Did the MCU Do Justice to Aunt May & MJ?
Let me start by saying that I did really enjoy Spider-Man: No Way Home. It invoked so many feelings in me because I actively remember going with my mother and younger brother to see the first Spider-Man Sam Raimi film in theaters and all the subsequent films in that trilogy. My older sister’s favorite superhero was Spider-Man. He is one of my favorite superheroes, and Tom Holland has been one of the best incarnations of him due to being able to embody that teenage Peter Parker era.
The problem is that outside of Peter, the MCU’s version of Spider-Man does not seem invested in building up the Spider-Man mythology in a way that pays off. While I’ve spoken about the comparisons between Miles Morales and the writing for MCU’s Peter Parker, the most jarring realizations of this came after thinking about the writing around Michelle Jones-Watson (Zendaya) and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei).
Spoilers for Spider-Man: No Way Home
When Aunt May gives the “with great power there must also come great responsibility” line before dying at the hands of the Green Goblin I felt a little bit of rage run through my soul.
Marisa Tomei is almost 60, but she looks so good she could pass for 40. Since she’s been in the series, she’s been seen as an object of hotness from many of the older men. We even see her having been dating Happy in this film. Deep sigh.
Look, this was classic fridging of a female character to push a male character forward. I know they were trying to do something by making her the Uncle Ben, but the reason we don’t have an Uncle Ben is because the MCU decided to make that Iron Man for Holland’s Peter. (A decision I have never been a fan of, but that’s for another day.) May’s death felt cheap because it was just copy-and-pasting another character’s persona onto her own.
Other than knowing who Spider-Man is, I don’t feel like Aunt May had an impactful role in MCU’s Peter’s life. She’s just a legal guardian and then, I guess because maybe Tomei didn’t want to be in any more films, she was killed off because they wanted Peter to have the kind of close-to-home trauma that really makes Spider-Man, Spider-Man.
But three movies in, if you haven’t shown that it is failure of how much the series doesn’t understand who Peter Parker is besides being a cute, genius teenager. He’s a cute, genius broke teenager.
I don’t hate May dying inherently, but I dislike her dying to fill in a role that the series was trying hard to subvert.
Now, let’s move into MJ, aka Michelle Jones-Watson.
“Peter’s had a lot of friends over the years in the comics, and a lot of schoolmates and characters he’s interacted with. It wasn’t just Mary Jane Watson; it wasn’t just Gwen Stacy; it wasn’t just Harry Osborn,” Marvel Studios mastermind Kevin Feige said in 2017. “So we were very interested in the other characters, and that’s where Liz came from and that’s where the version of the character Michelle came from.”
But to do what?
Co-screenwriter John Francis Daley confirmed to Yahoo Movies that he intended Michelle to “be a reinvention” of Mary Jane. “It’s not up to us, but that’s certainly how we planted the seeds in this movie. Just to make her wholly different.”
Zendaya got a lot of racist blowback for playing MJ and I think she has been absolutely a delight in the role. I’m glad she has been there and I will fight for her right to be in this movie.
At the same time, I don’t think the franchise did as much with her as they could have.
In many ways, the MCU’s MJ feels more like Gwen Stacy with the MJ name. Her intelligence is more in line with Gwen and it isn’t until the second film that she becomes a love interest officially for Peter. I do like that she finds out he is Spider-Man on her own and that we do have some background moments of her coming out of her shell.
But due to that, MJ and Peter are really only together for maybe two months before the events of No Way Home actually happen. Not to mention they were all gone due to the Blip and nothing is ever really explored about what that did to them.
MJ and Peter Parker’s relationship is one of the big couples in comics. Mary Jane Watson, in terms of important long-time love interests for a superhero, is up there with Lois Lane. Pulling from the comics the fact that Doctor Strange has to take away that everyone knows Peter is Spider-Man is reminiscent of the controversial decision to have Mary Jane and Peter’s marriage undone due to the timeline manipulations of the villain Mephisto.
Except that decision stung because it came after years of that marriage being an important part of Peter Parker’s identity. And since then all they ended up doing was have the couple be in another slow-burn relationship.
MJ and Peter’s relationship in the MCU doesn’t feel like it earns that same sort of big moment. They weren’t together long, and they weren’t even friends for a very long time. Our Rachel Leishman argues that they are both teenagers and therefore it of course feels big to them, and while I respect that, to me it feels like they were doing more of the same—using the MJ name as shorthand for actually writing a character.
I appreciate that MJ in the MCU was not a damsel in distress and did play a more active role when she was on screen, but that inherently doesn’t make her a well-formed character.
It says a lot that the most emotional moment with MJ in No Way Home for me was when Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker saved her because we know the pain he carried about not being able to save Gwen Stacy.
Walking out of No Way Home, I felt a lot of love for Spider-Man in my heart and what he has meant to me for so many decades as a fan. I love that the MCU brought Tom Holland into the fold and it felt so good seeing all the Peters play off each other (even though, no shade Into The Spider-Verse did the exact same thing and better, because Peter Porker Rights).
But I think when I look at all of Holland’s films together, they were missing something and it was that so many key parts of who Peter was in the comics. I mean, we never see him with a camera! Yet that’s the thing about Spider-Man. He is such a good character that even just getting him right can make up for a lot of flaws.
I hope that when the apparent Spider-Man 4 film comes out, it will find a way to recenter the series around our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, and not Tony Stark.
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