This is the 11th of 13 or 14 all-new blog posts that are being posted on a monthly basis until this blog's final post in December 2017.
WARNING: Spoilers for Spider-Man: Homecoming ahead.
In this summer's Marvel Cinematic Universe smash hit Spider-Man: Homecoming--the most satisfying Spidey movie since Sam Raimi's pre-MCU Spider-Man 2--15-year-old Peter Parker struggles to balance superheroing with his obligations to his Queens high school's academic decathlon team. Spidey, for a change, isn't being portrayed by some 31-year-old whom you can tell has to similarly struggle a bit to recapture the nervous energy of being a teen, like an alien visitor trying to understand the thrusts that take place during human lovemaking.
At the time of the filming of Homecoming in Atlanta, British actor Tom Holland wasn't old enough in America to drink! Casting such a young actor as Spidey was a brilliant move. Remember how Daniel Craig silenced the haters from the 007 fanboy contingent ("Craig's too blond!" "Craig's too short!" "Craig doesn't know how to drive stick!" "Craig's ears stick out too much!") and amazed everybody as a younger-than-usual Bond in Casino Royale? That's how I feel about Holland as a younger-than-usual Spidey right now.
Holland's my favorite live-action Spidey since Shinji Tôdô and his stunt double Hirofumi Koga (they were Japanese Spider-Man, for the folks at home who think a kaiju is a Jewish member of Cobra Kai). In last year's Captain America: Civil War and now this movie, Holland finally found the key to playing Spidey (as in a version of Spidey that's attempting to be the closest on the screen to how he usually is in comic-book form): he's essentially both Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse at the same time.
Lean too much towards Bugs, and you get Drake Bell's annoying and overly cocky version of the web-slinger on the animated Ultimate Spider-Man. Make him too much like Mickey, and you get either the Tobey Maguire version or the Andrew Garfield version. Maguire and Garfield were solid when they portrayed Peter without the red-and-blue suit (over at The Ringer, Micah Peters nicely explains why Maguire perfectly nailed Peter's feelings of powerlessness in Spider-Man 2), but in the suit, Maguire's Spidey was too humorless for my tastes, while Garfield just didn't sound all that convincing to me when he tried to embody the jokester side of Spidey.
Holland is also a Spidey who interestingly never gets visibly touchy about sharing the screen (or red carpet) with female co-stars who tower over him. I believe I have a clip:
Whoops, wrong Spidey. Anyway, you know why Gwyneth Paltrow was barefoot during all of her scenes with Robert Downey Jr., Holland's Homecoming co-star, in the first Avengers movie? It wasn't just because of Avengers director Joss Whedon's creepy foot fetish. It was also because Paltrow towers over Downey in real life, and when David Letterman interviewed the Iron Man star on CBS in 2008, Downey made fun of his own average height and implied that he wasn't comfortable being dwarfed by his female co-star, which explains all those scenes where Downey and Paltrow are of equal height (thanks to lifts in Downey's shoes) or, in the case of The Avengers, all those scenes where Paltrow ditches the heels. Whereas none of that weird shit happens when Holland's playing Spidey.
Peter's not supposed to be the most imposing superhero around (sure, he has super-strength, but he relies more often on his intellect and spidery agility to stay alive or overcome a crisis), and Holland gets that. In the red-and-blue suit, Holland's not so insecure and vain about closely resembling the undersized Spidey drawn by Mark Bagley in the acclaimed Ultimate Spider-Man comic, which, in 2000, reimagined Peter as a 15-year-old who's new to the superhero game, much like what Homecoming is doing with Peter now.
One of Peter's decathlon teammates--and taller female friends--in Homecoming is Michelle, a disinterested (in everything from superheroes to school) oddball who's comfortable in her own skin and prefers to read W. Somerset Maugham novels in the middle of P.E. classes. She's winningly played by pop singer and Disney Channel sitcom star Zendaya, and she's also close in spirit to the Zendaya who winningly dragged E! show host Giuliana Rancic in public back in 2015, after Rancic uttered on the air a racist comment about how Zendaya's natural hair on the Oscar red carpet made her look like she smells of patchouli oil and weed.
