Zendaya, Spider-Man Homecoming, and the Beauty of A Black Mary Jane
Face it, haters and racists. The upcoming Spidey movie hit the jackpot with model and singer Zendaya reportedly playing the iconic Mary Jane Watson.”>
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 Sonys Spider-Man: Homecoming, opposite Tom Holland as the teenage Peter Parker. According to irate Spidey fans, this is an abomination, as Zendayawho is biracialdoes 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 cant we just keep characters the same? wrote @mattblake94.
I dont 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 peoples 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 likeand 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 wasnt his type. When he finally came face to face with Mary Jane, Peter realized what a doofus hed beenand would spend the rest of his canonical life on-and-off chasing the most important love of his life.
But theres 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 Dunstwho 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 dreamsand while she supported, guided, and eventually married Spider-Man in the comics, she also turned him down plenty of times, too.
Thats a quality that was hinted at in the trailer Marvel debuted last month at Comic-Con, even if the 7,000 fans in attendance didnt realize it at the time. In it, Hollands dorky Peter moons over his dream girl at school while masquerading as his web-slinging alter ego in secret. Its Zendaya, appearing briefly as an artsy-looking outsider chick classmate of Peters, who busts his balls and notices his constant disappearances, as if shes the only one who really sees him.
Confusion over Zendayas secretive role stemmed from the veil of mystery Marvels maintained since her casting back in March. When Deadline broke the news that shed landed a lead role in Spider-Man, she was reported to be playing a character known only as Michelle who was also probably not Peters love interestslivers of information that could still be accurate. (Early reports similarly pegged Revelori taking on the role of a character named Manuel, but its since been revealed hes playing Flash Thompsonanother historically white character in the comics.)
The Mary Jane secretwhich Marvel has yet to officially confirmis reminiscent of the deliberate obfuscation Paramount spent an entire press tour spinning, pretending that Benedict Cumberbatch wasnt playing Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness, only to reveal when the film was released thatsurprise!that was his characters 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 Zendayas 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 weve all just spoiled a fun little end-credits Easter Egg for ourselves a year early.
The bigger takeaway from this weeks Mary Jane hubbubwhich the coolly unflustered Zendaya has yet to deign to addressis not that there are retrograde superfans out there who will loudly whine that progressive casting choices are ruining their childhoods. (Hello again, Ghostbros.) Its that the pro-Zendaya as Mary Jane horde came out in force against racist fanboy backlash, real and pre-emptively perceived, to passionately support Marvels bold and overdue move for what it is: A step forward toward a near-future in which heroes dont 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 universeone 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. Its certainly not as bold and refreshing a push as, say, casting a non-white Peter Parker might have beena fancasting fantasy Marvel apparently wasnt quite ready for, as Donald Glovers appearance in Spider-Man: Homecoming may end up inadvertently reminding us.
But between Zendaya playing Spider-Mans Mary Jane, Tessa Thompson playing Valkryie in Thor 3, and Kiersey Clemons taking on the Iris West role over in DCs The Flash, Hollywoods biggest blockbuster studios are opening more and more major roles to women of color. Thats not the biggest breakthrough in mainstream comic book cinema imaginablethat 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 Zendayas Mary Jane is any indication of anything, its that a vocal portion of the audience is ready to throw down for movies that reflect the future, not the pastand that broad-minded casting choices are increasingly smart business decisions, not just the right thing to do.