Marvel Doesn't know how to use MJ: Nic Woolfe
Intro - Mary Jane curbing off Lois Lane
This September marks the release of Spider-Man for the PS4. The game features Mary Jane Watson, arguably Peter Parker’s greatest love as an investigative journalist. It’s an interesting route for the character to take, but when I think of Mary Jane I don’t think of her as the Lois Lane type. Honestly, despite having such a long history, It doesn’t feel like Mary Jane has a defined character.
Why I Love Silver Age Mary Jane
Now, for me, Mary Jane is the love interest for Spider-Man, having been so on Spider-Man the Animated Series and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man Trilogy when I grew up. But the reason it was her and not someone like Gwen Stacy is because rather than “just being there” Mary Jane was created to be an injection of Silver Age fun meant to spruce up Peter’s life.
I love it in Spider-Man 3 when Mary Jane and Harry Osborne dance in his kitchen because not only are the actors/characters aren’t afraid of looking silly, but it captures that same good vibe of early MJ. Shockingly, according to long-time Spider-Man writer Gerry Conway, the Amazing Spider-Man film series’ version of Gwen Stacy is modeled after Mary Jane’s personality. Everytime Gwen is playful, snarky, and radiant is due to Mary Jane Watson. Of course, MJ didn’t stay that way.
Why I Love Bronze Mary Jane
The three stories that cement Bronze Age Mary Jane are Amazing Spider-Man #122, Amazing Spider-Man #259, and Parallel Lives. At the end of the first story, Mary Jane is seeking to comfort Peter after The Death of Gwen Stacy. Peter wants to be alone since he thinks he would spoil her party girl attitude. Rather than leaving, Mary Jane stays, showing that there is more to her lax personality in.
The second story is actually Mary Jane’s origin story, involving her abusive dad, trying to build a sense of normalcy, and deciding to be responsible for her own life. It’s a rather layered tale about desertion that codified Mary Jane’s party girl mask she wore compared to the more serious person she is by 70s. The last story is a retelling of Peter Parker and Mary Jane’s early lives, introducing a major recontextualization of their relationship, with her knowing Peter was Spider-Man since the beginning. Retcons aside, the writing makes it work, creating this dynamic of a man who makes other people’s lives his responsibility vs. a woman who learned the hard way about taking responsibility for herself. However, if that dynamic is intentional, I have yet to see it in anywhere else.
Misery, Misery, Misery
For as much as Mary Jane has going for her, Marvel treats her as a nuisance. Between her introduction in Amazing Spider-Man #42 and her freaking origin story, Spider-Man comics would be published for over 18 YEARS!!! 18 years to fully delve into Mary Jane’s psyche. Why? Because Marvel didn’t like the idea of aging up their flagship hero to an adult standard (note that nearly every Spider-Man adaptation starts off with Peter as still a teenager). Thankfully the time between her origin and her marriage to Peter was a lot shorter (3 years), but the most she was given to do afterwards was to bare Peter’s baby, and the baby wound up dying. Then, Marvel puts her through one traumatic event after another by: Blowing her up, briefly separate from Peter after having been revealed alive, and having The Devil erase her marriage to Peter (but not their relationship?) from history.
If you’d think that last one would give Mary Jane a chance to develop as her own character, the most she did was open up a failed nightclub and worked for Tony Stark as his secretary before (maybe?) getting back together with Peter. A truly engaging journey from one of Marvel’s First Ladies.
Lost In Adaptation
You’d think adaptations would better represent Mary Jane, but the movies she’s in all lack something. Kirsten Dunst spends three movies being a damsel in distress, and only ever gets to lay a mark on Venom. While MJ in Spider-Man Homecoming is fun to watch, she’s also a surprisingly (playfully?) mean person, which feels less Mary Jane and more Jessica Jones. Going back to Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy, you can google “Emma Stone cast as Mary Jane” and get quite a few hits of people thinking that was true because the casting seemed so perfect. I don’t hate Gwen Stacy, but it’s ridiculous that someone who’s been dead since the 70s gets revived not just as “a” Spider-Woman but also Gwenpool while Marvel does nothing with a living character who’s been around almost as long as Spidey.
