Everyone CALM DOWN.
In late August, word leaked about the role Zendaya will play in next summer’s big “Spider-Man” movie. The fan response to her playing Mary Jane Watson, Spider-Man’s love interest, was predictable. The die-hard comics readers freaked out, and the casual comic-book movie fans were excited. Sadly, casting a person of color to play a traditionally white character is a constant source of controversy with each and every new superhero casting announcement.
“Spider-Man: Homecoming” comes out in July 2017. Not long after that, “Thor: Ragnarok” comes to theaters. Both movies have cast a person of color to play a character historically depicted in the comic books, for at least 30 years, as white.
Zendaya’s casting is great news for the actress, the movie, and the character of Mary Jane. Why?
Well, first, a little background: Mary Jane has been a useless character throughout her entire history. She’s shallow—a damsel in distress. She’s drawn to look good but not do much more than advance the story of the men in the comic. Her entire existence is predicated on not being Gwen Stacey. (Gwen Stacy is like Lois Lane in “Superman.” Lois is always going to love Superman, and vice versa. The difference between Gwen and Lois is that in the Spider-Man comics, Gwen dies and Spider-Man has to deal with her loss forever.)
After Gwen’s death (which we saw in “The Amazing Spider-Man”), Peter moves on to Mary Jane, but always pines for Gwen. What a way to start a relationship.
There has been some effort to give Mary Jane “more to do” in both the current Spider-Man and Iron-Man comics. For a long time, Mary Jane was nothing more than wallpaper in Spider-Man’s story. She would go out with Peter, he’d flake, she’d get mad, but then all would be forgiven. Eventually, in the comics, they got married (until Spider-Man made a deal with the devil to have the marriage annulled).
And when they weren’t dating or having stupid arguments about Peter Parker being the worst boyfriend/husband in all of recorded human history, she was the damsel in distress. To this day, she’s afraid of Venom, whom you may remember as the villain from that awful third Spider-Man movie. And yet Marvel does this thing where they’re like, “Mary Jane ain’t no damsel in distress”—all the while being like, “Hey, remember how she has a crippling fear of one of Spider-Man’s archenemies?”
It’s just maddeningly inconsistent, but that’s been the story of Mary Jane.
Given Mary Jane’s history, it’s crazy to argue against her character needing a reboot. And if that reset involves changing her ethnicity and background? Who cares? But here’s the thing: When people complain about historically-white characters portrayed by people of color, it’s an emotional response. And a bad one.
Because, first: It’s a movie. If Mary Jane not being white in a movie is something you’re going to be upset about, you’re probably not happy about something in your life and dealing with your issues by ragging on a fictional character.
Second: Change for the mere sake of change upsets people on both sides. On one side, it creates an environment of tokenism, in which characters without any meaningful storyline or development are created simply for the sake of shoehorning diversity into a cast. These awkward representations, without any nuance, serve no one and don’t work to actually solve the problem the way creating a new character would.
On the other side, people who’ve spent their whole lives emotionally investing in a character panic if that character suddenly undergoes a dramatic transformation.
If it was up to me, I would have created a brand-new character for Zendaya—one written so well, we’d all be clamoring to see that character transition from screen to comics. People think comics dictate what you see in movies and other media, but historically it’s been the other way around. For example, “Suicide Squad’s” Harley Quinn debuted in “Batman: The Animated Series,” along with Renee Montoya, a Latina character (rare in the DC universe).
Because Mary Jane has a problematic history, Zendaya getting a shot to play her is awesome. Changing MJ’s ethnicity doesn’t fundamentally alter the character because there isn’t much to her in the first place. Even longtime comic fans will have a hard time thinking of a background story, or a good reason, that supports the absurd notion that Mary Jane has to be white.
So let’s welcome the casting change. Good for Zendaya. Good for Marvel. Good for Mary Jane, because if anyone needs a change, historically speaking, it’s her.