During the opening weekend of Spider-Man: Homecoming, Todd VanDerWerff at The Vox made an interesting case that the movie blows one of its two big identity reveals. The first revolves around The Vulture, and that reveal goes off without a hitch, eliciting dramatic gasps and palpable tension from the audience. The second reveal passes by a little more quietly: In the final scene, Michelle, Peter’s not-friend played by Zendaya, says, “Call me ‘MJ’, all my friends do.” This shows that Michelle has grown and become a more willing participant in her peer group, and also winks at the audience, who recognize the name “MJ.”
Of course, we know from decades of comics and cartoons and the Sam Raimi trilogy that “MJ” SHOULD be Mary Jane Watson, Peter’s girl-next-door forever love. So why is Zendaya MJ but also Michelle? One word: cowardice. VanDerWerff touches on this in his article, saying, “… the less charitable part of me thinks they might have feared backlash from casting a nonwhite actress in the part.” Todd VanDerWerff is a much nicer person than me, because the less charitable part of me and all the other parts of me think it’s entirely about the fear of audience backlash.
In rebooting Spider-Man so soon after a previous, failed reboot attempt, the filmmakers at Marvel and Sony had to rethink everything about the character, including his love interest. They just did Gwen Stacy in the Amazing franchise with Emma Stone in the role, so there’s no sense in retreading that ground — although hopefully Spider-Gwen has a place in the budding Spider Verse — but it’s been a decade since Kirsten Dunst played Mary Jane in Sam Raimi’s films. With a decade’s worth of breathing room, Mary Jane is ripe for reimagining.
When Zendaya was first cast in Homecoming, it seemed like that’s exactly what happened — they cast a bright, magnetic actress regardless of appearance to play an iconic role. She’s not a redhead, but she’s still a witty and gorgeous young woman who would easily captivate the likes of Peter Parker. But the internet freaked out. Or rather, a very specific corner of the internet freaked out: Fanboys Who Can’t Handle Change. And suddenly there were reassurances that, though her role remained under wraps, Zendaya wasn’t playing Mary Jane Watson. (Kevin Feige is still adamant there’s no forthcoming trickery.) And that would be fine if Zendaya never uttered the line “My friends call me ‘MJ’.”
But she did say it. And the only reason to have Michelle say “Call me MJ” is if you want her to be MJ without BEING MJ. They want to signal that Michelle will fulfill the MJ role in Peter’s life, being an on-again, off-again love interest that follows him throughout his life. But they also want to leave the door open for a “traditional” MJ down the line. It’s the worst kind of cowardly appeasement. There’s no reason to have a character not named Mary Jane invoke “MJ” unless you’re trying to have it both ways: Cast a non-white partner for Peter Parker but not upset the, er, “traditionalists” who can’t accept reimagining a character. “Call me MJ” tells us the role Michelle will fulfill in Peter’s life going forward, but being a Michelle and not a Mary Jane is a weak appeasement of a backlash that wasn’t worth acknowledging in the first place.
I first heard about the Michelle/MJ thing last year, and I’ve had a long time to stew on it. Examining all the angles and trying to be generous, I still can’t come up with a better explanation than “We’re not brave enough to follow through.” Which is a shame, because in every other regard, Spider-Man: Homecoming is committed to realistically depicting an urban high school in 2017. And at the end of the day, whether she’s Michelle or MJ, Peter Parker still isn’t dating a redhead, so why not just commit 100% to the idea of a biracial Mary Jane? Seeing how people are embracing Zendaya’s performance in the movie, you wonder if it even would have been THAT big of a deal if she was Mary Jane. When studios make decisions like this they really need to ask themselves who they’re appeasing, and if those people are actually worth it.