Lois Lane - Woman of Action
Lois Lane is one of the greatest fictional characters of all time, not just a great female or comic character. Action Comics #1 portrays Lois as a haughty, headstrong, passionate journalist, always eager for a story. She embodies all the qualities that make the Superman persona work, seeking out her own brand of Truth, Justice, and the American Way, without feeling like Supe’s distaff counterpart.
Lois would even get her own comic book title, Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane (and yes, the space in “girl friend” is intentional). Despite the book defining Lois in relation to a man, DC still understood that she could be an active force in the stories...even if those stories could be all kinds of problematic. In comparison (specifically, in Superman vs.The Amazing Spider-Man), while seeing Clark Kent, Lois Lane, and Peter Parker in the same room work, Mary Jane’s an awkward third wheel, getting all second wave feminism when Lois is referred to as “Miss” rather than “Ms.”Now, I don’t keep up with modern comics, but I’m fairly confident this character trait of Mary Jane is never brought up before or after this story. Basically Lois Lane’s character perfectly complements Clark Kent’s, which I can’t say the same about Mary Jane and Peter Parker.
No Country for Non-Heroes
Despite her popularity, Mary Jane Watson doesn’t fully fit not just inside Spider-Man’s universe, but the Marvel Universe as a whole. While she has also had very good solo stories, they’re all listed as Spider-Man stories, not Mary Jane stories. She had her own book like Lois Lane, Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, but that was a high school spinoff with super-heroics sprinkled in. Granted, that melodrama works in Spider-Man 3 because MJ struggling as an actress and dealing with Peter’s drama fits in with the character drama that all the Raimi Spidey movies are first and foremost. But down to earth, real life drama belongs more in an indie comic book, not the bombastic Marvel Comics. What makes this especially baffling is that Mary Jane could have easily been turned into Spider-Woman, a character literally created so that no other company could claim the Spider-Woman. Yes, it would have basically made Mary Jane a distaff counterpart to Peter, but at least it would give her an opportunity to integrate with the broader Marvel Universe rather than Spider-Man’s smaller-than-you-think corner of it. Frankly, Mary Jane needs reinvention.
Internet Killed the Newspaper Star
There are ways to make Mary Jane an active and unique character in the Marvel Universe. First, since The Daily Bugle basically deconstructs Superman’s Daily Planet (the latter builds the hero up, the former tears the hero down), Mary Jane can be a reconstruction, which is easier to do today than in the 60s. As an actress, Mary Jane would know about instagram, youtube, and building her personal brand. Maybe she posts a rebuttal towards the Bugle’s hate screed against Spider-Man, and that innocuous retort blossoms into a website that talks about the workings of all the heroes ( The Daily Mesh, like the mesh in a spider web). Think of it as Ultimate Mary Jane as a Youtube star by way of Anita Sarkeesian, except supervillains are the ones doing the doxxing.
Boogie On Back
Second, bring back Mary Jane’s Silver Age personality. While the Lois Lane route is good for MJ, she shouldn’t be a carbon copy of Lois (who can be quite abrasive). It’s infuriating for a character introduced as THE angst-free thing about Peter’s life to later be full of angst. MJ being animated and alive should be an actual part of her character, not a facade. Don’t turn her into Gwenpool, keep the character development from AMS #259 and Parallel Lives, but let her be a character who knows how and when to enjoy herself.
Lastly, since this is still Marvel, Mary Jane needs to get in on the action. I know that she’s gone by Iron Spider and Spinneret, but I’ll throw a curveball and say she have a symbiote, like Venom. Now, because Venom’s first appearance literally involved him posing as her husband and scaring her to death, you can say this is wildly out of character for MJ to do.
But given how many times MJ has been attacked by super villains in the past and will be facing in this proposed future, it would be extremely poetic for her to take the source of her trauma and turn it into a force for good. Also, make MJ’s symbiote a newborn that’s taught morality (like Venom’s grandson Toxin), so as to lead to hijinks, like the slime toaster in Ghostbusters 2. Mary Jane Watson is a welcomes presence in for the last 50 or so years to me. That’s why it’s so frustrating that she doesn’t stand out and garner as much respect as she should. Hopefully in the next 50 years Marvel can turn her into her own character, not just the poster woman for Peter Parker.