Essays · Movies

The Cinematic Evolution of Spider-Man’s Love Interests

The women that humanize Spider-man and the actresses that play them are debated almost as much as Peter Parker himself, for good reason. 
The Amazing Spider Man
By  · Published on July 11th, 2017

As in any good film, the love interest of the protagonist should give the audience more insight into the protagonist’s character—even better when they are intertwined with the rest of the plot. Peter Parker has a had several crushes throughout his now three renditions, and they help define each series as much as he does.

Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson

Kirsten Dunst Spiderman

Not Spider-man’s first love in the comics but in the films is Mary Jane Watson, cool girl-next-door. The redhead is who Peter Parker is most associated with, partly because of Kirsten Dunst’s immortalization of her in the first Spider-man trilogy.

Before auditioning for the role in Spider-man, Dunst had already starred in several films, including The Virgin Suicides (1999) and Bring It On (2000). Tobey Maguire’s involvement inspired her to audition because he would ensure the film would have an indie feel, according to IMDb. She was established in Hollywood because of her previous films and added star power to the film as James Franco and Willem Dafoe did.

Although Mary Jane is the signature popular girl trope, she has her own wants and dreams of becoming an actress. She pursues that goal throughout the trilogy, and it even gets in the way of her relationship with Peter at one point. So does the fact that Peter is definitely not the only guy interested in Mary Jane, and she is not one to wait around for him. Mary Jane’s personality may seem like a typical love interest in theory, but she provides a lot of room for conflict and reconciliation for Peter, both essential to a good love story.

She is also not separate from Peter’s Spider-man life. He reveals his superhero identity to her after she develops a crush on Spider-man for saving her. Throughout the films, Peter continues to save Mary Jane from imminent doom thanks to her involvement with Spider-man known by his enemies. Kidnapped and often at the center of the action, Peter’s love for Mary Jane adds urgency to his need to defeat the villain.

Even though in a recent interview with Variety Kirsten claims that the Spider-man installment she was involved with is the best, there are still films after them to look at.

Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy

Like Dunst before her, Emma Stone had notable roles before her involvement with The Amazing Spider-man in 2012. Her acting in ZombielandEasy A, and The Help made her a recognizable face in the first reboot.

Her character, however, is considerably different from Mary Jane. Stan Lee created Gwen Stacy, inspired by his late wife Joan B. Lee, in the Spider-man comics as Peter’s first girlfriend. She not only works at Oscorp but maintains to be valedictorian of her graduating class. Arguably as smart as Peter—if not smarter than him—Gwen’s intelligence becomes an asset to Spider-man when defeating the Lizard.

What separates Gwen and Peter’s relationship from his with MJ in the first installment, is the feeling of partnership that comes from Gwen’s personality. Not that she doesn’t become a damsel at points too, but she insists on being a part of Peter’s Spider-man life and he needs her in many instances to defeat the villains he’s after.  That aspect of her character may actively place her in the bulk of the plot, but it is a decision that also gets her killed in the end. 

Spoilers for ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ Below

Laura Harrier’s Liz Allan

Laura Harrier is a fresh face to most, unlike the actresses that played Peter’s crushes before her. Her performance in Spider-Man: Homecoming certainly doesn’t falter because of her lack of lead roles. The film gets its star power from outside the lead roles, benefitting from reoccurring characters in the Marvel Universe and using notable actors in other roles like Michael Keaton, Donald Glover, and Zendaya. 

Harrier’s Liz Allan is the first woman of color to be Peter’s love interest in the history of the Spider-man films. Her character is a hybrid of MJ and Gwen, decathlon team captain and popular. Spider-man saves her from falling down an elevator shaft in a strikingly similar scene to Gwen’s death scene in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. She seemingly has a minor role in the plot until it’s revealed that the Vulture, Adrian Toomes played by Michael Keaton, is her father. Despite the fact that her father knows Peter is Spider-man, Liz never finds out even by the end of the film. He also chooses to leave her at the homecoming dance to go after her father. She’s absent from the climax of the film, which makes her feel less of a part of the film than the women Peter loves in the other renditions.

There’s always a chance she could reoccur in the sequels, but Liz’s plans to move to Oregon with her mother gives the impression that her involvement with Peter was just for this film. At the end, Zendaya’s character Michelle tells the decathlon team that her nickname is MJ, just like Mary Jane’s. Despite her very little screen time in Homecoming, the end hints that Michelle will probably become Peter’s love interest in future films. Her quick wit and outspokenness will play well with Peter Parker’s character if they do end up being involved later on.

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Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_