The great awkwardness of the so-called "geek age" of modern cinema is that many of the beloved comic book properties being turned into films originated in a time increasingly distant from our own, and often make an uncomfortable fit with modern sensibilities when adapted too closely - requiring filmmakers to strike a balance between adherence to what made the source material worth adapting in the first place, and what could change to better reflect the present day world. Maybe this is why Captain America has emerged as such a prominent character in this moment, having that very dynamic woven into the very fabric of his fictional DNA.
The latest battleground for this difficult subject is the inaugural Sony/Marvel team-up production Spider-Man: Homecoming, which faces the challenge of rendering a present-day version of a superhero story centered largely around a cast of teenage characters created in the 1960s. The filmmakers have opted to reflect this by recasting much of Peter Parker's social-circle with an eye on diversity, and on Thursday evening news broke claiming that former Disney Channel actress Zendaya, previously thought to be playing a new character named "Michelle," is in actuality playing perennial Spider-Man love interest Mary Jane Watson - making Homecoming the first time "M.J." will be depicted as a non-white character.
Some fans are very excited about this, but others are decidedly not; and the instantly-raging controversy has reignited long standing arguments about race, casting and what is truly "intrinsic" to a comic book character's identity. It's also placed a strong focus back on Mary Jane Watson herself, reminding Spider-Man fans and culture-watchers in general that this character - widely thought of as "the" one-and-only true Spider-Man love interest - has a difficult and convoluted history which, in some respects, makes MJ's ethnicity one of the least noteworthy things to be concerned with when it comes to Marvel canon.
So just who is Mary Jane Watson?
The most important thing to understand about the Mary Jane Watson of the comics is that she was created as a literal joke - or, rather, the punchline to one.
Early Spider-Man stories concerning Peter Parker's romantic life adhered strongly to formula of other depictions of early-1960s teenage life in popular culture of the time: Chaste about sex, heavy on soap-opera melodrama about interlocking friendships, "going steady," setups, blind-dates, etc. A running "B-story" joke for several years involved Peter continually finding ways to avoid going out on a blind date with one Mary Jane Watson, which had been arranged by his Aunt May (she was friends with MJ's own Aunt Anna); the logic being that a teenage boy is not likely to be excited by the prospect of whatever his 80 year-old aunt thinks of a "nice girl." Besides, he was busy alternately pining for blonde bombshell classmate Liz Allan (the girlfriend of his bully nemesis Flash Thompson) and an older woman in J. Jonah Jameson's secretary Betty Brant.
Mary Jane would appear sporadically in the high school and early college era Spider-Man stories (up until about 1979 Marvel stories played out in a semblance of real time), but her face was always obscured either by the scene-blocking or by objects like giant potted plants. But in issue #42 (November 1966) the comics finally paid off the gag, with Peter opening his front door to reveal that the Mary Jane Watson he'd been ducking was... just about the hottest redhead he'd ever laid eyes on (her design was drawn mainly from Ann Margaret's then-famous turn as a teen sex bomb in Bye Bye Birdie), who introduces herself with the iconic line, "Face it, Tiger... you just hit the jackpot!"
The original Lee/Ditko/Romita Spider-Man stories are slightly awkward in retrospect when it comes to the melodrama of Peter Parker's social life, as we're basically presented with middle-aged comic book creators (Stan Lee was nearing 40 and planning to retire from the industry when he and Jack Kirby struck gold with The Fantastic Four) attempting to imagine contemporary teenage personal (and sexual) dynamics largely observed from popular culture and young people in their own lives. It's all very Archie, Patty Duke, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, etc.
The basic dynamic is that MJ was the "free spirit" of Peter's college and post-college circle of friends, whose refusal to stay tied to one place or one partner and (implied) sexual availability drove the boys crazy and made the other girls jealous, particularly Peter's other main romantic prospect, Gwen Stacy. The pairings would rotate from story to story, but eventually it was Gwen who was established as the "true" Spider-Man love interest while MJ was a wild-card in the drama, eventually entering into a steady relationship with Harry Osborn that ends due to his near-death from a drug overdose - which also sets in motion his father Norman becoming The Green Goblin for a second time and ultimately murdering Gwen Stacy in Issue #121 (1973).
Following the death of Gwen Stacy (and the prior departure of Stan Lee as the title's main writer) Marvel largely pivoted to Mary Jane as the main long-term girlfriend for Peter, but it remained an on-off relationship that involved a rejected marriage proposal (from Peter), MJ disappearing from the stories for odd lengths of time and eventually receding further into the periphery (excused by storylines involving her career as an increasingly-famous model and actress) as Felicia Hardy - a.k.a. "The Black Cat" - became the new, more sexually-aggressive on/off partner to Peter in the early 1980s; often playing off the dynamic of Mary Jane loving Peter but not necessarily Spider-Man (she didn't know "the secret" yet) while Felicia was attracted to Spidey but had no time for him when unmasked.
