Spider-Man: Homecoming opened this weekend to critical acclaim and packed theaters, delighting both Marvel fanatics and casual audiences with the plot twists and Easter Eggs. There were multiple surprises that left an impression, but perhaps the most notable was Zendaya's Michelle saying, at the end of the film, "my friends call me MJ." It was mostly surprising due to the fact that Marvel had furiously campaigned on the fact that Zendaya was not playing Mary Jane Watson; in a way, they weren't lying. Michelle was Michelle, and nothing more. However, her nickname points to her having an exciting future in the MCU, and perhaps a promise as to where her character will end up.
Everyone remotely familiar with Spider-Man lore knows that Mary Jane Watson, often known as MJ, is the love of Peter Parker's life. The Sam Rami Spiderman trilogy brought her and Peter's love story to the forefront. Later, Marc Webb put MJ on the side and focused more on Peter's first, ultimately doomed girlfriend, Gwen Stacey. It seems that this take on the web-slinging hero will eschew both famous girlfriends and instead focus on new love interests. First, there was Liz, and most likely Michelle.
The most frustrating part about this reveal is that it was so often debunked that for it to happen feels a little shocking considering the film's marketing. After all, Marvel has spent the months leading up to Homecoming's release firmly denying that Michelle is playing MJ. Of course, the MJ they meant was the Mary Jane Watson, so we can say they weren't lying on a technicality. Rumors continued to persist about her role in the film, including speculation she was Vulture's daughter, and a day after Homecoming's domestic release, Marvel head honcho Kevin Feige was interviewed about the future of this highly speculated about character.
Feige re-asserted that Michelle is not Mary Jane, but he also offered some interesting tidbits about her role, saying "In setting up this will be a very different thing, she’s not Mary Jane Watson, that’s not who the character is. But giving her the initials that remind you of that dynamic certainly is intriguing about what could go forward." Feige and other Marvel heads have said several times that they want to steer away from Spider-Man stories that had been previously shown on screen. This makes sense, as we've had three Spider-Men in the past ten years. Centered around one of the most frequently rebooted superheroes in cinema history, Homecoming needed to set itself apart somehow, and by creating a new MJ they avoid being too similar to the Rami films.
This is certainly not the first time a studio has deliberately misled audiences about a character's true identity. In 2013, JJ Abrams and his Star Trek Into Darkness drew ire from critics and fans alike when they insisted that Benedict Cumberbatch was not playing Khan, only to reveal that yes indeed he was Khan. The Michelle is MJ situation is not entirely the same, even if it is similar. Zendaya was not playing Mary Jane Watson, just a character named MJ.