The Mystery of Spidey Zendaya

Photo (cc) 2016 by Gage Skidmore

Everyone here knows Zendaya, right? Of course you do. The one-time star of “Shake It Up” on the Disney Channel has made a name for herself across genres in the entertainment industry. Her casting in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” a 2017 film that’s one of many recent Spider-Man films but the first to be part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (think Avengers, et al), has put her name in the news even more.

When her casting was announced, a lot of the internet started discussing the possibility of her playing famous “Spider-Man” character Mary Jane Watson, so much so that I originally thought it was a done deal from my casual internet perusal. This wasn’t just some minor rumor or a misunderstanding that stemmed from a Reddit forum that too many people believed, like can be the case with entertainment scuttlebutt.

Both James Gunn, the director of the MCU film “Guardians of the Galaxy” and Stan Lee, who co-created Spider-Man back in the day, made comments supporting a potential Zendaya-as-MJ scenario. Even though Gunn specified he didn’t know who she was playing and neither man confirmed her as MJ, it increased the power and spread of the rumor.

As is often the case with casting decisions, there was controversy, and much of it stemmed from Zendaya’s race. As Mic reported, there was anger directed at the fact that the traditionally white redhead was being played by a woman of color.

“The color of their skin doesn’t matter, their religion doesn’t matter. All that matters is that this [sic] the right person for the role,” Lee told the Toronto Sun in reference to the Zendaya conversation.

Some fans may remember the similar response that occurred when Michael B. Jordan was cast in the traditionally white role of Johnny Storm in the “Fantastic Four” reboot. He shared his thoughts in a 2015 Entertainment Weekly essay:

People are always going to see each other in terms of race, but maybe in the future we won’t talk about it as much. Maybe, if I set an example, Hollywood will start considering more people of color in other prominent roles, and maybe we can reach the people who are stuck in the mindset that “it has to be true to the comic book.” Or maybe we have to reach past them.

As a big fan of superheroes and movies, I thought it was a smart casting choice and was pleased that the iconic Mary Jane role was going to be more diverse than usual. To be frank, I’m used to seeing a lot of white people in superhero movies, and I supported the idea of saying, “Hey, this famous character really can be any race.”

With the likes of Stan Lee backing up the idea that Zendaya could playing MJ, I was surprised when I kept investigating and discovered that “Spider-Man: Homecoming” director, Jon Watts, as well as several other news sources, had something very different to say. 

According to Entertainment Weekly, Watts announced at San Diego Comic-Con that Zendaya’s character is named Michelle. This could be a lie, of course, since filmmakers can and do lie to hide film secrets, but it’s coming from an official source in regards to the film and therefore can’t be ignored. LRM reported on speculation that Michelle is meant to be Michele Gonzales, a real “Spider-Man” comics character. 

So if Zendaya is not actually playing Mary Jane, what does this mean? Is it a good thing that the filmmakers are including a new character? After all, we are now on our third Spider-Man series this century, and there is precedent for films choosing alternative female leads over Mary Jane (see Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy in “The Amazing Spider-Man” and its sequel). But fans who were excited about the iconic redhead being played by a woman of color might not be so thrilled upon realizing that, as far as we’ve been told, they aren’t actually getting that.

So if Zendaya is Michele Gonzales, a relatively obscure character, then perhaps the question for Hollywood is this: why can’t someone who looks like Zendaya just be a Mary Jane?