Then Stan Lee threw a wrench into everything.
While no longer regularly active at Marvel-proper, Stan Lee remained "Chairman Emeritus" and still wrote the daily Spider-Man newspaper comic-strip - which did not take place in continuity with the comics and largely reflected the 60s/70s status quo. While the shortform stories Lee was telling were mostly standard "classic" Spidey fare, in 1987 he decided to shake things up by doing a wedding story and, since she was the main female lead of the strip at the time, Mary Jane was to be the bride. The mainstream news media picked up the "Spider-Man Getting Married!" story (rare for comics in this era) and it made national news headlines... and Marvel (supposedly) panicked.
The problem? This was a potentially huge spike in interest for the Spider-Man brand, but Marvel worried that they'd miss the opportunity to take advantage of it, since not only was Spidey not set to be married to anyone in the comics at that moment... Mary Jane hadn't been a regular/prominent part of the cast for quite some time! A story-arc was quickly assembled whereby the two reconnected, Peter made an out-of-the-blue second marriage proposal, MJ admitted she had "always" known his secret identity and (after some consternation and supervillain interference) the wedding took place in The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21, staged in tandem with a live event at Shea Stadium where Stan The Man himself "officiated" the wedding of actors playing MJ and a costumed Spidey.
It was a big event, and a success in Marvel's eyes at the time; but when the dust settled it soon became clear that the decision had stuck subsequent Spider-Man writers with a story not everyone knew what to do with.
A rule of thumb in comics is that superhero marriages don't work out unless one's spouse is also a superhero... and even then the odds of a tragic end are about 50/50. The cemeteries of the Marvel and DC Universe's are positively filled with the bodies of dead superheroes' wives; and many point to the notion that the costumed-vigilante lifestyle - which already strains credulity - makes even less sense when one has a family to think about: Peter Parker (poorly) juggling dates and girlfriends because of his double life is sympathetic, a guy who keeps skipping out on his wife to do a voluntary job that puts both their lives in constant peril comes off like a jerk.
But since everyone seemed to agree that killing off another Spider-Man love interest was out of the question, and a divorced superhero was even less relatable to young readers than a married one, the solution for much of the 80s and early 90s was to go heavy on relationship melodrama and give MJ stories of her own like dealing with workplace sexism and stalker-fans when she takes a role on a lurid soap opera. The pair would argue, fight, be tempted by affairs, separate for stretches of time and see their relationship further strained by the parallel unfolding of famous Spider-Man storylines of the day, like the emergence of Venom and evil duplicates of Peter's supposedly dead parents.
But while plenty of great Spider-Man adventures played out in the "married era" and it all lasted long enough for an entire generation of readers to have only ever known Peter Parker as a married man, Marvel never quite stopped trying to find a way back to the "classic" status quo - by any means necessary. And someone eventually decided that, if they were going to throw out the bathwater, they might as well get a baby to go with it...
Explaining the widely-criticized and spectacularly long-lived (1994 to 1996) "Clone Saga" would take too long for one piece, but in shorthand: A second Spider-Man appears in New York and is revealed to be an identical genetic clone of Peter Parker who first appeared (and was believed dead) during a post-Gwen Stacy storyline almost 20 years prior. Calling himself "Ben Reilly," he shows up just in time for Mary Jane to announce that she's pregnant and for Peter (especially after an incident where he ends up hitting MJ) to realize that he should probably think about retiring from crimefighting.
The plan was for Peter, Mary Jane and the baby to ride off into the sunset and for Ben Reilly to become the new (single once more!) Spider-Man, and to grease the wheels even further a bold story twist revealed that it was Ben who was the "real" original Peter Parker while the guy we'd been following for decades was the clone all along. Fans rejected the story, though, and eventually the twist was written out of existence and Ben Reilly was summarily killed off. Mary Jane's baby arrives stillborn, which strains their marriage further, and at one point she was even briefly "killed off" in a plane crash before being revealed instead to have been abducted by a stalker. Though rescued, the marriage is largely over at this point; and as the 21st Century dawned Peter Parker and Mary Jane were (finally) effectively separated.
But while Mary Jane's late 20th century comic book life was (to put it mildly) a mess that seemed destined to consign the character back to limbo, elsewhere in popular-culture her place in the Spider-Man canon was being cemented more than ever:
1990s SPIDER-MAN ANIMATED SERIES
Convoluted storylines like The Clone Saga, Maximum Carnage and others kept Spider-Man comics' readers in a state of confusion for most of the 1990s; but this was also the period where popular spin-off animated series were winning certain franchises bigger fanbases than ever - and Spidey was no exception.
