Why Mary Jane Watson Matters | From Comics to the Screen
Lois Lane. Peggy Carter. Selina Kyle. Mary Jane Watson. Some of the most important characters in comic book culture. Regardless of gender, each of these women hold iconic positions in the titles in which they have appeared, across the breadth of their respective publishers’ lines. Setting aside that each of these women have had their own career in superheroics, they each also highlight the emotional core of their male counterparts.
But among the women listed, Mary Jane Watson is singular in her youth. She has been a part of Peter Parker’s life since her early childhood (the exact age of their meeting shifts with Marvel’s ever-roving continuity), and she has transcended her role as hot-girl-next-door from the beginning.
Alright, so Mary Jane Watson is great. Why does this need addressing? I’m so glad that you asked!
In a post-Amazing Spider-Man and post-Spider-Gwen world, Mary Jane has lapsed into a period of underappreciation, in this writer’s opinion. Gwen Stacy may be enjoying a resurgence that her character absolutely deserves, but it appears that in the larger Spider-Man Universe there is only room for celebrating one significant young woman at a time. Mary Jane Watson may be most popularly known from the J. Scott Campbell piece of her sitting in her underwear, but while that is a stunning piece of art, it encapsulates only a part of who MJ is. She is so much more than just a pretty girl with red hair.
What’s more, in the pantheon of Marvel Comics ladies she can hold her own next to characters like Jean Grey and Sue Storm, who have super powers beyond the wildest imagination. Jean Grey and Sue Storm do have a big of a leg up in their introduction, having been presented as more well-rounded characters with their aforementioned power sets, whereas for a long time, MJ was defined by her impact on the Peter Parker/Spider-Man character. Mary Jane made that impact with her red hair and a Forest Hills sensibility.
Let’s talk more about that red hair. Mary Jane Watson’s great beauty is how we meet her. It’s the first thing that first draws Peter to her. It empowers her… and this last detail is, really, the most important one. Women in the world and, by extension, the fictional women that represent us across media are often expected to be effortlessly – unintentionally – beautiful. Physical perfection is prized, if not expected, at all times. Now, Mary Jane Watson is fortunate to find herself in possession of such beauty. Genetics and Steve Ditko can do incredible things! Her very first line in comic book publication history is, “Face it, Tiger … you just hit the jackpot!” How amazing is that? At 16 years of age Mary Jane is self-possessed enough to understand the subjective truth of her beauty and the power that it can give her through the journey of her life. This is a quality frequently lacking in the portrayal of women across media and it is so refreshing to have a young woman created with as much self-confidence as Mary Jane Watson was conceived with.
Adding on to that thought: this quality has followed MJ into both her small and big screen adaptations. It is a powerful thing for the audiences who are ingesting her multimedia appearances to see.
But let’s take a little look at Spider-Man. There’s a good long while where Mary Jane doesn’t know that Peter Parker is Spider-Man (even though in some continuities it has been retconned that she knew from the beginning), and during that time, Peter suffers a lot. Much like Miles O’Brien in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Peter Parker MUST suffer: the death of Uncle Ben, a second puberty in the form of the spider bites, an influx of new threats to his imminent safety that he never in his wildest dreams ever imagined he would have to deal with. Mary Jane is present for the aftermath of these mounting – and increasingly ridiculous – pressures. More often than not she illustrates an emotional maturity far beyond her years and is able to be a grounding presence for Peter.
Often, after talking things through with Mary Jane, Peter is then able to focus and solve whatever complicated moral issue he is facing in his Spider-Man persona. The pair’s physical attraction aside, her ability to cut through the nonsense and provide clarity is what makes MJ a perfect partner – to the point of a quintessential marriage – for the civilian identity of the Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man.
If you subscribe to the school of thought that Mary Jane knew that Peter is Spider-Man from his very first night in the suit, then she is an even more caring partner in allowing him the time and space he needs to come clean about his superheroics on his own terms. In this way, Peter Parker becomes one of the first comic book characters who is allowed to grow up in this way. Together they are both able to proceed into adulthood even to the point where they build a family together – the ultimate culmination of their partnership.
