Note: This article contains spoilers for Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Ever since the teen sensation was first cast for Spider-Man: Homecoming, the debate surrounding Zendaya's mysterious character has raged online. An early rumor suggested that, despite playing a character named 'Michelle', she would actually appear as Mary-Jane Watson. As this rumor began to spread, let's just say the internet did not take well to the idea of a race-swapped character. Fortunately, critics have now had access to the movie and Zendaya's mysterious role can be discussed at length.
Unraveling The Riddle Of Zendaya's Michelle
Michelle is introduced to audiences as one of Peter Parker's classmates, a girl who he isn't really close to. Since the film's early screenings, Michelle has been praised by critics for her dry, sarcastic wit. Take Alan Scherstuhl of The Village Voice for example, who notes:
"Zendaya, a lefty bookworm who is essentially a conscientious objector to high school, commands many scenes with just a caustic line or eyeroll."
Michelle is on the Academic Decathlon team with Peter Parker and his friends, but she isn't really close to them. Michelle is then chosen to be the new Decathlon team leader. It's a turning point for the character, as the character responds by claiming "My friends call me MJ."
So, there we have it. Zendaya isn't playing Mary-Jane Watson, Peter Parker's most famous love interest, but she is playing MJ. In other words, Marvel has radically adapted the bombastic redhead for their relaunched #SpiderMan franchise.
Call Me MJ: A Controversial Decision From Marvel
You might not have noticed, but comic book fans can be awfully proprietary about their beloved superhero franchises. Many fans insist on 100% comic book accuracy, and fume whenever a studio dares to make a dramatic change to a character they've loved for decades.
Mary-Jane fans are particularly protective, especially as many feel that she's been short-changed in the comics. Peter and Mary-Jane wed back in 1987, and Marvel spent most of the '90s trying to work out how to uncouple the pair because they felt it damaged the Spider-Man brand. It all came to a head in 2007's 'One More Day' arc, where Peter literally did a deal with the Devil in order to save Aunt May's life. Unfortunately, this deal meant his marriage was written out of continuity. So, it's somewhat understandable that some fans, many of whom grew up reading Spider-Man comics where Mary-Jane was Peter Parker's wife, are a little defensive.
Needless to say, race-swaps are always contentious. Last August, two insiders told The Wrap that Zendaya was playing Mary-Jane. The reaction online was vocal, to say the least, with many fans raging against the decision. Before the film's release, Zendaya insisted that she wasn't playing Mary-Jane — but, if you check her comments carefully, you'll see she never said she wasn't playing MJ. As exciting as Homecoming promises to be for all Spider-Man fans, this casting is sure to ignite further debate.
Reimagining MJ: Why Diversity Makes Sense
Homecoming is easily Marvel's most diverse movie to date, and producer Amy Pascal explained it perfectly:
"I would say the inspiration for it was reality."
The reality is that Spider-Man was created two years before the US banned segregated drinking fountains. The world has changed a lot, and has become far more diverse since Spider-man first hit comic books stores, so it makes sense for the character's cinematic offerings to follow suit. In Peter Parker's native Queens, over one in five residents are of Asian descent, while just under a fifth are black. It simply wouldn't make sense to surround the Peter Parker of 2017 with the white faces we see in his classic comics.
So, how should the Marvel movies introduce diversity? Some fans will surely argue that major characters shouldn't be race-swapped, but then you effectively create a top tier of white characters and a second tier that's more diverse. That's not true to the real world at all, and Homecoming is picking up the baton from the comics; the film wants to add superheroes to "the world outside your window", which inevitably means race-swapping characters.
MJ's Homecoming: A New Character Arc
Perhaps more significantly, the character's arc is going to be completely different. We've already seen the character's traditional arc represented faithfully in Sam Raimi's trilogy, and Marvel is deliberately aiming to do something different. Simply repeating the high points of the Raimi trilogy, or duplicating arcs fans already know and love from 60 years of comic book history, won't work.
Although MJ may not be a love interest in Homecoming, it's an inevitable part of Peter Parker's future. If that's the case, it seems likely that the character will follow a 'Pygmalion' arc; she likes Peter, he doesn't notice her. She makes an effort to display her innate beauty, and suddenly Peter looks up in disbelief.
Face it, Tiger... you just hit the jackpot!
This would be reminiscent of the teen comedies that have already been an influence on Homecoming, and would also create thematic ties to the source material. In the comics, she hid her true complexity — and a tragic backstory — behind a 'party girl' facade, but always felt like an outsider. She was actually the first one to realize Peter Parker was Spider-Man, and kept his secret safe for years. It took Peter a long time to see MJ for who she really is, but it was inevitable that they would fall in love.
Yes, this is clearly a radical change to Spider-Man's status quo, and it's sure to be controversial. However, I have to say that I'm thrilled that the next generation of Spider-Man fans are growing up with a very different version of MJ. She'll be an outsider, a bookworm who comes to recognize her inner beauty, and will likely win the heart of our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.
And, yes, she'll be an African-American. Personally, I think Marvel has made the right call.