WARNING: SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING SPOILERS INSIDE.
I love comic books. I love the soap opera drama intermingled with phenomenal cosmic powers. I love how comics — like all good science-fiction and fantasy — can couch the problems of our world in fantastical elements in order to shine a light on injustice. What I don’t love? The segment of comic book fans that believe all of their superheroes must be encased in amber; they can never change and never evolve. You all know who I’m talking about. The people that can’t stand Miles Morales and flipped out when Idris Elba was cast as Heimdall. The people that wouldn’t think twice about a frog being Thor, but they’ll be damned if Jane Foster wields the hammer. So of course these loud jerks were “very concerned” that Zendaya might be playing Mary Jane Watson — Peter Parker’s long time love interest — in Spider-Man: Homecoming. I’ll let you figure out why.
Both Marvel and Zendaya herself kept insisting her SMH character was not Mary Jane Watson, but instead a new character named Michelle. Now that the film is in theaters, they weren’t technically lying. Zendaya does in fact play Michelle (last name unknown). Near the conclusion of the film, Michelle requests the Decathlon Team call her “MJ” as they’re now her friends. So Zendaya isn’t Mary Jane, but she is MJ. That’s some hair-splitting at the atomic level, Marvel.
In a recent interview with Den of Geek, Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige tried to explain the weird half-subterfuge:
“In setting up this will be a very different thing, she’s not Mary Jane Watson, that’s not who the character is. But giving her the initials that remind you of that dynamic certainly is intriguing about what could go forward.”
But why do this? Why flirt with the idea that Zendaya is Mary Jane in all but name? Why not just thumb their nose at comic book purists who insist Peter Parker’s future love interest must be a red-headed supermodel? Unfortunately I’m not invited (yet) to the Marvel Studios storyboard meetings, but I have a few ideas. First of all, when was the last time you met someone named Mary Jane? The character was first introduced in 1965, a year when “Mary” was the second most popular girls’ name in America. In the 1950s, when the character would have been born, it was literally the most popular. Nowadays? It doesn’t even crack the top 100. The only kid you’re going to find named Mary Jane is the one with the stoner parents who thought they were being hilarious.
Secondly, by creating a new character in Michelle but giving her the “MJ” nickname frees Zendaya’s portrayal from 50 years of Mary Jane Watson while maintaining her character’s status as potential love interest. Quick, tell me something about Mary Jane’s personality! You probably can’t because, for the most part, she doesn’t have one. Mary Jane was created as a foil to Gwen Stacey, and a vapid one at that. Based on actress Ann-Margret, Mary Jane was designed to be every teenage boy’s dream girl: fun, not interested in commitment, and understanding. She was a Cool Girl before it was thing. In 2010, Gerry Conway was interviewed by Back Issue! and stated he found Mary Jane to be more interesting because “Gwen didn’t have an edge. She was just a nice person. [Gwen] wasn’t likely to do something that was likely to screw things up for Peter.” So it’s not really that Mary Jane had a personality so much as the writers had an easier time turning her into a MacGuffin for Peter to rescue or an object in his way. By changing Zendaya from Mary Jane to Michelle, the character sheds this persona, which is more than obvious by Michelle’s personality in SPH.
But it’s not just altruistic reasons that could account for Marvel’s decision. It’s a way to hedge their bets. After all, if Zendaya isn’t Mary Jane, it leaves the door open that she could appear later in the series. In SMH — despite her statements to the contrary — Michelle clearly has at least some interest in Peter. But that could always be written out or played down in future films should Marvel decide to do so. If audiences had reacted poorly to Michelle as “MJ” it was a safe way to hedge their bets. “Haha, just kidding! Here’s the real Mary Jane!” Or if fans loved Zendaya’s portrayal, it’s easy enough to imagine Flash (Tony Revolori) calling her “Mary Jane” as a joke. Because teen humor is nothing if not predictable.
So is Zendaya Mary Jane in all but legal name? Or is she someone entirely new? At this point, she’s Schrödinger’s MJ. It seems Marvel is sitting on the “MJ” fence, waiting to see which way the fan reaction winds of are blowing before committing. Hopefully it doesn’t blow up in their face.