Even Entertainment Weekly essayist Darren Franich, who found Homecoming to be exceedingly corporate and too devoid of the idiosyncratic touches Raimi brought to his Spidey movies (including even the clunky hot mess that was Spider-Man 3), couldn't find a lot of negative things to say about Zendaya's performance as Michelle. Homecoming director Jon Watts, the same filmmaker behind the Sundance 2015 critics' darling Cop Car, has often compared Zendaya's memorable and standoffish character to the Ally Sheedy character in The Breakfast Club and Linda Cardellini's role as Lindsay Weir on Freaks and Geeks (the same show where Homecoming co-screenwriter John Francis Daley got his start as an actor).
Okay, but which version of Lindsay? You have to be specific. She wasn't the same person through the show's entire run like how the Sheedy character was one type of person in The Breakfast Club--before she allowed Molly Ringwald's character to give her a makeover, that is. (And that makeover, which scrubbed away everything that made Sheedy's nonconformist character unique and enjoyable to watch, was Reaganite director John Hughes' most Reagan-ish, pro-conformity moment as a filmmaker, as well as the second most hateable moment in a Hughes movie, right below any racist scene featuring Long Duk Dong. The makeover is so awful that, according to Franich in his critique of Homecoming, "when we watched it in my high school, our teacher literally fast-forwarded through it.")
Freaks and Geeks was mainly about how high school becomes the first major testing ground for the identities we forge as adults, so that Judd Apatow joint followed Lindsay as she, like most of the other Freaks and Geeks characters, tried on several different phases and quickly discarded most of them: wanna-be burnout who's so afraid to smoke her new clique's weed that she never fucks with weed; neighborhood bully; cold-hearted mathlete; wanna-be burnout who experiments with weed but winds up becoming even more afraid of it, etc. Judging from Zendaya's low-key and sleepy-eyed performance in Homecoming, it looks like Zendaya was enamored with Lindsay's nutty and very short-lived stoner phase.
The reason for Michelle's often sleepy eyes is left unexplained since Homecoming is yet another squeaky-clean, family-friendly Marvel Studios movie (an MCU flick distributed by Sony this time out instead of Disney, to be more accurate), but the fact that she's not a slovenly dresser is a hint that she doesn't toke. She's the kind of character Bill Murray used to play so effectively in hits like Tootsie and Ghostbusters--a character who reacts to the out-of-the-ordinary events surrounding him with indifference, jadedness and quips instead of awe--except this Murray type has been deposited into a superhero movie and is played by a biracial girl.
Michelle is a small role for Zendaya, but she makes the most of her limited screen time, and it's a surprising performance because it's full of subtlety. Prior to Homecoming, Zendaya wasn't known for being a subtle actor.
Zendaya was a typical child or teen actor in those interchangeable Disney Channel sitcoms that adults have to grudgingly sit through for three minutes while waiting for Gravity Falls to start. Those actors are prone to lots of overly broad acting and are directed to shout every other line to the rafters as if they're Shatner in that mostly shitty third and final season of Star Trek.
Don't know what direction they give kids in Disney sitcoms, but to direct adults to behave that way you'd say "act like you're on cocaine"— Andy Richter (@AndyRichter) February 25, 2014
Even Zendaya herself is embarrassed about some of her own earlier work.
I would love to see how Michelle would react to that "fucking ray of sunshine" from Zendaya's earlier Disney Channel days.
Michelle is also at the center of one of Homecoming's major reveals. By the end of the film, the standoffish student has grown closer to her decathlon teammates and become their new leader, so she allows them to start calling her by her common nickname: MJ, the same nickname given to fun-loving supermodel/actress Mary Jane Watson, Peter's longtime girlfriend (and, for a couple of decades, wife) from the comics.