In fact, their daughter (who has enjoyed a couple different incarnations as well), eventually goes on to become Spider-Girl. Her original Spider-Girl series is pretty wonderful in its own right if you have never had the chance to check that out.
Without Mary Jane, Peter is not able to become his best self. She brings out such success in him that, in order to preserve the narrative that Peter Parker Must Suffer, Marvel Comics even contrived the Faustian storyline One More Day (written by J. Michael Straczynski with art by: Joe Quesada), that dissolves their legal union and arrests a good chunk of Peter’s emotional development. This storyline is considered wildly unpopular among Spider-Man readers and, although not quite as reviled as The Original Clone Saga, it is often spoken of in the same breath. Why is that? Because we like Mary Jane, and we want her to be married to Peter Parker.
Years later, during the Secret Wars event when Marvel Comics was in the midst of launching titles highlighting every single Elseworlds tale that has ever been, they debuted Renew Your Vows in a direct response to One More Day. This series reunites Mary Jane Watson and Peter Parker in the bonds of matrimony and gives them back their daughter – yay! (Fun fact: she is an adorable baby who is first seen wearing a Daredevil onesie. It’s pretty awesome!) The Spider-Family dynamic has been so well-received by fans that it is now an ongoing series. Renew Your Vows also holds the distinction of Mary Jane engaging in superheroics, which is also awesome.
Now, this isn’t the first time that MJ has become a Spider in her own right. During Dan Slott’s Spider-Island event when most of New York City enjoyed their turn at webslinging she was not left out and this actually allowed that continuity’s Mary Jane to deduce that Peter was the original Spider-Man and the source of the occurrence. In Renew Your Vows she does not get her Spider-powers from what are effectively bed bugs, but she does get a chance to wallcrawl with her husband and daughter in one of Marvel Comics’ best answers to the BatFamily. As a unit the Parkers juggle the great responsibility of raising their first child and the great responsibility of saving the world every month and at the core of that is MJ who – even more than Peter – must straddle the two realities they exist within.
While her experience has been wholly different that Peter Parker, it makes for compelling reading to see what legacy Mary Jane is going to carve out with her ascension to the role of superhero. Spider-Man is such an important part of the Marvel Comics mythos and I believe that she is more than worthy to websling alongside him.
It’s all well and good to examine Mary Jane Watson through the lens of Spider-Man, but like Lois Lane, she is a well-rounded professional woman with ambitions outside of her position as a supporting character that allow her to stand on her own two feet as a human being. In many ways, she is more successful than the man who will become her husband. While Peter Parker is currently the head of Parker Industries, more often than not he has found himself struggling to make ends meet. Mary Jane is the right brain to Peter Parker’s left brain. Where he is a scientist, she is an artist. Swinging back around to being empowered by her physical beauty, Mary Jane enjoys an incredibly successful career as a model – and eventually an actor – before anyone in her immediate group of friends figures out what they are even going to be when they grow up.
This proficiency and the way readers often respond to a story within a superhero universe that isn’t necessarily about superheroes (i.e. Damage Control, Gotham Central), have led to some really great solo series that you might want to get your hands on. Mary Jane (sometime collected as: Mary Jane: Circle of Friends), focuses on her time as teenage at Midtown High coming up at the same time Spider-Man burst onto the scene and how complicated life can be as a teenage girl. This series was followed up by Mary Jane: Homecoming set right after that first series (and possibly an unintentional title for a Sony-produced sequel?).
In contrast to the Spider-Man: Homecoming movie, Mary Jane: Homecoming takes place entirely before, during and after her experience at this dance and her romantic relationship with Harry Osborn. Her final foray into solo series was in Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane when the status quo is complicated by the introduction of transfer student, Gwen Stacy. The two volumes of this series show Mary Jane striking up a friendship with Spider-Man, while exploring her conflicting feelings for Peter. By the end of the series she matures a lot and goes out of her way to mend relationships that had been broken over the previous storylines. Here, again, she is the glue between a series of dispirit people.
