While last night’s news that Disney star Zendaya was playing the long-time Spider-Man supporting character, Mary Jane Watson, took the comic book world by surprise, Marvel has stayed tight-lipped about the accuracy of this information. Prior to last night, we had been previously led to believe that Zendaya was playing a character named Michelle, with some speculating that she’d be a reinvented version of Michele Gonzales. As it stands, it appears that the exact situation regarding Zendaya’s role is unknown to even some of Marvel Studios biggest insiders. In a post on his Facebook, the always vocal Guardians of the Galaxy director, Jame Gunn neither confirmed nor denied that Zendaya was playing the iconic role while also addressing some of the racial tinged criticism in casting an African-American woman as a traditionally white character.
“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.)”
While much of the response to Zendaya’s character reveal has been positive, a vocal contingent of critics has begun to voice their displeasure, filling up twitter feeds, comment sections, and the darkest recesses of Reddit. Many people online have offered both angry and surprised reactions to the news. But for those paying attention, the casting of an actress of color as Mary Jane should not be surprising for those following the production of this iteration of Spider-Man. There appears to be a concerted effort by both Marvel and director Jon Watts to cast a more diverse group of actors than has previously been the case for this franchise. This is in keeping with a greater awareness of the importance of representation, especially when your story is set in New York, one of the most diverse cities in the world. Addressing the critical attitudes, Gunn continued in his post:
Blockquote “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.”
Whether Zendaya, is, in fact, playing Mary Jane or not remains to seen until there is official word from Marvel. However, if she is playing the part, the fact that she’s not what you’d traditionally imagine when picturing MJ should not detract from her bringing the character to life. As James Gunn stated in his post, what matters most is that Zendaya brings that fun and commanding energy that’s always been a core part of the character. What do you think? Has Marvel hit the jackpot with this casting? Are people jumping the gun in dismissing Zendaya’s ability to bring Mary Jane to life? Let us know in the comments section below.