Zendaya Cast As Mary Jane in Spider-Man Homecoming

According to The Wrap (and other online sources) Zendaya (Shake It Up) will be playing Mary Jane in Spider-Man: Homecoming.  Continue reading for more details.

Prior to this news dropping late last week, Zendaya was said to be playing a “key role” as a character names Michelle.  Since there is no major character in the Spidey universe named Michelle, there was speculation about whether she would be playing an original character in the film or whether this was simply a code name for her actual role to be leaked at a later date.  Now The Wrap has reported that she will in fact be playing Spider-Man’s most well-known love interest from the comics and other mediums, Mary Jane Watson.

While Mary Jane is Peter Parker’s main love interest in the comics, she was hardly his only or even his first main squeeze.  So while the character is big, it’s unknown what her role might be in Spider-Man: Homecoming.  In the original comics Mary Jane didn’t know Peter during his high school days and it was much later that Aunt May arranged a blind date for him with the redheaded bombshell.  In the Ultimate Spider-Man reinterpretation, Mary Jane was Peter’s best friend in school and the first person he confided in about him being Spider-Man.  Since Homecoming takes place while Peter is still in high school and Zendaya’s role was described as being a “key role”, one can surmise that there’s a better chance that Marvel is sticking closer to the Ultimate storyline on her introduction.

image source

That bring us to the question of whether Zendaya is right for the role.  My goodness has this become a hot button topic online since the report came out a few days ago.  Most comic book characters created during the “Golden Age” of comics are white, so when adapting many of the more popular characters to the big screen it starts to become clear that there’s a major lack of diversity in the main cast.  Spider-Man: Homecoming appears to be Marvel’s attempt to introduce more diversity and have Peter Parker’s school reflect more of the world around him growing up in NYC.

Is it a problem to change the ethnicity of an established character from literature, particularly when that medium is a visual medium like comic books?  My feeling is that if the ethnicity is intrinsically tied to who that character is than change for the sake of change can be viewed as pandering.  For Mary Jane Watson probably the most well-known characteristic of her character is that she has red hair.  However, there is nothing about her background or personality that requires her to be white.  Spider-Man is my favorite character from comics, I’m a die-hard fan.  I will admit that my gut reaction to hearing that Zendaya would be playing Mary Jane was that she doesn’t look like Mary Jane (partially because I’ve never seen Zendaya in anything and can’t judge whether she could exhibit the free spirit personality of the character).  I’ve since softened my stance and I’m willing to give Marvel the benefit of the doubt due to their fantastic casting record to date.

In response to the internet outcry over the casting, some notable individuals in the Marvel family have commented about fan’s critiques about Zendaya in the role.  Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn chimed in by saying the following on Facebook.

People get upset when something they consider intrinsic to a comic book character changes when adapted for a film. I get this. There are movies I dislike because I think there’s a basic misunderstanding of the story or the character when the comic is transferred to film (I still hate how in the first Batman movie the Joker was revealed as the murderer of Bruce Wayne’s parents, for instance.)

That said, I do not believe a character is the color of his or her skin. When Michael B Jordan was cast as Johnny Storm I didn’t understand the uproar. The primary characteristic of Johnny was not, to me, that he was white, or that he had blonde hair, but that he was a fiery, funny, big-mouthed braggart of a hero. I was happy that he was going to be played by one of the finest and most charming young actors out there.

“Yesterday, a rumor broke out that the character of Mary Jane was being played by a young black woman, Zendaya, and all hell broke out on the Internet (again). I tweeted that if people find themselves complaining about Mary Jane’s ethnicity they have lives that are too good. (For those of you who think this means I’m confirming that Zendaya IS playing MJ, realize that although I’ve read the Spidey script, and I’ve met the actress in question, I have no idea what her role is. There’s a good chance someone told me at one time or another, but, if so, I can’t remember. I’m going to find out when I go into Marvel this afternoon, but I feel free to speak until that time because it’s about the concept about a black woman playing Mary Jane, not the actuality or hypothesis of it.)

I got a thousand or so responses to my tweet. Most of them were positive. Some folks disagreed – they thought the character should look like what she looks like in the comics – but were thoughtful. And a handful were flat out racist.

I can’t respond to the racists – I’m not ever going to change their minds. But for the thoughtful majority of you out there:

For me, if a character’s primary attribute – the thing that makes them iconic – is the color of their skin, or their hair color, frankly, that character is shallow and sucks. For me, what makes MJ MJ is her alpha female playfulness, and if the actress captures that, then she’ll work. And, for the record, I think Zendaya even matches what I think of as MJ’s primary physical characteristics – she’s a tall, thin model – much more so than actresses have in the past.

Whatever the case, if we’re going to continue to make movies based on the almost all white heroes and supporting characters from the comics of the last century, we’re going to have to get used to them being more reflective of our diverse present world. Perhaps we can be open to the idea that, although someone may not initially match how we personally conceive a character, we can be – and often are – happily surprised.”

The other quote comes from Spider-Man and Mary Jane creator Stan Lee (via Screen Rant):

“If she is as good an actress as I hear she is, I think it’ll be absolutely wonderful. … The color of their skin doesn’t matter, their religion doesn’t matter. All that matters is that this the right person for the role.”

One more thing as food for thought, in response to people commenting that she can’t play the role because of her hair color Jarett Wieselman posted the following image.

What are your thoughts on Zendaya playing Mary Jane in Spider-Man: Homecoming?  Do you like the way the movie is shaping up so far with the cast and the little tidbits of plot info that have been released?  Homecoming arrives in theaters July 7, 2017.

Featured image source

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