It is worth noting that all of these Mary Jane series were set out of the regular Marvel Comics continuity and marketed toward young, female, teen readers. They were published in a pre-Squirrel Girl era where there seemed to be a pervasive idea that young women wouldn’t take to being introduced to these characters if they were tied directly into big Marvel events. It also speaks to an unwillingness to welcome this type of more personal – feminine – storytelling that Mary Jane so perfectly encapsulates. Problematic marketing aside, the Mary Jane series are very good.
Kirsten Dunst’s portrayal of Mary Jane Watson on the big screen is something of a mixed bag. As far as cinematic debuts go it’s not too bad. Her relationship with Toby Maguire’s Peter Parker reads as generous and their shared history has a weight to it. As their relationship grows Dunst does embody some of the support that is so integral to the character. Where this version is less successful is in her often whiny line readings and the scenes where Dunst appears to be half asleep, paired with her eternal status as damsel-in-distress. While Mary Jane is classically a figure in need of physical rescue by Spider-Man to have that happen at the same points in each film over the course of three movies it becomes annoying that she never learns to watch her back and that Peter is incapable of protecting her in the long-term.
By comparison, Zendaya’s MJ makes it clear from her very first scene that she has no need or interest in Peter Parker. She’s even the only character from the Academic Decathlon who doesn’t need to be physically rescued by Spider-Man. I hope you’ve seen Spider-Man: Homecoming because there was a tremendous amount of hype around Zendaya’s casting in the role of MJ, even though it remains to be seen whether “Michelle” is going to be stepping into all of the usual trappings that Mary Jane Watson comes with. Framing her as an incredibly intelligent, distant, weird girl gives her more chances to connect with Peter directly. It’s an interesting update to MJ, more like what you see in the (amazing!) Spectacular Spider-Man cartoon than in the comic books.
However, the utter lack of confirmation as to whether or not Zendaya is “officially” Mary Jane Watson leaves a big dangling participle on the end of Spider-Man: Homecoming. If she’s an original character who just using the moniker of “MJ” to tease fans, then Mary Jane’s lack of inclusion is a gross oversight. Leaving supporting characters like Harry Osborn or Gwen Stacy out of this new franchise may be disappointing, but it’s comprehensible. Leaving Mary Jane out is just sad. Her impact has already been felt by fans all over the world and leaving aside the MJ nickname, Zendaya’s “Michelle” is pretty important for a non-canonical character. It underwrites the importance Zendaya’s performance might have had and ignores the long legacy Mary Jane Watson possesses.
Imagine if the Amazing Spider-Man series had been able to complete their trilogy and Shailene Woodley’s cameo as Mary Jane (which was cut), was expanded to a full role? We’ll forget that there is an eight year age difference between Woodley and Andrew Garfield in a franchise where Garfield already seemed too old to be wallowing in teenage emotion. Following the on-screen death of Gwen Stacy, this version of Mary Jane might have been able to shoulder a role similar to what we see her character taking on in Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Spider-Man: Blue. There Peter reflects on the impact Mary Jane had on his life as the glue between his group of friends (including Gwen and Harry), and how she has helped in cope in the wake of her loss. Bringing a personal story like this to the silver screen could have showed a mature depth in storytelling that we don’t get often in storytelling. It’s also the kind of interpersonal relationship drama that director Marc Webb does really well and might have made us interested in the plethora of sequels that were originally planned, rather than happy to see the end of it.
Mary Jane Watson is in an interesting limbo for as storied a character as she is. Her comic book self has been raised to a powerful status in her own right. What we thought was going to be her new film incarnation might not even be Mary Jane after all. With Sony’s seemingly ever-expanding slate of Spider-Man Universe movies is it too much to hope for that we might see Mary Jane as a superhero writ large?