The Real Issue Regarding Zendaya’s Surprise Role in Spider-Man: Homecoming

By  · Published on August 19th, 2016

Come on, Hollywood, not again.

Whether or not this is a SPOILER and was supposed to be a big secret within the plot of Spider-Man: Homecoming, the cat is out of the bag: Zendaya is reportedly playing Mary Jane Watson in the upcoming superhero reboot, according to The Wrap’s Umberto Gonzalez. If it’s true, then good on the scoop, because this needn’t be a surprise.

Officially, the actress’s role is still just “Michelle,” as confirmed by director Jon Watts during Comic-Con. Speculation has continued that she‘s’ playing Michelle Gonzales, a love interest for Peter Parker from the comics whom he meets later in life than the high school age we’re seeing him (Tom Holland) portrayed as in this latest incarnation.

Obviously the reveal has gotten the Internet in a tizzy, much of it unfortunately of the negative variety. The fans who never can handle an iconic character’s ethnicity being changed are once again upset that a person of color is playing a part historically depicted as white. But never mind the racists. There’s a more important matter here.

Why was it a secret that Zendaya is playing MJ? Why are Marvel and Sony still, for now, maintaining that secret? Is it because they’re afraid that the racist noise would be a distraction and wanted everyone to just find out who she is after they’re into her while watching the movie? Or that we won’t be interested in seeing the Peter and MJ story again? Character identities shouldn’t be hidden out of fear.

We can make jokes about secret identities being appropriate for superhero movies, but this sort of thing rarely works anymore, if it ever did. And it’s not just because of scoopers, spoilers, and speculators ruining the reveals with rumors that turn out to be right. Most of the time such surprises don’t even make sense for their movies.

What is it going to be this time, Peter Parker meets a girl named “Michele” who halfway into the movie confesses her real name is Mary Jane and she just told him a different name because she’s an actress and likes to pretend to be other people? Unless that’s really, really essential for the story being told, they can forget it.

It is hard to believe that there will be any difference in our enjoyment of Spider-Man: Homecoming if we know she’s MJ the whole time. Just as Star Trek Into Darkness would have been fine if we always knew John Harrison is Khan and same goes for Spectre with Oberhauser being Blofeld. Maybe even for Skyfall with Eve being Miss Moneypenny.

J.J. Abrams Realizes Lying About Khan Was a Bad Idea Even Though He Had to Lie About Khan

The best example of when a canonical character is exposed as such as a twist may be the reveal of Professor Rathe being Moriarty in the post-credits stinger of Young Sherlock Holmes. Would it have been prematurely spoiled if the web existed back then? Apparently it was indeed quickly discussed on the Internet in 1985 and spoiled on newscasts.

It doesn’t change the movie to know it. And mostly because there was never a sequel, it doesn’t really matter that the reveal was made at all. It was fun fan service off to the side, sort of like the Spider-Signal bit at the end of Captain America: Civil War. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character being identified as Robin at the end of The Dark Knight Rises.

As for the other character reveal in The Dark Knight Rises, Miranda turning out to be Talia Al-Ghul is actually an important plot point for that movie and the whole trilogy. It calls back to the villain of Batman Begins, her father, Ra’s Al-Ghul, and has significant ground in the story. It’s an example of another sort of movie villain cliche, the vengeful relative of a previous baddie being the new baddie for a sequel, but that’s okay.

That Talia secret was rumored ahead of the movie’s release, too, and it was fine because that’s just how the story plays for the characters, regardless of how it’s told to the audience. That’s what needs to be understood about these character reveals. They should matter first and foremost to the people in the story, before they matter to us.

Hopefully MJ being MJ in Spider-Man: Homecoming will truly just be about story and character and not part of a trick. We can usually trust the MCU with reveals that aren’t so much shockers as reasonable pieces of character development. Like the Giant-Man bit in Civil War and Winter Soldier being Bucky and even the Mandarin twist in Iron Man 3.

The Future of Spider-Man at the Movies

It’s best that we now know Zendaya is MJ. It’s typically best that we know the roles people are playing in movies at the point of their being cast. For the most part, until they’re portrayed on screen they’re just names anyway. And canon or not, those names don’t have to come with expectations as far as physical appearance or personality traits.

Tell the story that has to be told or at least one that will be satisfyingly entertaining and fill it with characters that suit that story. Get that right, and a “Michelle” or “MJ” by any other name should be just as sweet. Yes, there is significance in character names for adaptations like these, but focus should always be on character, not character name, just as focus should always be on story, not an appealing title.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.