While it didn't have the celebrated writing pedigree of Batman: The Animated Series or the angst-driven melodrama of X-Men in the same era, Fox's 1994-1998 Spider-Man cartoon was the first introduction to the character for a generation of fans; and in the series' stripped-down, streamlined version of the Spider-Man mythos, those fans were introduced to a Mary Jane Watson who was without question THE one and only true love for Peter Parker from the beginning. Yes, there were Black Cat storylines and yes, the series wrapped-up inconclusively with MJ revealed as having been replaced by (you guessed it) a clone at some point prior to the ending; but playing the regular damsel-in-distress every Saturday morning for five 65-episode seasons probably did more to hammer home the idea of Mary Jane Watson as the only proper partner for Peter Parker than a decade of ill-fated marriage had done in the comics.
SAM RAIMI'S SPIDER-MAN TRILOGY
At the same moment that Mary Jane Watson's long, convoluted, disaster-plagued role as Peter Parker's wife was reaching an endpoint in the comics, on movie screens she was about to become the second most famous Spider-Man character apart from Peter himself on movie screens.
Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films (the first two especially) were celebrated by comics fans for (among other things) the director's retro-flavored adherence to the more innocent tone of the original Stan Lee/Steve Ditko comics, but one thing was kept thoroughly modern. While Raimi reportedly wanted to feature Gwen Stacy as the film's love interest, the studio is said to have insisted on Mary Jane - possibly thanks to the comics' marriage status quo and the popularity of the animated series.
Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane doesn't bear much resemblance to her comic counterpart, instead depicted as an angelic girl next door whom Peter has been fascinated by since boyhood. But Dunst and Tobey Maguire's starmaking chemistry helped turn the film into a box office smash, and with the famous upside-down kiss being the series' most iconic moment, there was no question that MJ hadn't seen the end of her appearances elsewhere.
Peter and Mary Jane never officially divorced in the comics, but much of the early-21st Century storylines kept them separated both emotionally and geographically, particularly thanks to Spider-Man becoming busier than ever as a founding member of The New Avengers in New York, while MJ was busy as an actress in Los Angeles.
MJ eventually re-entered the picture as part of long-tenured Spider-Man writer J. Michael Straczynski's series of storylines involving "spider-totems" and other supernatural menaces. The stated running goal (inside and outside the comics) was to make the marriage "work" again, despite Marvel EIC Joe Quesada openly discussing his feelings that both marriage and divorce "age" characters unnecessarily in the comics press, as part of the early build-up to what would be one of the biggest and most impactful Marvel event-miniseries ever published - starting with a status-quo shakeup that saw Peter, MJ and Aunt May all move into Tony Stark's "Avengers Tower" as guests.
Mary Jane, along with Aunt May, supports Peter's subsequent decision to make his secret identity public as part of pledging Team Iron Man during the "Civil War" event, but as with every other decision Peter Parker has ever made it doesn't end well. When he realizes that Tony Stark's plans have spun out of control, Peter goes on the run with his family - who, unfortunately, everyone now knows is also Spider-Man's family - leading to Aunt May being mortally wounded by a sniper's bullet meant for him and setting off probably the most widely-hated Spider-Man storyline ever:
ONE MORE DAY
With Aunt May dying from a wound that (for some reason) can't be cured by any of the thousands of magical and super-science remedies regularly employed elsewhere in the Marvel Universe, Mary Jane and Peter are visited by Mephisto (a.k.a. Satan, a.k.a. The Devil Himself) who offers to make them a deal: He'll rewrite history so that Peter never unmasks and Aunt May doesn't get shot, but the price will be deleting Peter and MJ's marriage from history as well. After agonizing over the decision, Peter and MJ agree and spend a final night together before Peter wakes up in a new reality where he and Mary Jane never married, Aunt May survived and (among other changes) his webshooters have reverted to mechanical from organic. Everyone who knew his identity no longer does and Harry Osborn is no longer dead.
Even fans who themselves thought the marriage should end and enjoyed the new stories that eventually grew out of it thought this was a terrible idea, and subsequent storylines like "One Moment In Time" worked to minimize its impact and also give Mary Jane greater agency in the events. It's revealed that though the wedding never happened, they dated and even lived together for years (so that most of the married-era storylines still made sense). Moreover, while Peter originally tried to arrange for Mary Jane to be spared from a world-wide "mindwipe" (courtesy Doctor Strange) that would make everyone forget Spider-Man's Civil War identity-reveal, she actually had wanted to forget - because, while she loved him, she had finally accepted that she couldn't live with the constant stress and danger of being with Spider-Man.
