Mary Jane Watson's Identity Crisis: WTF is Spider-Man's MJ as a Character Anymore? | Fanboys Anonymous

Mary Jane Watson is one of the most iconic love interests in the entire superhero genre. She's a core staple of the Spider-Man franchise—arguably the top female lead—and recognizable to even casual fans.

But despite being such an important, influential and noteworthy character, she's struggling to find her place in the modern day version of the Spider-Man mythos, to the point that I have to ask who is she anymore?

What is Mary Jane Watson's character these days?

Who is Mary Jane Watson?? Isn't It Obvious??

At first glance, you might be asking yourself what I'm even asking. Clearly, she's "Peter Parker's girlfriend/wife" and that's her role in the story. Duh.

But the damsel in distress trope has been dying out over the years. Rightfully so, might I add. Fans demand more effort to be put into stories so characters—typically more so women—are not just trophies that have to be saved by the hero and do nothing but get captured, shriek for help and plant a kiss on our protagonist to thank him.

They need to be actual characters with definable traits to make them interesting, much in the same way that the best antagonists are more than just "the villain" of a story, but can be explained in more detail.

Norman Osborn is an emotionally neglectful, sometimes downright physically abusive when not absentee father to Peter Parker's best friend, Harry Osborn. In some ways, Norman is a father figure to Peter and a representation of what Peter could turn into if he allowed his intelligence to get the better of him and corrupt into arrogance. When Norman goes in over his head with pride and ego and obsession, it backfires on him, leading to his transformation into the insane Green Goblin.

That's character. He's not just some guy on a glider chucking bombs that Spider-Man needs to punch. Hence why no one's favorite villain in this series is Jack O'Lantern, who is effectively the same exact gimmick across the board. And this version of Norman has only had some tweaks here and there, but has remained largely the same character since the start.

So explain to me who Mary Jane Watson is these days.

Mary Jane Watson vs. Other Love Interests

Again, yes, she's Peter's love interest. But so are dozens of others. For a dork that gets picked on and has painfully bad relationships, Peter slays. He's tasted the full rainbow and has no shortage of notches on his belt.

Peter Parker's love interests list is so long that Ranker stops at a top 20, not including Indira Daimonji, Lian Tang, Sally Avril, etc.

Most of those are pretty pointless, if we're being honest. There isn't anything about Debra Whitman that stands out as special compared to Gwen Stacy that you couldn't just merge those two characters and be fine with it.

So perhaps an even better comparison than the villain equivalent with Norman Osborn is to judge Mary Jane Watson against another love interest in Felicia Hardy, aka Black Cat.

With Felicia, you're getting a vigilante. That offers Peter a reflection point where fans can look at her character in relation to Spider-Man and see why they are together as well as why they have issues. They have a commonality in their masked personas and adventures, but they differ greatly on their morality. She's often a criminal, whereas Peter is by the books good.

Who is Mary Jane in reflection to Peter?

Your answer can't be "the hot girl that Peter normally wouldn't be able to get" because that could apply to virtually any of them. Mary Jane is confident and sexy, but so is Felicia Hardy. Both are drawn with a big chest and perfect bodies and so on and so forth. They all are. But their attitudes are very much both the "spunky one" to counteract Peter, making that part redundant, along with how Mary Jane is "the cheerleader from school" at times, but so are many other characters like Liz Allan and Sally Avril.

To be fair, from someone's perspective who hasn't read all these comics, it isn't just Mary Jane who suffers from this copy/paste problem. Not only do we not need 15 different Green Goblin knockoffs, we also don't need Carlie Cooper as the love interest whose father is a cop when we have Gwen Stacy whose father is Captain George Stacy, for instance.

Back to Black Cat, take Catwoman into consideration. Selina Kyle's relationship with Bruce Wayne and the whole vigilante/Batman idea is the same situation, which makes a character like Vicki Vale stand out as an entirely different love interest for Bruce. Vale is a reporter who could expose Bruce's secret identity.

Hence why we have Betty Brant for Spider-Man. She's the Vicki Vale, in some ways. Not exactly, obviously, but there are some parallels. As well as the whole Gwen Stacy having a cop for a father idea.

So if she can't just be the hot girl or the sexy and confident knockout to prove he hit the jackpot when he could just as easily get with Felicia Hardy or many others...who is Mary Jane?

Mary Jane isn't the smart and nerdy girl who Peter sees himself in, like Indira, Debra, sometimes Gwen, etc. Does that make her the dumb one to offset how intelligent he is? Yikes!

If you're judging a book by its cover and saying "but she's the redhead", then that's sad—and even that isn't always true, sadly.

How the Superhero Genre Adapts Over Time

As these superhero stories last decades, aspects of their stories need to change as time goes on.

