Warning: Major spoilers below!
It's the question that's been bugging the internet ever since Zendaya was first cast in Marvel and Sony's joint Spider-Man venture: does she play Mary Jane Watson or what? Now that the web-slinging superhero has made his triumphant return to the silver screen in Spider-Man: Homecoming, we finally have our answer.
*pause to look up drumroll sound effect on YouTube*
No, she doesn't . . . but also, yes, she does. Let us explain.
Zendaya, the superstar actress, singer, dancer, and fashion designer, is barely in Spider-Man: Homecoming. While the trailers kind of insinuated that Zendaya's Michelle would play a key role in the superhero film, her character actually only pops up sparingly. Michelle, who's a quiet genius with razor-sharp wit, appears for 30 seconds at a time, cracking sarcastic one-liners at the expense of "losers" and fellow academic decathlon team members Peter Parker (Tom Holland) and his BFF Ned (Jacob Batalon) before fading into the background of their high school.
She isn't, as many theorized before Homecoming came out, Peter's love interest (that role goes to Laura Harrier, who plays popular senior Liz). But that doesn't make Zendaya's short screen time any less amazing. Some of Homecoming's most delightful moments come courtesy of Michelle's biting jokes. For instance, when the decathlon team heads to a competition in Washington DC, she notes how she wants to get there early to get some protesting in and opts out of going into the Washington Monument with the rest of the group, telling the academic decathlon team adviser (a hilariously obtuse Martin Starr) that she'd rather not go inside a structure "built by slaves."
While chatting with director Jon Watts about Zendaya's character last Summer, he revealed to POPSUGAR that he sees Michelle as a version of Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club and what Linda Cardellini is like in Freaks and Geeks. "It's just a cool character, and it's cool for her to be that character, I thought," he said. "She has a really cool wardrobe, really funny, lots of literary nods." Michelle, who rocks head-to-toe black, little to no makeup, and a messy ponytail, certainly does have that angsty, John Hughes-heroine flair about her, and if the end of Spider-Man: Homecoming is any indication, we'll be seeing a lot more of her. As the film wraps up, Michelle is crowned the the academic decathlon team's new captain. While the group happily congratulates her, she tells them thanks and "My friends call me M.J."
Ding, ding, ding!
She might not bear the exact moniker of "Mary Jane," and we still don't know her last name, but it's an exciting development. In an interview with IGN, Marvel president and Spider-Man: Homecoming producer Kevin Feige confirmed the link between Michelle (sorry, M.J.) and Mary Jane Watson, but insisted that she's a new, individual character. "We never even looked at it as a big reveal necessarily, but more of just a fun homage to his past adventures and his past love. She's not Mary Jane Watson. She never was Mary Jane Watson," he explained. "She was always this new high school character, Michelle, who we know there's an 'M' in Michelle and an 'M' in Mary."
It's also worth noting how remarkably different Zendaya's M.J. is compared to Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane in Sam Raimi's early 2000s franchise. The latter is constantly getting kidnapped by Spidey's newest foe, acting more as a pretty plot device designed to ratchet up the film's tension rather than being developed into a well-rounded character. We have a hard time believing Michelle would ever fall into that stereotype. Since Liz moves away at the end of the film, it stands to reason that Michelle will become an even more important (and probably just as badass) part of the sequel.