BRAND NEW DAY
While the "Mary Jane decided to end it" details wouldn't be revealed til later, Mary Jane and Peter are thoroughly broken up and in "just friends" territory during the post-OMD "Brand New Day" era; which saw a flurry of fresh new characters and renewed focus on adventure and action in the wake of the much-reviled Mephisto storyline but never quite managed to crawl out from under its considerable shadow for many fans.
Mary Jane is absent until well into the BND storyline, but reappears as the girlfriend of an actor who figures in a set of stories involving "Mutant Growth Hormone." During the same period, Peter is dating new love interest Carlie Cooper, who becomes a new friend for MJ when (surprise!) it doesn't really work out. During the "Spider-Island" storyline, a viral plague grants Spider-Man-esque powers to everyone in New York but also triggers mutations into spider-like creatures. Immune to that second part of the equation because of years of exposure to Spider-Man, MJ uses temporary powers to do some day-saving of her own; and at the conclusion of the 2012 series "The Ends of The Earth" she embarks on a new career as a night club owner.
"SUPERIOR" AND BEYOND
The "Superior Spider-Man" event featured another big shake-up for the Spider-Man status quo, as Peter Parker finds his mind swapped against his will with that of a dying, cancer-riddled Doctor Otto Octavius (aka "Doctor Octopus"). Octavius intends to use Peter/Spider-Man's body for evil, but Peter projects his consciousness back into its proper place for just long enough to trigger a moral change. whereby the onetime villain will at least try to be a good guy. Part of that means backing away from creepy attempts to seduce Mary Jane and instead to protect her, and even when Peter is restored to life (and to his body), Mary Jane maintains she still wants to pursue her own life as a businesswoman and not renew their relationship.
Most recently (following the world-changing events of "Secret Wars"), Mary Jane has taken up a surprising new role as a confidant and business manager for Tony Stark, after supervillain damage led to the abrupt end of her night club business. It's been implied (but not yet confirmed) that both she and Peter retain some vague memories of an alternate timeline they briefly existed in during the Secret Wars crossover, where (as depicted in the Secret Wars: Renew Your Vows subseries) they were married and had a daughter. She's also been shown as able to utilize the "Iron Spider" armor Peter used during Civil War, though without specific indication that it would be more than a one time event.
At this point, next to nothing is officially known about how Mary Jane or anyone else will be depicted in Spider-Man: Homecoming outside of which actor is playing who, and even that has a lot of question marks since we're only just hearing about Zendaya's actual turn now. For a time, many had speculated that since MJ hadn't been named in the main cast she would appear as a surprise - perhaps with "Face it, Tiger..." being used as one of Marvel's signature mid-credits bonus scenes - but now the actual extent of her role in the film, the franchise and maybe the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a mystery... at least until the first trailer hits.
What new elements can Zendaya bring to the role? Hard to say. Fans and film press will surely have plenty to say about the noteworthiness of her casting as the first black Mary Jane Watson (the actress is of mixed-race heritage) but that fact is fairly unlikely to play much of a role in the film: Marvel has been reticent to touch on issues of race or sexuality directly in its films, and the given the demographics of an average high school in Queens it simply isn't unusual in 2016 for Peter Parker's social-circle to be predominantly non-white. Otherwise, she's only been acting for a few years; and while she's appeared on at least eight TV series in that time most outside of the Disney Channel, audience have never heard of her.
If this recap demonstrates anything, it's that arguments about the "accuracy" of the characterization are going to be fairly difficult to make stick. Mary Jane Watson's history is immensely convoluted even by comic book standards, and despite her entire history with Peter Parker supposedly having encompassed a nebulous period of "something less than ten years" in Marvel-Time, she's undergone a dizzying array of changes to her personality, attitude, background and behavior. Like too many female supporting characters in the genre, she's been less "developed" than "buffeted by the winds of the hero's narrative-needs," and whatever Homecoming comes up with, it's doubtful to be any more radical of a shift than dozens she's already been through.
Doctor Strange opens November 4, 2016; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – May 5, 2017; Spider-Man: Homecoming– July 7, 2017; Thor: Ragnarok – November 3, 2017; Black Panther – February 16, 2018; Avengers: Infinity War – May 4, 2018; Ant-Man and the Wasp – July 6, 2018; Captain Marvel– March 8, 2019; Untitled Avengers – May 3, 2019; and as-yet untitled Marvel movies on July 12, 2019, and on May 1, July 10, and November 6 in 2020.