Mary Jane is a superhero love interest who, like most other superhero love interests, has gone through so many different visual incarnations in the comics. There's what I like to call Classic MJ, the MJ in long red hair with bangs who was immortalized by her very first line to Peter in the '60s comics: "Face it, tiger. You just hit the jackpot!" Classic MJ is my favorite visual incarnation of MJ. And then in the late '80s and early '90s, which was the period when I started reading Spidey comics after I was first exposed to Spidey via animated shows like Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, Amazing Spider-Man artist Todd McFarlane and his successor Erik Larsen introduced their really big-haired, hypersexualized takes on MJ, which haven't aged so well visually like Classic MJ has and are part of what I like to refer to as the era of Jersey Mob Housewife MJ. Homecoming's name reveal--plus a subtle glimmer of romantic interest in Peter at the end of Michelle's final scene (while Holland and Zendaya have become a couple in real life)--establishes Michelle (whose last name is Jones) as the new MJ figure in this MCU relaunch of Spidey, although Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige has frequently clarified that the new MJ is only an homage to all prior incarnations of MJ and not the same MJ Kirsten Dunst portrayed in the three Raimi movies.
|Mary Jane's first appearance in 1966, drawn by John Romita Sr., who modeled her after Ann-Margret|
|Illustrated by Adam Hughes|
|The Spectacular Spider-Man|
|Illustrated by Steve Rude|
|Illustrated by Takeshi Miyazawa|
|King Size Spider-Man Special #1 (2008), illustrated by Colleen Coover|
|Mary Jane (first and third panels) in Invincible Iron Man|
I was afraid Homecoming's MJ reveal was going to be a repeat of the "Trust us, Benedict Cumberbatch will be starring as John Harrison, not Khan"/"Okay, we was just playing, he's really Khan" bullshit of Star Trek Into Darkness and the Broccoli family's similarly lame attempts to deny that they cast Christoph Waltz as Blofeld in Spectre. Fortunately, Marvel Studios handled it a little better than Bad Robot and the Broccolis did with their respective attempts at obfuscation, while Darren Franich and Vox critic Todd VanDerWerff believe Homecoming totally botched the MJ reveal (Franich also feels that the reveal is too much like Ally Sheedy's Breakfast Club makeover; he predicts that after Homecoming, Michelle won't be as interesting a character anymore, as these movies try to remold her into another typical superhero movie love interest and then set up her and Peter as the endgame couple). Unlike Bad Robot and Eon, the Marvel Studios folks weren't caught in a lie. They were right the whole time when they insisted to the press that Zendaya won't be playing Mary Jane.
But the "She's Michelle, not Mary Jane" development is also a disappointing twist, especially after Bruno Mars dropped a few weeks ago the racy music video he co-directed with "Uptown Funk" video director Cameron Duddy for his catchy, '80s R&B-style bedroom jam "Versace on the Floor." Zendaya, a Bruno fan who had a hand in the "Versace on the Floor" video's grown-and-sexy-hotel concept, appears in the video in a custom-made Versace chainmail minidress (a skirt that--spoiler alert--ends up on the floor) and what appears to be a lace front wig with bangs, and she ends up looking much more like Classic MJ than anyone else who's portrayed MJ in animation or live action. Not even the Dunst version of MJ looks all that much like Classic MJ.
zendaya was serving a comic book mj look in the versace on the floor video and it breaks my heart that her mj line was "just an homage" 😓— serena (@PAPERTOWNED) August 21, 2017
Okay, Zendaya's portrayal of a girl who gets an O just from hearing the sound of the voice of the also-Versace-clad Bruno from next door is not exactly Hayley Kiyoko from the Disney Channel's Lemonade Mouth getting butt-nekkid with a white girl and a horribly fetishized Lawrence on Insecure this season, but it's still pretty racy for a Disney Channel star. The grown-and-sexy vibe Zendaya's going for here is also a bit on the dull side at first, compared to her colorful turn in Homecoming.
But the "Versace on the Floor" video becomes more fun when you start to imagine it as a steamy Spider-Verse fan film about Classic MJ being a supermodel and dancing by herself in a glam hotel room while she has the hots for her Filipino neighbor--kind of like how, in the McFarlane and Larsen eras, Jersey Mob Housewife MJ was often shown doing modeling gigs or portraying bombshells on daytime soaps. And had Zendaya gotten to play Mary Jane in Homecoming and future MCU movies instead of an homage to her (we don't know if Michelle's going to become a supermodel like Mary Jane, but I doubt it), the video proves that the statuesque Zendaya would have nailed the supermodel side of Mary Jane so well in those future movies.
|Versace, Versace, Versace, Versace, Versace, Versace|
|Word to New York 'cause the Dyckman and Heights girls are callin' me papi|
|I'm all on the low, take a famous girl out where there're no paparazzi/I'm tryna give Halle Berry a baby and no one can stop me|
Also, at the end of the video, when the Versace's finally on the floor, it's accidentally reminiscent of a key sexually charged moment from the McFarlane era of MJ. Jersey Mob Housewife MJ tries to cheer up her depressed husband by dropping WilliWear on the floor.
