Word of warning, there may be a few spoilers, including one MASSIVE one that everybody knows... Don't say I didn't warn you.
I just finished reading Amazing Spider-Man Renew Your Vows (which I loved by the way) and it got me thinking, this is obviously a version of Peter that we haven't seen for a good few years, married to Mary Jane and with a child. Then my mind wandered further, as any #SpiderMan fan worth their salt knows there were 2 great women in Peter's life, 2 women who arguably are his one true love, so what I want to look at here is who is Peter's true love. Now before I start I know Peter has had quite a few love interests - the likes of Betty Brant, Carlie Cooper, even Anna Maria Marconi thanks to Doctor Octopus and his brain swap - but I want to look at the 2 main women in his life, Mary Jane Watson and Gwen Stacy.
For a shy, intelligent guy Peter Parker seems to have a certain way with the ladies, before Gwen was killed there would often be competition for his affections from both MJ and Gwen (which most of the time he was totally oblivious to). Both girls were very different, MJ was more of a free spirit who flitted from party to party and just enjoyed life, whereas Gwen was more academic, being one of Peter's classmates at university. If Peter was with one of the girls you could guarantee that the other girl would be jealous, Peter was obviously attracted to both girls but Stan Lee liked to keep the reader guessing about which one he would pair up with.
So let's take a look at each of the girls and see what you think.
Mary Jane Watson
Mary Jane was initially a running joke amongst the writers, she is first mentioned in Amazing Spider-Man #15 as a potential blind date for Peter. Aunt May would frequently mention her to Peter who would often rebuff his aunt as he believed that she would not be very attractive, he felt that Aunt May was taking pity on the girl and trying to get a her a date to improve her self esteem. It became a running joke that Peter would somehow get out of meeting her and aside from a facially obscured appearance in Amazing Spider-Man #25 she did not appear until THAT iconic entrance at the end of Amazing Spider-Man #42.
Mary Jane was a free spirit who didn't allow herself to be tied down to one thing for too long and her frivolous nature began to irk Peter slightly and so they broke up (for the first of MANY times). As a bit of a flirt she had no trouble in finding a new boyfriend, this time it was Peter's best friend and roommate Harry Osborn. They dated for a while but MJ was unable to stay committed for too long and the relationship soon ended, Harry did not take this well and took a drug overdose which snowballed into Norman Osborn going insane and returning to his Green Goblin identity. It could be argued that this was the catalyst for the death of Gwen Stacy and certainly when MJ found out about all this her character underwent a change.
After Gwen's death Peter and MJ became closer, MJ initially trying to comfort Peter and then turning into a relationship. Over many years this relationship develops into a marriage and a pregnancy (and there was a bit of a mess story wise with that one but I won't go there). This all is ruined in the controversial One More Day storyline which removes the wedding from history however, but even after that there are lingering feelings between Peter and MJ. They share an unspoken bond and there is a bit of romantic tension between the two.
In the Ultimate continuity their relationship is obviously that of soulmates, throughout the story Peter dates MJ on and off and she is the first person he reveals his identity as Spider-Man to. They care very deeply for one another and one of the issues even has them discussing whether or not they should have sex. They do break up from time to time, particularly when Gwen Stacy appears and Peter also has a brief relationship with Kitty Pride of the X-Men, but ultimately they reconcile. Peter's death in this continuity hits MJ particularly hard, she withdraws into herself and becomes somewhat a shadow of her former self. She stops seeing Aunt May and all of Peter's family and even runs away when she sees the original (Earth 616) Spider-Man who has crossed into this universe.
When Peter is revealed to be alive during the Miles Morales: The Ultimate Spider-Man Resurrection arc, it turns out that Peter hides out at Mary Jane's house, clearly the love they share is still very strong. He stays there out of shame as he feels he can't face Aunt May or Gwen so tries to run away in secret with MJ, but of course he is called into action as Spider-Man and reveals himself to be alive. At the end of the arc Peter and MJ ride off into the sunset to begin their lives together leaving the mantle of Spider-Man to Miles.
It is obvious that Mary Jane and Peter have a connection, but it could be argued that this only came about because of what happened with Gwen, so without further ado lets look at her.
Gwen Stacy was a classmate of Peter Parker at university who first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #31, initially Peter is too distracted with Aunt May being in hospital to notice Gwen's attraction to him and she decides to give up on dating Peter and goes out with Flash Thompson and Harry Osborn. Eventually however her attraction to Peter gets the better of her and Peter becomes tired of Mary Jane's party loving lifestyle and the two become a couple. Gwen is different to MJ as she shares Peter's love of science - she is attracted to his intelligence - and being the daughter of a police captain she is quite quiet. The relationship has many troubles, particularly when Gwen leaves to live in England after her father's death.
Captain Stacy was killed during a fight between Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus by some falling debris. In her grief Gwen blames Spider-Man for her father's death and leaves to cope with her loss. Peter does actually follow Gwen to London but while he is there he has to be Spider-Man and leaves before he has seen Gwen. He felt it would be too easy to piece together that he was Spider-Man if Gwen had seen him.
Gwen was of course part of one of the biggest comic book stories of the 1970s with The Night Gwen Stacy Died. Of course this story goes down as a turning point in both the history of Spider-man and of comic books as a medium. Before this story a superhero had never failed so catastrophically unless it was part of their origin story, never before had one of the main supporting cast who had been well established been killed by a major villain. This of course had a huge ripple effect on Peter Parker's character, he found it very difficult to get over the murder of the woman he loved and there was always the lingering doubt that it was actually him that caused it. Stories since have shown that this had a massive effect on Peter, particularly the Spider-Man: Blue story. Spider-Man: Blue shows Peter taping messages to Gwen long after her death, he tells the story of how they fell in love and how much he misses her. Clearly, even though Peter has moved on and had a life with Mary Jane Gwen still holds a special place in his heart. This is also shown in the Spider-Verse storyline when the newly introduced Spider-Gwen appears, Peter is very protective of her and will not let her come out to save the universe which leads to one of the other Spideys having to explain to her what happened.
You might say that had Gwen not been killed she and Peter would be together and there would be no point in this article, you might also say that Gwen's death was a catalyst in bringing Peter and Mary Jane closer together. The simple fact is we can never know what the truth is because, just as in life, we all go through things that are hard and that change our lives forever.
Before I get too philosophical, I have to say that in my opinion Peter and Mary Jane have always been the true couple, I appreciate Gwen as a character and understand that she was a very important part in Peter's life. Maybe it's because I grew up watching the 90s animated series and aside from one brief cameo Gwen never appeared, and then my first views of Spider-Man on the big screen were Sam Raimi's films which featured Mary Jane. I've since read a lot of the early Spider-Man comic books and the one thing I did appreciate was how different the two girls were. But that is just my opinion of course.