Everybody knows Mary-Jane Watson. The pale-skinned, redheaded girl next door has had Peter Parker's heart ever since she first revealed her face way back in 1966, after months of cheeky teasing by Aunt May and writer Stan Lee. Kirsten Dunst did an excellent job with M.J. in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy, but with Marvel welcoming the teen hero into the MCU, this generation needs a Mary-Jane of its own.
Enter Zendaya. This week we discovered that the singer-actress (who was cast in a mystery role months ago) will be playing Peter Parker's on-off girlfriend. That's awesome news on two levels: Firstly, because Mary-Jane is a major player in the Spiderverse, but secondly and more importantly because the colorblind casting signals a major step forward for diversity in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In case you hadn't noticed, the MCU has been struggling on that front. While two of Suicide Squad's three leads are black over at DC, and the Latino metahuman El Diablo also has a strong character arc, Marvel has a tendency to sideline its non-white heroes. Falcon is a bit player in Captain America's story. Black Panther will soon headline his own solo movie, which is clearly a major step forward, and Luke Cage becomes the first black superhero to front his own TV series on Netflix later this year — but there's a difference between a black character being adapted for the screen and the role of a white character being given to an actor of color.
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To understand why this is both a big deal and a positive thing, it's necessary to consider America's history of racial prejudice. In 1965, African-Americans simply weren't given the same opportunities as their white neighbors. Many wouldn't have had white neighbors, because segregation occurred geographically with many of NYC's black population living in its poorest neighborhoods. It's true that Stan Lee created M.J. as white, but in 1965 a comic book writer would have considered it unlikely that there'd be many black students at the same high school as their white protagonist. It was a choice based on the social reality of that time, which is no longer the social reality of our time.
Presumably, Homecoming will set up a relationship between Peter and Mary-Jane. While television has been pretty progressive in terms of allowing characters to enjoy interracial relationships (think Olivia and Fitz on Scandal, or Luke Cage and Jessica in Marvel's own Jessica Jones — see the clip above), it's still not something seen often on the big screen.
To put an interracial couple front and centre in a movie about a hero whose biggest audience is made up of teenagers is massively progressive, and arguably represents the MCU's first real sign that it's ready to part ways with the conservatism of parent company Disney and start living in the (superhero-populated) real world.
There are huge potential knock-on effects. More teenage girls of color will begin reading comic books. More women of color will begin writing comic books. A whole arena of entertainment was created by and for white guys will complete its transformation into something far more inclusive, all because one casting director thought "screw it" and cast the best actress for the role of Mary-Jane Watson — one who just happened to embody her in spirit instead of her skin deep appearance.
Marvel has put together a truly killer cast for this movie: Supporting Zendaya and Tom Holland are Donald Glover, Michael Keaton, Marisa Tomei, Bokeem Woodbine, Robert Downey Jr., to name just a few. Homecoming hits theaters July 7, 2017.
Which of Peter Parker's girlfriends is your favorite?