This article contains SPOILERS for Spiderman: Homecoming
As a young girl, I remember sitting down to watch the Sam Raimi’s Spiderman films starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst. Back then, Spiderman was the superhero; the Marvel Cinematic Universe was not yet in existence, and the Batman films did not hold the same youthful appeal for my generation as the character of Peter Parker did. I remember finding the Raimi films entertaining enough; the fight scenes were thrilling, James Franco was charming as Harry Osbourne, and Spidey’s superpowers were always cool. Even Spiderman 3, the most critically lambasted instalment, gave us the bizarre, over-the-top dancing sequence that has now become iconic because of its sheer ridiculousness. (The jet-black hair! The expressions! The moves!) However, for the little girl who sat watching these films with wide-eye excitement, the one thing that always bothered me was the character of Peter Parker’s love interest, the red-haired and gorgeous Mary Jane Watson.
According to Maguire’s Peter Parker, the story they are telling, “like any other story worth telling, is all about a girl”. Many ironic statements have been uttered unintentionally in superhero films before, but this line might just take the cake. For a story that’s supposed to be about Mary Jane, Mary Jane is not at all a fully-formed character. Sure, it’s shown that she has a dysfunctional family life. She wants to be an actress. Sometimes she shines in her roles, sometimes she mopes when her reviews aren’t good. She is engaged to a rich astronaut at one point, and dates Harry Osbourne at another, but it does not really matter because she is ‘the love of Peter Parker’s life’, at the end of the day; he is the one who is going to end up with her no matter what. Make no mistake – Mary Jane’s main function in the films is to be glorified eye candy. She dangles off rooftops in skimpy outfits, put in see-through shirts that show her nipples when it rains, made to scream for help as super villains kidnap her to lure Spiderman out into the open. When I watched these films as a child, it felt like those helpless screams of hers would never ever end, and unfortunately, I grew up viewing Mary Jane as a woman who Peter needs to constantly chase after, win over, and rescue.
But fast forward to now…
After a failed Spiderman franchise starring Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker, Sony finally bent the knee and gave the character rights back to Marvel Studio. The result is Spiderman: Homecoming, the first Spiderman film in the MCU, starring Tom Holland as the web-slinger, with Robert Downey Jr. appearing as Tony Stark, and Michael Keaton taking on the role of Vulture, Spidey’s main antagonist. With this iteration of Peter Parker, Marvel decided to go back to high-school. (Think John Hughes characters with superpowers.) Not only is Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) a much younger woman, Peter spends half the film not as spider ‘man’, but as a boy, navigating lessons, crushes, and classmates. There is a snappy, youthful energy to this version of Spidey. True, the stakes are not as high as other Marvel films, nor is it on par with the likes of Captain America: Civil War or The Winter Soldier, but it is endlessly charming and progressive. Peter’s school and local community are more diverse than any other Marvel films, while his funny, quick-witted group of close friends are all people of colour – his rival and ‘bully’ Flash Thompson (Tony Revelori), his best friend and constant companion Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon), his crush Liz Allen (Laura Harrier), and his sarcastic loner of a classmate Michelle Jones (Zendaya).
Liz Allen might be Peter’s love interest in this film, but she is not simply playing the trope of the most beautiful and popular girl in school. Yes, she is beautiful and she is popular, but she is also a senior, two years older than Peter. She is the head of the homecoming committee and captains the academic decathlon team. She takes school very seriously, but she also knows how to have fun. These are great qualities for young audiences to see in a ‘love interest’. And although Liz Allen might not be coming back into Peter’s life any time soon, it is revealed that our Spidey is not going to be left heartbroken for long. At the end of the film, his classmate Michelle delivers the line which made the audience in my cinema gasp: “My friends call me MJ”. Marvel fans might have already seen this reveal coming; rumours have been rife that this awkward, oddball character played by Zendaya is going to be Mary Jane. However, when it comes, the confirmation is still amazing to witness, and no matter how you feel about the manner of it, it is undeniable that the reveal itself is an exciting step forward for the superhero genre.
This much is clear: Zendaya’s MJ is not going to be the Sam Raimi’s Mary Jane. Too often, love interests in superhero films are drop-dead gorgeous white women with no unique personality or independence of mind. With this version of MJ, however, we are not only getting a black woman as a leading Marvel character, but we are also getting a girl who is different to those we have seen before in superhero films. Michelle is incredibly smart, but also horribly awkward. She wants to make friends, but does not quite know how to approach people. She is the girl who sits reading a thick book in gym class, and the girl who shows up to school with unmade hair and very little make-up. She is ‘woke’, as the kids say; she wants to get in some “light protesting in front of an embassy before lunch”, and she would rather not go up the Washington monument because she does not want to “celebrate something that was built by slaves”. When she sees Peter arriving at their homecoming dance, she gives him the middle finger.
One other exciting aspect about this version of MJ is that it is Zendaya who is playing her. Zendaya is a brand onto herself, a superstar from Disney channel who comes with a large devoted fanbase. At 21-years old, she already has her own clothing line, a Barbie doll, a role in Beyonce’s Lemonade film. When she was sixteen, she marched into the offices of Disney and delivered her own demands regarding her show, KC Undercover. Those demands included the character she’s going to play, the name of the show, and the inclusion of an African-American family. When she showed up to the Academy Awards in dreadlocks and became the subject of prejudiced comments, she wrote this classy, educational response. This girl is not messing around. She knows what she is doing, she knows what she wants, and she goes for it with determination and integrity. “I can’t just talk the talk, you know?” she told Allure Magazine. “I can’t just say all this stuff about inclusivity and loving people and breaking barriers and then actually not do it when it comes down to my own stuff. That’s fake.”
As women, and as women who love superhero films, we are tired of seeing only one version of ourselves on screen. We are desperate to see more representation; not just of women of different races, but women with different personalities, strengths, quirks, likes, and dislikes. We want to see these women have different types of relationships with the heroes, and not just have them quickly become enamoured with each other at a drop of a hat. As someone who had nobody but Mary Jane Watson to identify with in superhero films, I envy the young boys and girls of today. If Marvel keeps taking the right steps forward with Spiderman and Zendaya’s MJ, there is going to be a new generation of young people who do not have to be plagued by the screams of helpless women, or be told that their biggest moment in life is an upside-down kiss. Young people deserve something new and better, and they deserve to know that girls like ‘Michelle’ are worthy of love, too.