At this late stage in the superhero game, it's clear that the various studios are intent on shaking up some of the older, more iconic characters. So when it was reported that Disney Channel pop star Zendaya had been cast as Mary Jane Watson in the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming, it should have come as no surprise. Yet it was an announcement that didn't set well with fans. Despite having already gone through this same thing with the Ghostbusters, Johnny Storm and Doctor Strange's The Ancient One.
From the get-go, Sony and Marvel have stated that they are making this next Spider-Man reboot an all-inclusive affair, with a very diversified cast. Traditionally, Mary Jane Watson is portrayed as a white woman with red hair who is based on Ann-Margret from the movie Bye Bye Birdie. In the original Sam Raimi trilogy, she was played by Kirsten Dunst, who came under fire at the time for not being a natural red head. She was later portrayed by Shailene Woodley in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but her scenes were all cut and she was removed from the movie. Some speculated that online uproar from fans who hated seeing Woodley in the role is what got her canned.
On the flip side, Zendaya Maree Stoermer Coleman, who is an actress, singer, and dancer, has an African-American father and a white mother. Some fans are upset that the dark haired beauty just doesn't fit the traditional Mary Jane template. The controversy stems from her race, but Shailene Woodley certainly got it way worse when she was cast as Mary Jane, and the first set photos emerged of her in character, which showed her as a motorcycle riding tomboy. So it's clear that Mary Jane is just one of those characters that is going to cause an uproar no matter who is cast in the role.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 director James Gunn certainly noticed the most recent controversy brewing. He's not shy when it comes to social media. So he decided to post his thoughts on this controversy on Facebook. He starts by saying this.
"People get upset when something they consider intrinsic to a comic book character changes when adapted for a film. I get this. There are movies I dislike because I think there's a basic misunderstanding of the story or the character when the comic is transferred to film (I still hate how in the first Batman movie the Joker was revealed as the murderer of Bruce Wayne's parents, for instance.) That said, I do not believe a character is the color of his or her skin. When Michael B Jordan was cast as Johnny Storm I didn't understand the uproar. The primary characteristic of Johnny was not, to me, that he was white, or that he had blonde hair, but that he was a fiery, funny, big-mouthed braggart of a hero. I was happy that he was going to be played by one of the finest and most charming young actors out there."
Fair enough. Once people saw how bad Fantastic Four was, Michael B. Jordan was actually cited as one of the movie's bright spots. And once it was seen how the character was handled, most fans forgot there even was a controversy. But this type of fan outcry isn't always about race. Many believed Shailene Woodley wasn't sexy enough to play Mary Jane, and a whole lot of people thought having Ben Affleck suit up as Batman was a horrible idea. Those same people changed their tune once they saw what the Oscar winner was capable of delivering under that cape and cowl. James Gunn goes onto say this.
"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.) I got a thousand or so responses to my tweet. Most of them were positive. Some folks disagreed - they thought the character should look like what she looks like in the comics - but were thoughtful. And a handful were flat out racist."
The director does acknowledge that not everyone upset about Zendaya playing Mary Jane is a racist, that they simply don't want their favorite comic book characters changed. He goes onto address those particular fans, trying to calm them down with some insight. He says this.
"I can't respond to the racists - I'm not ever going to change their minds. But for the thoughtful majority of you out there: 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. Whatever the case, if we're going to continue to make movies based on the almost all white heroes and supporting characters from the comics of the last century, we're going to have to get used to them being more reflective of our diverse present world. Perhaps we can be open to the idea that, although someone may not initially match how we personally conceive a character, we can be - and often are - happily surprised."
As he states, Marvel and Sony have not yet confirmed that Zendaya is in fact playing Mary Jane Watson. There's a chance she's not. Which means this uproar is all for nothing. Over the course of Comic-Con, director Jon Watts announced that Zendaya was playing a character named Michelle. There are a lot of actors in Spider-Man: Homecoming, and the producers behind this rebirth of the franchise have tried to make it as diversified as possible, especially to reflect the type of realistic high school community that currently exists in New York. Chances are Zendaya is playing Mary Jane. And chances are, when all is said and done, everyone will be just fine with it in the end.