Ever since Spider-Man was rebooted and crossed over into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve had a lot of great things to say. It’s funny, action-packed, endearing, and Tom Holland has captured the magic of both Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield’s iterations of the hero but still makes sure he’s representative of his Gen Z age.
The villains have been awesome, and Zendaya’s MJ is pretty cool and doesn’t easily conform to the damsel-in-distress characterization so often attributed to her comic book and movie equivalents. The introduction of MCU characters Tony Stark, Happy Hogan et al. has also added another dramatic, comedic, and emotional level to this new Peter’s story as well as aligning his universe’s narrative with theirs. There’s really not much to complain about when it comes to the new Spidey, just that it continues to do Aunt May dirty.
Marisa Tomei joining the cast as Peter’s guardian was a somewhat controversial one. With the writers taking cues from Brian Michael Bendis’ 2000 Ultimate Spider-Man comics run, Aunt May became a 50-something, independent woman who made a lot of people’s heads turn. Of course she did; Tomei is stunning, with that long sweeping hair and kitsch ‘70s babe style that is hard not to take notice of.
The problem is, her “Hot Aunt” status has pretty much defined her whole narrative in this Marvel crossover universe. "It's hard to believe she's anyone's aunt," Tony Stark says in Captain America: Civil War to Peter upon first meeting, and later, when asking if anyone knows about his secret Spider-Man identity: "Not even your unusually attractive aunt?" It makes sense that Tony would talk about her in this reductive way and give her the nickname “Aunt Hottie”; he might be with Pepper, but that doesn’t mean he's totally dispensed with the genius billionaire playboy philanthropist attitude.
In Spider-Man: Homecoming, the objectification continues through the waiter at that restaurant and comments made to Peter by the local bodega owner, but then Spider-Man: Far From Home came along and officially turned Aunt May into more of a love interest for Happy than a caregiver to Peter.
Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t have an issue with this characterization if May was allowed to be the important influence on Peter that she had in both the comics and previous movie iterations. Both Rosemary Harris and Sally Field, who played the character in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy and Marc Webb's reboot films, The Amazing Spider-Man 1 and 2, respectively, are portrayed as strong, forthright women who are there for Peter when he’s in need of guidance or stuck in a moral quandary.
In Spider-Man 2, Harris delivers a poignant speech about the importance of heroes and why sometimes they need to give up their dreams in order to inspire the good in others.
“Everybody loves a hero. People line up for 'em, cheer them, scream their names, and years later, they'll tell how they stood in the rain for hours just to get a glimpse of the one who taught them to hold on a second longer,“ she tells Peter while packing up her house to move. “I believe there is a hero in all of us; that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride even though sometimes we have to be steady and give up the thing we want most, even our dreams.”
When it was Field’s turn to play Aunt May, the role didn’t get as many good speeches as Harris, but she was still engaging in emotional moments with Peter as he grappled with his dual life and investigation into his father. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 really hammers home her maternal role in his life.
“I was the one who wiped your nose and made you brush your teeth and do your homework and washed your dirty underwear. Me! Your stupid, non-scientific aunt, who doesn't know how to make ends meet, who has to take nursing classes with 22-year-old kids so I can pay for you to go to college,” she tells her nephew as he once again demands to know the truth about his dad’s disappearance.
“And I don't know how to do this without Ben! I don't know how! You're dreaming about your perfect father, who was never here. No! No, I won't tell you. You're my boy. As far as I'm concerned, you're my boy, and I won't hurt you.”
Even in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Lily Tomlin’s Aunt May has a more vital role to play than Tomei’s version, as she’s the one who kicks down her own back door (odd flex, but OK) to lead Miles, Gwen, and dad bod Peter to her Peter’s secret Spider-Cave. Clearly, she had more of an active role in her nephew’s crime-fighting and despite his death was incredibly proud of his commitment to helping others.
Tomei’s Aunt May is obviously proud of her nephew, too, and in her new community role to help displaced people after the Blip she has been more than willing to use her Spider-Man connection to generate buzz about her philanthropic endeavor and raise money. It’s just a shame that after Tony Stark took the place of Uncle Ben as the fatherly role model in his life in Homecoming, and subsequently died in Avengers: Endgame after bringing his surrogate son back, May didn’t get to take her rightful place as the person who Peter turns to in a crisis. That position went to Happy, and she was relegated to scenes that primarily concerned their fling.
We’ll have to wait and see if the Far From Home deleted scenes serve up some more fulfilling storyline for May, as Tomei admitted that a deleted scene from Homecoming would have shown how Peter’s ethical understanding was in part influenced by her.
“There was something going on in the neighborhood, and there was a little girl in distress, and I saved her, and Peter saw me save her, so you kind of saw that he got part of his ethics from her,” the actor explained. “Then I come home, and I don’t even tell him that that’s what happened, and, of course, there’s all this stuff that he’s not telling me … I’m kind of fibbing to him, and he’s fibbing to me, and we’re living in this house together, and it was a very interesting setup. I was quite disappointed that it wasn’t in there.”
So what can we expect in Aunt May’s future? If Far From Home was all about Peter’s adventures outside of Queens, then it would make sense that the third movie will bring him home, especially if that post-credit scene is anything to go by. Peter has been outed as Spider-Man and blamed for the global attacks by Mysterio, so how that affects his and Aunt May’s lives certainly seems like a storyline that cannot be ignored or sidelined just so another MCU character can be added into the mix.
Marisa Tomei is a fine actress who deserves to play the Aunt May we know and love, who is the person who when things go really bad is always there for Peter to turn to. Now, more than ever, Spidey is going to need the emotional support from the people who love him most, and no one, NO ONE, loves Peter Parker more than Aunt May.
It’s time she really got to show it.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.