Leading up to the release of Spider-Man: Homecoming, there was intense speculation surrounding who, exactly, Zendaya would be playing. Most believed that, while her character’s name is Michelle, she was actually filling the comics role of Mary Jane Watson—Peter Parker’s main love interest throughout the Spider-Man series. Ridiculous controversies erupted because Zendaya is not a white red head (spoiler alert: comic books aren’t based on real people ya dummies—adaptations are allowed to interpret the character however they see fit), but through it all, Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures refused to confirm that Zendaya was indeed playing Mary Jane Watson. In fact, when I visited the set last year, the producer promised us when we see the movie, we’d see that Zendaya is playing a character named Michelle.
Well that’s true, but as the movie comes to a close, Zendaya spouts the line “My friends call me MJ.” Not only that, but behind her during this line reading is a picture of a tiger, making explicit reference to Mary Jane Watson’s famous line, “Face it tiger, you just hit the jackpot.” So this would seem to set up Zendaya as Mary Jane Watson for future movies, right? Well, not exactly. Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige told Den of Geek that MJ is still this new character Michelle:
“In setting up this will be a very different thing, she’s not Mary Jane Watson, that’s not who the character is. But giving her the initials that remind you of that dynamic certainly is intriguing about what could go forward.”
Speaking with IGN, Feige doubled down, saying the MJ line wasn’t meant to be a big reveal:
“We never even looked at it as a big reveal necessarily but more of just a fun homage to his past adventures and his past love. She’s not Mary Jane Watson. She never was Mary Jane Watson. She was always this new high school character, Michelle, who we know there’s an “M” in Michelle and an “M” in Mary. [laughs] So we’re so clever and we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat if her initials were MJ?’ And then I think it leaked that she would be playing MJ and then it became a whole headache for Zendaya to have to navigate. It was never a big, ‘Oh my God, it’s a big reveal!’ There are big reveals in the movie. That’s not one of them.”
So what does this mean going forward? Feige says there are many ways it could go:
“She’s not Mary-Jane Watson. Is she going to date Peter? Are they going to fall in love? She seems to be intrigued with him. There’s a nice chemistry there. Who knows what will happen in the future films?”
If you’ve seen the movie, it’s clear that Michelle is kind of obsessed with Peter, and it’s setting up a different kind of romance to blossom. But this whole “She’s not Mary Jane” business is kind of dumb. She says the line, there’s a tiger picture—clearly the implication is that she’s this franchise’s Mary Jane Watson, even if she’s not Mary Jane. Why be coy about it? Were they afraid of the blowback of race-bending the character? I doubt it, but it seems odd to make such explicit references to such a famous comics character and then say, “Oh it’s just a winking joke, it doesn’t mean anything.”
This is likely just in keeping with Marvel’s idea to really bring to the screen new, fresh characters that we haven’t yet seen in the five Spider-Man movies before. Audiences are well acquainted with MJ and Gwen Stacy, but introducing Zendaya’s MJ as a potential love interest shakes things up. Her character isn’t the Homecoming queen or a burgeoning actress, she’s a super smart, somewhat odd friend of Peter’s. Her character was based in part on Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club, and seeing as how she was one of the best parts of Homecoming, I’m eager to see her get more screentime in the sequel.