Sometimes, the entire character is given a full reboot to be something different, like how Jaime Reyes is a much more different Blue Beetle than Ted Kord. Other times, like the Dan Garrett transition to Ted Kord, or with all the Green Lanterns or most of the Flash characters, they have a new person behind the mask, but many of the core elements remain the same.

Superman used to not be able to fly, but that eventually became the most iconic part about him. Batman used to use guns until it was the central character trait that he not only didn't use them, but also didn't kill at all.

In the same way that you don't see Clark Kent change his clothes in a phone booth since they don't exist anymore, and Superman isn't "more powerful than a locomotive" now that trains aren't as prominent, Peter Parker has gone through similar changes.

Modern day Spider-Man doesn't function 100% the same as what it used to be, outside of the origin story of getting bitten by a spider that has something weird about it (frequently not radioactive anymore; sometimes the origin of the lab can be Oscorp or another place), failing to stop Uncle Ben's killer (sometimes after a wrestling match, sometimes other details), and taking on the motto that "with great power comes great responsibility."

But look at J. Jonah Jameson and how much he's changed since even the Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire movies!!

Technology has completely altered the way that character functions in just the span of 10 years, even, as no emphasis was put on this for the Andrew Garfield series, since many elements had already become outdated.

Nobody reads newspapers anymore, and Peter cannot be a photographer who sells pictures of himself to Jameson because everyone has cell phones and reads their news digitally. Hence why Jameson is now an Alex Jones type who is more likely to pop up on a YouTube channel ranting about Spider-Man—the fundamental aspect of his character that has maintained over time—than to be Peter's boss.

I think the franchise still hasn't quite settled on what Peter's alternative job is. They seem keen on making him a professor and/or scientist, but that doesn't work for the younger teenager. Sometimes, he could be a lab assistant, I guess, yet if he's doing that job, you'd wonder how they could maintain the money struggle aspect of the character that has been one of his major problems.

Going back to Mary Jane, she was brought onto the scene as a gag. Aunt May wanted to set him up with her, and he kept dodging that, until it turned out she was actually this smoking hot sassy girl. Jackpot indeed, especially if you found the goody two-shoes Gwen to be boring, right?

In the Maguire films, wherein Gwen isn't a factor until appearing pretty much in name only in the awful third film, Mary Jane is upgraded to the literal "girl next door" trope that Peter's been in love with since they were kids, but was always out of his reach, as she's the hot popular girl and he's the shy nerd.

That makes sense and is a massive step forward, but it has a limited shelf-life. That's why her character is only ever still an object of affection to be obtained. That carries over into the second film, because she has no character beyond that. If she's not "the one Peter is going after", who is she? The model who can't act? That's an unnecessary side plot we don't care about any more than if we found out Wonder Woman's love interest Steve Trevor has a fantasy football team.

Everything needs to be in service of the driving the main character's story along.

This is why Lois Lane is such an important part of the Superman story. She's feisty while Clark isn't. Clark is more of the book smart nerd who can be naive, while Lois struggles with spelling, but is incredibly street smart and intuitive. Lois is more of a cynic, while Clark is more hopeful. He's otherworldly and she grounds him. Plus, she's got the whole reporter/superhero dynamic, too, giving her two functions inside the story for both Clark and Kal-El.

Where Does That Leave Mary Jane Watson in the 2020s?

Lois Lane is a good way to transition to modern day Mary Jane, as it seems this is what their inspiration was for the most recent video game series and some of the Ultimate series.

MJ was positioned as the one who works for the Daily Bugle, not Peter. Now, she's an investigative journalist, who is filling the Lois role of looking into things behind the scenes to further the plot along.

Gone are the "super hot confident model/actress" traits, because those are surface-level and have nothing to do with being an investigative journalist reporter type.

Outside of not just being named Lois Lane, this version of MJ might as well be an entirely different character—not that we need any more, especially since this also could have more easily just been Betty Brant if that were the case.

They seem bent on the journalist character, as that's carried over even into the Ultimate Spider-Man show, where it seems (I haven't watched it all) that she's not even really a factor, just like how they avoided MJ in The Amazing Spider-Man in favor of Gwen (minus some deleted scene content), and it seems as though Spectacular Spider-Man just has her as another hot popular cheerleader side character and nothing more, correct?

But let's talk about the MCU version and how awful that character is.

First off, she's not even Mary Jane Watson. She's Michelle Jones, referred to at the end of the first film as MJ, and then once more retroactively given the surname Jones-Watson to be MJ-Watson.

Mary Jane is one of the most iconic redhead characters out there, alongside others like Black Widow, The Little Mermaid Ariel, Daphne Blake from Scooby-Doo, Poison Ivy, Jessica Rabbit and April O'Neil.

