This article contains spoilers for the climax of the film Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Near the end of Spider-Man: Homecoming, after the villain has been defeated and Peter Parker has returned to his everyday life, he sits down for a meeting with his academic decathlon team.
The team’s leader (and Peter’s love interest) Liz has moved away to Oregon, which means someone new has to step into the role. The group’s adviser suggests, oh, hey, why not Michelle? She’s played by up-and-coming actress Zendaya, and she’s had some of the movie’s best laughs.
Everybody greets this news with enthusiasm, and Michelle asks them to stop calling her Michelle. Why not start calling her MJ? That’s what her friends call her, and she now considers these people her friends.
For those who know their Spider-Man lore, the moment is constructed to elicit gasps. MJ — which usually stands for “Mary Jane” but here stands apparently for “Michelle something with a J” — is the love of Peter Parker’s life, the woman he marries and has kids with. Mary Jane was portrayed memorably by Kirsten Dunst in the first three Spider-Man movies, was supposed to be portrayed by Shailene Woodley in 2014’s Amazing Spider-Man 2 (until she was cut from the film), and is one of the few “superhero girlfriends” who can hold her own with her famous paramour.
For the icing on the cake, Homecoming frames the shot of this new MJ casually dropping this bit of information so there’s a tiger in the background — a neat reference to Mary Jane calling Peter “tiger” in the comics and original film trilogy.
But something weird happened during this moment when I saw it with an audience: There was next to no reaction. Whatever the filmmakers had hoped to achieve here, it fell flat. And that speaks to my overriding problem with Homecoming: It has all the right impulses, but indifferent execution.
An earlier reveal steps all over this big character reveal
Homecoming is peppered with lots of references to Spider-Man’s long run in comics. Donald Glover’s seemingly insignificant low-level criminal character, Aaron, for instance, is actually the uncle of Miles Morales, who becomes Spider-Man in a different character chronology (where Aaron is an integral part of Miles’s story), while the high school newscaster played by Angourie Rice seems to be Betty Brant, another one of Peter’s famous girlfriends in the comics.
But you don’t have to be a Spidey expert to get these references. Sure, you might think, “Did they just waste Donald Glover in a nothing part?” but you’ll probably go with it. The MJ reveal, however, is something even casual Spider-Man fans will pick up on, thanks to how well-known the character has become, especially after Dunst’s portrayal of her.
What’s more, Zendaya is consistently one of the most entertaining parts of the film up until that point, providing some of its biggest laughs with her seeming indifference to all the superhero shenanigans erupting around her. The movie is really trying to make you hope you’ll get more from her character — and the MJ reveal is a promise that in the sequels, yes, you’ll get much more. (If you are somehow in a “who is the next Jennifer Lawrence?” pool, put all of your money on Zendaya immediately.)
So why doesn’t it work? The blame, I think, lies with an earlier reveal that the audience is still recovering from when the MJ reveal happens. See, Liz’s father, Adrian Toomes, played by Michael Keaton, commits crimes under his alter ego the Vulture and is Peter’s biggest nemesis throughout the film. But, crucially, Peter doesn’t realize this fact until he arrives to pick up Liz for the school dance — and Keaton’s beaming mug greets him at the door.
The film then cycles through a bunch of story beats in a hurry. Peter, who is without his fancy supersuit due to Tony Stark essentially grounding him, has to decide what to do about the Vulture, and then, crucially, Adrian figures out there’s a reason Spider-Man and Peter never seem to be in the same place at the same time.
This gives the story a lot of momentum, as Peter has to decide if he’s going to have a fun time with Liz at the dance or stop the Vulture’s next big scheme. Even better, the scenes where Peter has to deal with his girlfriend’s pissed-off dad — who just so happens to be a supervillain — are probably the film’s high point, no special effects needed.
The momentum of the Vulture reveal propels the story to its climax, which is effective, if imperfect. (Director Jon Watts’s greatest weakness comes in staging the film’s action scenes, though he’s great at the John Hughes-style character comedy.) But it also allows the movie to coast just a bit, as Peter accepts both the responsibility and the power of being Spider-Man, a superhero for the little guy. (It doesn’t hurt that both Peter and Toomes have working-class roots, which makes them two sides of the same “the rich and powerful are screwing it all up, and I can do something about it!” coin.)
This means when it’s time for Michelle to ask everybody to call her MJ, there’s really no room for that beat to register. It feels like another thing the movie is checking off the list as it coasts toward the credits — make sure everybody knows who this character is before the movie ends — and unlike with the Toomes reveal, the movie doesn’t really explore any of its logical outcomes.
In other words, Homecoming withholds an important character detail just to withhold an important character detail, not to make a moment land with more impact. And since we just saw the movie land a similar reveal with maximum impact, it makes the latter reveal feel all the more hollow.
The more Hollywood makes movies based on beloved properties, the more it tries to play this obfuscatory game
The MJ moment reminded me of when the makers of Star Trek Into Darkness spent months and months saying Benedict Cumberbatch wasn’t playing Khan — one of Captain Kirk’s most famous nemeses — only for the film to reveal that, yeah, he was playing Khan. (It even spent half the movie’s running time pretending he was some other guy entirely.)
Zendaya is an up-and-coming star, she’s been all over the film’s promotion, and she and Peter Parker player Tom Holland have great, easy chemistry on the press circuit. The second she was cast, the safe assumption was that she was playing Mary Jane Watson. You wouldn’t cast someone with a long career ahead of her as “random friend of Peter Parker.”
But for some reason, the filmmakers decided to hide this from moviegoers, which left the actress playing a character who’s essentially all “what can you bring to this line reading, Zendaya?” The more charitable part of me assumes that the filmmakers thought it would be fun to have one last reveal in the movie’s closing moments; the less charitable part of me thinks they might have feared backlash from casting a nonwhite actress in the part. But regardless, the reveal just doesn’t work in the way it should.
I think somewhere along the line, someone had the right idea about how to rethink MJ for this new series: Rather than being an aspiring actress, she’s a math and science geek like Peter, but her strong, sarcastic sense of self remains intact. She’s MJ, but a new enough version to give her a slightly different name. To dip into another franchise entirely, she’s clearly meant as the Hermione to Peter’s Harry Potter. (This makes Peter’s stalwart best friend Ned into Ron, I guess, and I approve.)
But poor execution stomped all over that right impulse. Why not lean into the fact that viewers will know Peter and MJ most likely end up together? Why not have her as part of his inner circle from the first, one of his best friends, but someone he’d never think about dating, because she’s too much like a sister to him? (Bonus: This might give Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May something more to do. Can’t you imagine her trying to play matchmaker? A cliché, maybe, but she’d have fun with it.)
The film could play the tension of what the audience knows against what Peter and MJ think of each other as 15-year-olds. It could be less about surprise and more about inevitability, about the idea that once Peter was bitten by that radioactive spider, all of the things we’re seeing play out would have to play out the way they did, because that’s what’s supposed to happen.
Surprise is a powerful storytelling tool, sure, but so is destiny, the sense that you can’t avoid your own fate. In fact, that’s a big part of this film, which is ultimately a movie about how Peter’s pie-in-the-sky dreams prevent him from seeing what’s right in front of him. The filmmakers had all the right tools to make that moment land in Peter’s romantic life, too, but they played too cagey with the audience, and botched what could have been something special.