025 "Fantastic Four" reboot, TikTok user Andrés Navy asked Howard to sign an Invisible Girl Funko Pop figurine. Bursting into laughter, Howard replied, "I swear to God, for real, total rumors, but I’ll sign it just for fun for this moment!"

She’s thrilled to see Gwen’s legacy live on

Gwen Stacy sitting in science class

"Spider-Man" is a seemingly evergreen franchise — and with 60 years of comic stories in the rearview mirror, it certainly has no shortage of inspiration it could tap into.

Since Howard played Stacy in "Spider-Man 3," two other versions of the character have made their big screen debut. Emma Stone portrayed Gwen alongside Garfield’s Peter Parker in "The Amazing Spider-Man" and its 2014 sequel (which, finally, included Gwen’s tragic death). Hailee Steinfeld then voiced Gwen in 2018’s animated "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse," in which the character took on the persona of Spider-Gwen and teamed up with Miles Morales’ Spider-Man.

Howard is very happy that Gwen has continued to evolve. She shared with Entertainment Weekly that she was in the middle of filming 2011’s "The Help" with Stone when casting news for "The Amazing Spider-Man" dropped, and was thrilled to celebrate with her castmate, from one Gwen to another. In 2018 when Inverse told Howard about Stacy becoming Spider-Gwen, she was over the moon. "When a character is a beloved character and many different actors get to play that character — any character, whether it’s Batman or Spider-Man or, in this case, Gwen Stacy — you get to see another aspect of the character come out … being able to hear more of her story, that’s exciting."

Howard would always be game to play Gwen again

Spider-Man and Gwen Stacy talking

Even as different versions of Gwen populate various incarnations of "Spider-Man" pop culture, perhaps the sun hasn’t set on Bryce Dallas Howard taking on the character again. For over a decade, it seemed as if audiences had seen the last of Tobey Maguire’s version of Peter Parker. Then Maguire returned in 2021’s "Spider-Man: No Way Home," as his Parker collided with those of Tom Holland and Andrew Garfield.

With a multiverse now existing within the MCU, and possibilities for different universes to intersect in ways that previously seemed concretely separate, anything can happen — and Howard would be interested if that includes her version of Gwen Stacy.

Speaking with People in 2022, Howard said, "That would be so fun. Since we are exploring multiverses — and by we are exploring it, they are exploring it and I’m enjoying it. I would always be game." Though no further revival for Maguire’s "Spider-Man" is known to be actively in development, there is plenty more to explore if Howard returned to be Gwen once more. In "No Way Home," Maguire’s Peter mentions his relationship with Mary Jane "took a while," but they "made it work," implying they’re still together years after "Spider-Man 3" left off. How Gwen’s connection with Peter evolved over the years, or if Spider-Gwen exists in that universe, all remain unanswered questions that Howard’s portrayal could further if given the opportunity.