Naturally, they got rid of that, along with the name.

As far as her character is concerned, she's a cynical joyless pseudo-friend (basically acquaintance at best) in the background of Homecoming while Peter is interested in Liz Toomes (who is one of many "not really the character Liz Allan, but whatever, we messed up a bunch of these; just look at Betty and Flash and...)

At no point in the first film does Peter have any real flirtation with Michelle, who I've long maintained should have been Michele Gonzales instead, to keep that up.

Suddenly, in the second film, he's head over heels for her. Why? No reason. He just is. There isn't anything explaining what it is about her that he likes. He's just madly in love. Okay. Whatever.

That carries over into the third film and that's about it.

But for argument's sake, let's say the franchise wanted to take aspects of this version of the character and incorporate that into the overall Mary Jane Watson concept. That would mean she would be, at best, a very smart (Gwen/Debra/Indira/etc) classmate (too many to name) who has a darker personality  compared to Peter (Felicia) and....that's it.

"You're a deeply mistrusting person, and I respect that."

As far as a reinvention, this doesn't really check off many boxes necessary to stand the test of time.

So Who SHOULD Mary Jane Watson Be?

As far as I'm concerned, taking Superman as the template, we need to sort out Peter Parker's love life with the pros and cons—or, the reflections that are positive versus the reflections that are too negative for him to end up with that person.

Felicia Hardy has the darker reflection gimmick down. She's also more of the sex appeal and is the object of pure lust in many ways. She's the thrill and the vigilante with the passion and burns red hot, but the flame dies quickly. Take that "hot girl" angle away from Mary Jane Watson.

Betty Brant has the coworker at the Daily Bugle thing down. She's a receptionist, but making her a reporter isn't a stretch. There's your Vicki Vale and Lois Lane tropes. Take that away from Mary Jane.

Gwen is the "girl next door" in the sense of being the "good girl" heart rather than the literal next door neighbor, but might as well be if you're merging the characters together. She also happens to have a cop father, and can often be written as Peter's intellectual equal. Take those away from Mary Jane.

You're left with a few character tropes that can merge a lot of characters into just a few roles:

  1. The hot popular girl who Peter fawns over, but she doesn't look at him that way because he's a shy nerd. = Liz Allan, Sally Avril, etc
  2. The temptation vigilante bad girl that Peter can't help but to be into, but he knows it won't work out in the end = Felicia Hardy
  3. The coworker, classmate, or roommate who is a byproduct of just being around them = Michele Gonzales, Betty Brant, many schoolmates and such
  4. The good girl, girl-next-door who is emotionally supportive = Gwen Stacy, Mary Jane sometimes, etc
  5. The intellectual equal = Gwen at times, Debra, Indira, Lian Tang, etc
  6. The unfortunate daughter of a cop which offsets Peter as a vigilante = Gwen, Carlie (this trope would also apply if Jameson ever had a daughter Peter was involved in)

I feel like the only way to have your cake and eat it, too, with how this franchise is trying to make Mary Jane fill the Lois Lane role is to lean less into the investigative journalism side and make her the photographer who works at The Daily Bugle. That goes with the modeling and actress thing, too. But then, you almost have to make her someone who is chasing Spider-Man for clout, rather than someone Peter's lusting over.

Maybe that's the evolution of the character, making her less of Peter Parker's ultimate endgame girl he ends up with, and more of another failed romance like Felicia Hardy.

And that brings me to a revelation that I didn't have until recently. All these years, I've remained staunch that MJ is Peter's true love, but I'm realizing that's just a bias I have because I grew up with the animated series and the Maguire films.

In reality, I think I've come full circle to thinking Gwen Stacy is Peter's true love.

She just works better as a more fully-fleshed out character with more avenues, being the intellectual equal and supportive girl next door with a cop father which makes sense why she'd be more willing to put up with his heroism, because she understands what it's like, having had a father who fought crime.

Otherwise, what role does Mary Jane serve but to be the backup option after Gwen dies who is just another supportive girlfriend and physical object of his affection who can't contribute to the story without being a Lois Lane ripoff, in need of rescuing from peril, and/or just arguing with Peter to create unnecessary tension and proving they aren't actually a good couple?

Or, you can just judge a book by its cover and say Mary Jane Watson is the redhead who dates Spider-Man and this long-winded wall of text that I wrote up at 4am is just a fan geeking out too much over the specifics and I should go to bed, right?


Tony Mango is the founder, editor-in-chief, head writer and podcast host of Fanboys Anonymous as well as all other A Mango Tree branches including Smark Out Moment. He is a pundit, creative director/consultant, fiction writer and more. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.