Or was it Vera on the floor?
Inverse, Caitlin Busch raises a good point when she says, "Thank goodness Zendaya isn't actually Mary Jane--because Michelle is already better, and she's the character they need to make a third Spider-Man film series work," and "Zendaya's MJ--messy, snarky, eagle-eyed, and happy to throw a casual middle finger Peter's way every once in a while--is already giving Peter a run for his money. She's going to be a better MJ than Mary Jane Watson ever was in the original Spider-Man films and most of the comics (the classic ones, anyway)." But Bruno and Zendaya's video is making me repeat that old Marvel catchphrase "What if..." and it's making me kind of wish that Zendaya was actually playing Mary Jane. So why isn't she? Was Marvel Studios afraid that casting a non-white actress as the MJ we're more familiar with was going to lead to an outcry from white Spidey fans, just like the uproar from white Thor readers over Idris Elba being cast as Heimdall at the time of the making of the first Thor flick (or the white rage over Chronicle director Josh Trank choosing Chronicle star Michael B. Jordan to portray Johnny Storm in 2015's non-MCU Fantastic Four megaflop)?
Look, Marvel Studios has made a lot of effective storytelling choices in its film and TV projects--the MCU is the gold standard when it comes to building shared cinematic universes--and I especially enjoyed the long-overdue introduction of a Filipino American guy to the MCU fold in Homecoming (Jacob Batalon as Peter's best friend Ned, another Homecoming scene-stealer). But the studio has also chickened out (and has been afraid to defy the Marvel publishing division's most conservative white fans, the same kind of cruel fans who cyberbullied Marvel editor Heather Antos--after she innocuously tweeted a pic of her "Marvel milkshake crew"--and shouldn't be given the time of day anyway) so many times.
Marvel Studios' track record is marred by a certain kind of corporate timidity Darren Franich complains about in his aforementioned essay, which he entitled "The illusion of change in Spider-Man: Homecoming." (In the essay, Franich argues that this timidity has its roots in Stan Lee and his skeptical-sounding dialogue, in '60s Spidey comics, about the effectiveness of political activism, despite his support of the civil rights movement in op-eds.) The studio failed to seize the opportunity to make the first female superhero movie in the era of shared-universe-franchises and then be a few steps ahead of the DC Extended Universe over at Warner Bros., which, instead, beat Marvel Studios to the punch and made the wildly successful Wonder Woman. Its obsession with sticking to certain tentpole franchise filmmaking formulas famously alienated Edgar Wright and (to a lesser extent) Ava DuVernay. It whitewashed certain roles that could have been juicy showcases for Asian actors (the casting of Randall Park as Agent Jimmy Woo, a Marvel character who's been around since the '50s, in next year's Ant-Man and the Wasp might be the studio's way of apologizing for that).
Also, almost all of the studio's film and TV projects are weirdly frozen in the '70s and '80s, racial politics-wise (while the Marvel publishing division is trying to lead the way in diversity and representation in its titles and is being more progressive in its writing, whether through creative decisions like the introduction of an Asian American Hulk--and the addition of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay as writers for the Black Panther titles, after criticisms erupted over how the publishing division keeps trying to lure black readers but never seems to hire black writers--or through the rollout of POC-driven or female-driven titles like the smash hit Ms. Marvel, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, America and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl). Instead of Marvel Television's Netflix/MCU shows taking a cue from recent Asian American Marvel comics writers like Greg Pak or Marjorie Liu and critiquing or changing the Asian stereotypes and white savior tropes that were part of the '70s and '80s source material, those shows stupidly reinforce those same stereotypes and tropes.
And now this "She's Michelle, not Mary Jane" thing? If it's true that the creation of Michelle took place because Marvel Studios didn't want to be faced with another "White folks angry about Driis playing Heimdall"-esque headline all over nerd news sites or because some high-powered exec was uncomfortable with allowing Mary Jane to be non-white, it's, disappointingly, another chapter in How to Dodge Progress the Marvel Way.