Fair Warning: It might take me a while to get to the point with this article, so bear with me.
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m just a “little bit” into all things Spider-Man. So of course I’ve heard that Zendaya is allegedly portraying Mary Jane Watson in the new movie. And of course I, like everyone, apparently, have my own opinions about the news, which I will be sharing here. I’ve mentioned before that I think it’s stupid to form strong opinions about an actor or actresses’ ability to portray a character before we even see them do it, so I feel a tiny bit hypocritical about writing this post. But whatever.
Firstly. When it comes to comic book movie and character adaptations, specifically, when it comes to whether or not I’m okay with them (all politics aside), I don’t give one solitary care about what ethnicity the actor/actress playing a character is, as long as that character is at least recognizable when compared to their comic book counterpart. Case in point: it’s the general consensus that Will Smith did an awesome job as Deadshot, whom he bears not even a passing resemblance to in the comics. A lot of people (including me, strangely enough) are excited about Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, who looks nothing at all like what he does in most comics. Heck, if we’re splitting hairs, Hugh Jackman is a full foot taller and not nearly as ugly as comic book Wolverine, and that hasn’t stopped most people from embracing him in the role. But in all of these instances, what matters is whether the actor in question is true to the original character in some way.
Mary Jane has a long history in the comic books, and her portrayal has been fairly consistent. From what I’ve seen with regard to Homecoming, the cast and crew seem intent to stick fairly closely to Spidey’s roots, meaning the Steve Ditko era. Interestingly, while MJ was mentioned early on in the comics (Amazing Fantasy #15, 1964), we don’t get to see her face until issue number 42, in 1966, four years after Spidey’s debut. By then, the comics were being penciled by John Romita Sr., who designed the character’s look. But looks in and of themselves tell us nothing about the character, nor their purpose within the story. MJ was introduced as a fun-loving, carefree spirit who was an aspiring actress and who discovered Peter’s secret identity before they even met. Once they did meet, they became close friends and confidants, since both struggled with familial problems and the loss of loved ones. She was also a sort of foil to Gwen Stacey, Peter’s initial love interest who was, according to the creators, the person Parker was meant to be with all along, meaning that MJ was not originally intended to ever become his most longstanding love interest, and didn’t become so until quite a long time after the characters’ introduction. All of which means that if the filmmakers do intend to stick to the roots of the characters and stories—or at least their early iterations—Mary Jane probably won’t have all that much impact on the plot to begin with.
The problem I frequently have with the character of MJ—actually, no, the problem I have with the way she is written—is that so often she only seems to exist as the person Spider-Man inevitably has to rescue from the villain of the week. Not that this is always the case, but it frequently is, and one need not look much further than the Sam Raimi series, in which MJ is kidnapped and by the main baddie in. Every. Single. Movie. All three acts culminate in Spider-Man having to rescue her. I’m not saying there is necessarily anything wrong with being the damsel in distress (or am I?) but when that is all MJ is allowed to be? That, to me, is hugely problematic.
And yes, I get that it’s Spidey’s movie and he needs someone to rescue and that whole bit works best when that someone is a person he cares deeply about. But that doesn’t mean that that person can’t be fully developed and have something meaningful to do beyond getting captured and then rescued. Which, incidentally, is what I thought was so great about the Peter/Gwen dynamic in the Amazing Spider-Man films. Gwen was an active participant in saving the city in both of those movies. She had her own story arc. She wasn’t written only to be the girl Spider-Man rescues.
Circling back to the point. MJ is a huge part of the Spider-Man mythos. She is a character with a very long history within the comics, and her portrayal has been pretty consistent through the years. I believe that when a comic book character is adapted into a movie, care should be taken to make sure they resemble the character they are based on, or else what’s the point? It might as well be a new character. However—and I think this is ultimately my point—to me, that resemblance is not necessarily physical (although, in this case, considering that physically MJ is portrayed as a tall, model-esque person, Zendaya fits that description quite well), and if an actor or actress can capture the essence of the character, and somehow bring the personality and appeal of a two-dimensional ink and dialogue bubble character to a live-action adaptation, it doesn’t make one iota of difference if they physically look exactly like that version of the character.
I’d also like to note that, yes, absolutely, diversity in media is extremely important. We need more women and people of color in more prominent and positive roles, and ultimately, I don’t know whether reinterpreting existing characters to fill such roles or creating all-new ones is the best way to promote or encourage such diversity. But as they are both means to that end, I really don’t have a problem with it either way. I love that Laura Kinney is the new Wolverine. I had zero interest in reading a Thor title until Jane Foster took over the role. I think it’s super cool that Marvel is finally allowing Peter Parker to grow and transition to a different phase of his life while allowing Miles Morales to fill the role of teenage superhero struggling to balance his heroic exploits with high school and all the “angst” that comes with that in the 616 universe. But in each of these cases, the core of the character remains intact even though the person carrying the mantle is different.
I’m a huge fan of Zendaya. So if she is indeed portraying Mary Jane Watson in the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming, then the only concern I have is whether, when I eventually watch the movie, she and the writers and the director and everyone else involved in making the film will make me feel like I am watching Mary Jane Watson on the screen. If she acts like MJ, she will be MJ to me. [Actually, she will be MJ regardless, but I digress.]