Zendaya, ‘Spider-Man Homecoming,’ and the Beauty of A Black Mary Jane
Some fanboys will never learn to share.
According to a report this week at The Wrap, former/future Disney actress and musician Zendaya is playing iconic comic book character Mary Jane Watson in Marvel and Sony’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, opposite Tom Holland as the teenage Peter Parker. According to irate Spidey fans, this is an abomination, as Zendaya—who is biracial—does not “look like” Mary Jane, the love interest traditionally portrayed as a green-eyed, red-headed, very white lady.
“Since Mary Jane is being played by a Black woman, can MLK be played by a White man in a next movie about him?” trolled @keksec__org on Twitter.
“Sorry, but MJ is a white red head. Why can’t we just keep characters the same?” wrote @mattblake94.
“I don’t know what to think of this. I like Zendaya but I also like accurate portrayals of Spiderman,” lamented @DarwinCooper100.
Others decried the move as an insidious example of “blackwashing” which, P.S., is not an actual real thing.
Being Mary Jane Watson in the Spider-Man comics always did come with the burden of defying other people’s expectations. When the second-most famous character in Spidey lore was first introduced in 1965 in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man #25, Peter Parker had no idea what she looked like—and neither did readers, her face comically hidden behind a potted houseplant.
In a running gag, Aunt May kept trying to set Peter up with the sparkplug girl next door only to have him spend nearly 20 issues avoiding her, convinced she wasn’t his type. When he finally came face to face with Mary Jane, Peter realized what a doofus he’d been—and would spend the rest of his canonical life on-and-off chasing the most important love of his life.
But there’s more to Mary Jane than her red hair or the color of her skin. Those elements were originally drawn into the character by artist John Romita Sr., inspired by starlet Ann-Margret, and replicated in a previous Sony iteration in the casting of actress Kirsten Dunst—who is a natural blonde, by the way. Fiercely independent, Mary Jane is the most prominent love interest in comics to have her own willful hopes and dreams—and while she supported, guided, and eventually married Spider-Man in the comics, she also turned him down plenty of times, too.
That’s a quality that was hinted at in the trailer Marvel debuted last month at Comic-Con, even if the 7,000 fans in attendance didn’t realize it at the time. In it, Holland’s dorky Peter moons over his dream girl at school while masquerading as his web-slinging alter ego in secret. It’s Zendaya, appearing briefly as an artsy-looking outsider chick classmate of Peter’s, who busts his balls and notices his constant disappearances, as if she’s the only one who really sees him.
Confusion over Zendaya’s secretive role stemmed from the veil of mystery Marvel’s maintained since her casting back in March. When Deadline broke the news that she’d landed a lead role in Spider-Man, she was reported to be playing a character known only as “Michelle” who was also probably not Peter’s love interest—slivers of information that could still be accurate. (Early reports similarly pegged Revelori taking on the role of a character named “Manuel,” but it’s since been revealed he’s playing Flash Thompson—another historically white character in the comics.)
The Mary Jane secret—which Marvel has yet to officially confirm—is reminiscent of the deliberate obfuscation Paramount spent an entire press tour spinning, pretending that Benedict Cumberbatch wasn’t playing Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness, only to reveal when the film was released that—surprise!—that was his character’s real name all along. Will it matter very much to the plot of Spider-Man: Homecoming, a stand-alone that serves as a piece of the overarching Avengers-dominated Marvel Cinematic Universe? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe Zendaya’s rebellious “Michelle” will casually reveal that her parents gave her the super-lame name Mary Jane, wink-wink, and Manic Panic her way to flame tresses at the end of the movie, and we’ve all just spoiled a fun little end-credits Easter Egg for ourselves a year early.
The bigger takeaway from this week’s Mary Jane hubbub—which the coolly unflustered Zendaya has yet to deign to address—is not that there are retrograde superfans out there who will loudly whine that progressive casting choices are ruining their childhoods. (Hello again, Ghostbros.) It’s that the pro-Zendaya as Mary Jane horde came out in force against racist fanboy backlash, real and pre-emptively perceived, to passionately support Marvel’s bold and overdue move for what it is: A step forward toward a near-future in which heroes don’t all look like they did 50 years ago.
Not to mention that audiences who can accept a fantasy about a nerd who gets bitten by a radioactive spider and turns into a goo-slinging superhero can spare a little suspension of disbelief.
The July 7, 2017 Marvel tentpole was already shaping up to mark a milestone in diversity even before the Mary Jane reveal hit the web. In casting Tony Revelori, Laura Harrier, and Jacob Batalon for key supporting roles, Marvel and director Jon Watts solidified a vision of a truly diverse Spidey universe—one in which white American teen Peter Parker is surrounded by classmates from different ethnic backgrounds, just like any teen growing up in Queens, New York, the most diverse borough in one of the most diverse cities in the world.
That can be seen as a corrective measure of sorts: Marvel brass demonstrating that they know not everyone in New York looks like Toby Maguire or Kirsten Dunst or Andrew Garfield or Emma Stone, and in turn answering fan demand for greater inclusivity with action. It’s certainly not as bold and refreshing a push as, say, casting a non-white Peter Parker might have been—a fancasting fantasy Marvel apparently wasn’t quite ready for, as Donald Glover’s appearance in Spider-Man: Homecoming may end up inadvertently reminding us.
But between Zendaya playing Spider-Man’s Mary Jane, Tessa Thompson playing Valkryie in Thor 3, and Kiersey Clemons taking on the Iris West role over in DC’s The Flash, Hollywood’s biggest blockbuster studios are opening more and more major roles to women of color. That’s not the biggest breakthrough in mainstream comic book cinema imaginable—that would be casting a major leading superhero role against race and gender norms, and not relegating them to playing a love interest or villain. But that day will come. In the meantime, if the overwhelming support for Zendaya’s Mary Jane is any indication of anything, it’s that a vocal portion of the audience is ready to throw down for movies that reflect the future, not the past—and that broad-minded casting choices are increasingly smart business decisions, not just the right thing to do.