POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT FOR SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING
Famous character. Traditionally white. Now made black. Controversy ensues.
It’s a tale as old as a couple of years ago, but the inevitable backlash has become so nauseatingly predictable. This time around, the race-switched character is Mary Jane Watson. According to TheWrap, Marvel Studios has been lying to us. Zendaya, who is half black, half white, is not playing some new character named “Michelle” in Spider-Man: Homecoming, but instead Mary Jane. This was supposed to be a surprise reveal for the film’s ending when she tells Peter she’d prefer to be called “MJ” from now on. They might have to rethink that now.
So, really, this story hits two recurring themes in pop culture as of late, namely that when you race-switch a famous character it won’t be a universally beloved decision at first (well duh) and that the moment you try to get a little too precious with a big character reveal in a well-known franchise film is the moment someone in the media reminds you that this is 2016 and the internet is kind of a big thing in case you’d forgotten. To put it another way, it’s best to lean into these things rather than hold back, at least from a marketing perspective.
The Race Thing
I’m an 18-to-34-year-old straight white male. Pop culture has been catered to me for pretty much my entire life. Am I seriously going to complain that yet another traditionally white character has been race-switched? Hell no. Sure, the news gave me momentary pause simply because my mind was immediately flooded with memories of a clearly white-skinned, red-haired Mary Jane from the comics and films, but then I got over it.
For literally decades, Iris West, the Lois Lane to Barry Allen’s Superman in The Flash comics, was a red-haired white woman. Now, thanks to The Flash TV series and Candice Patton’s increasingly wonderful performance I think of her differently. Now it’s actually weird for me to open up a comic book to see a version of Iris that doesn’t look like Candice Patton. And the upcoming solo film is following the show’s lead, with Rick Famuyiwa recently casting Kiersey Clemons, daughter to a black father and white mother, to play Iris West opposite Ezra Miller.
Maybe that’s what it will be like for people with Mary Jane now. After Spider-Man: Homecoming, younger fans might find it weird to see an MJ who doesn’t look like Zendaya. I don’t see anything wrong with that.
But what about that little freckle-faced, red-haired girl who always had MJ to look up to? Or Iris West to admire? With so few prominent gingers, why must such a prominent one like MJ be taken away from them?
Oh, that’s actually a fair point, but you do realize the red-haired MJ from the comics, earlier films and various TV shows, including that one currently running on DisneyXD, still exist, right?
The Surprise Reveal Thing
Longer response: The backstory here is MJ’s reveal in the comics was itself a surprise reveal. The character’s face was obstructed or covered for multiple issues before readers finally laid eyes on her and admired her obvious self-confidence as she told Peter, “Face it tiger, you just hit the jackpot.”
It appears as if Homecoming was aiming to honor that history, at least in spirit, by holding back on MJ’s true identity until the finale. In the footage exclusively shown at San Diego Comic-Con, Tom Holland’s Peter Parker was seen bantering with Zendaya’s Michelle, one of his best friends, not looking particularly glamorous or MJ-like. It was all very teen movie/John Hughes, with Peter being hung up on the super popular girl in school, Liz Allen (another traditionally white character being played by a black actress, Laura Harrier), even though the girl of his dreams, Michelle, is clearly right in front of him. As BirthMoviesDeath argued, if Michelle truly is MJ the Homecoming might build to one of those uncomfortable teen movie moments of the girl going through a makeover and emerging with her new look at the climactic homecoming dance referenced in the title.
Or maybe the makeover will be this simple:
Well, that all sounds fairly horrible, yet entirely in keeping with the John Hughes model they’ve so often cited as the film’s inspiration.
However, I dig the idea of holding back her true identity as a way of letting us fall in love with her character (or not) in the film without bringing any extra “Well, that’s not my Mary Jane” baggage with us. If Zendaya deliver’s a killer performance imagine the applause which could have erupted from early screenings when she finally revealed her true comic book lineage, owning the line “Actually, call me MJ” in the way Mary Jane would like a total boss. Or maybe people would have booed. I don’t know. We’re about to elect Donald Trump. The whole word is upside down right now. At least they could have judged her on her own merit.
Yeah, for maybe one night. From the Thursday night previews to the close of Sunday on opening weekend, the word would have spread online, and everyone from that point forward would have gone in knowing she was secretly MJ.
Plus….blah, blah, blah….Benedict Cumberbatch as “John Harrison”….blah, blah, blah….Christoph Waltz as whatever his fake name was before the “Blofeld” reveal….blah, blah, blah.
Did I mention I’m kind of over having these same arguments over and over again? Rachel Green gets it: