Who Is Zendaya Really Playing in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING?

Just days ahead of our visit to the Atlanta set of Spider-Man: Homecoming, news broke revealing  Zendaya as the rebooted franchise’s new Mary Jane Watson. But once we stepped into the shared offices of Sony/Marvel/Disney, we were stunned to discover everyone from cast to crew was being tight-lipped on the Mary Jane reports.Marvel producer Eric Carroll rebuffed the rumors saying only, “I can tell you that Zendaya is playing a character named Michelle. And I promise you, when the movie comes out, that her name is Michelle.” Sony producer Amy Pascal also dodged, saying, “Well, Peter has lots of girls around him in this movie. And in this movie, the story is about him and Liz. But Michelle and Ned are like his two friends, who are similar and come from similar backgrounds.” Pascal then moved into an anecdote about having no idea who the K.C. Undercover star was when she auditioned for Spider-Man: Homecoming. But then she emphasized how “(Zendaya) has been blowing us away every day.”Director Jon Watts parried questions about Zendaya’s role first with “There’s a couple Michelles in the comics.” Then he added, “I don’t want to say anything about any of that stuff, because it’s all these weird rumors flying around right now. I’d rather just not say anything until people see the movie.”Pressed if the rumors bother him, Watts said, “I mean, they’re usually wrong. So it’s really fun to watch people respond to all these incorrect rumors and reveal a lot of other things that they think might be going on. It’s just fun. It’s like being a magician because you’re like ‘Nah, nah, nope. Oh? Close! Nope, wrong again.'”The thing is: if Zendaya is not playing Mary Jane, why not say it directly? Why didn’t one person say, “Zendaya is not Mary Jane Watson.” It would have shut the rumors down cold. Instead, all this dodging and ambiguity about a character who otherwise seems like a minor figure in the film made me increasingly suspicious. It suggests Spider-Man: Homecoming is hiding a secret about “Michelle.”Since that visit last summer, online speculation has persisted that “Michelle” is actually Mary Jane, possibly a reveal that could be tipped in Marvel’s requisite post-credit scene. But to be clear: no one commented on any such thing on set. We can’t emphasize that enough. However, Zendaya’s scenes from the San Diego Comic-Con exclusive footage–which they re-screened for reporters on this visit–reminded this reporter of a different Spider-Man love interest. Follow me down the rabbit hole, will you?One of these scenes made has its way in the film’s first trailer: Peter ( Tom Holland) and his best bud Ned ( Jacob Batalon) are swooning over pretty and popular Liz Allan ( Laura Harrier). “We should probably stop staring before it gets creepy though,” Peter remarks. “Too late,” says a voice off-camera: cut to Zendaya as Michelle. Far from the perky, girly redhead portrayed by Kirsten Dunst in Sam Raimi‘s 2002 Spider-Man, Zendaya favors a no-makeup look, dark hair hastily swept into a careless ponytail that flows like a frizzy curtain over part of her sneering face. Her clothes are black, a seeming signal to her chipper classmates to back-off, as is the stack of books before her and the lone coffee mug. While everyone on set insisted she’s a friend of Peter’s, “Michelle” reads more like a loner. More specifically, she seems an allusion to an iconic outcast from a John Hughes‘ classic. And Watts confirmed it.”I always thought of her as being a version of Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club, what Linda Cardellini is like in Freaks and Geeks,” Watts said of Michelle, “It’s just a cool character, and it’s cool for her to be that character I thought. She has a really cool wardrobe, really funny, lots of literary nods.”If Mary Jane is the princess of The Breakfast Club-with Molly Ringwald‘s flirtatious feminity and enviable red locks–“Michelle” is the “basketcase” with dark hair, black clothes, and a secret.So all this brings me back to my admitted absolute speculation. Sure, there’s a few “Michelles” in the Spider-Man cannon. But this character, the cool, bookish girl with the “don’t mess with me” attitude reminded me most of the angst-filled Gwen Stacy of the Ultimate Spider-Man comics line. She favored black badass ensembles, suffered no fools, and regularly gave Peter a dressing down with harsh realities and a biting bit of wit. Plus, in that line, Peter spends two full volumes pining over Mary Jane before he notices Gwen. So, perhaps Spider-Man: Homecoming is pulling a similar trick with Liz and “Michelle?”I know. As theories go, this one is slim. But hang in there.When speaking about Spider-Man villains who might appear in sequels, Carroll stressed that the studios were reluctant to retread stories already explored in the first Spider-Man trilogy, or The Amazing Spider-Man reboot, which featured Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy. But what if the “Michelle” name is a device to get audiences to accept a new angle on a character they’ve already met, so the MCU can take her somewhere new and potentially awesome?As soon as I got back from the Atlanta set visit of Spider-Man: Homecoming, it was announced that Disney/Marvel TV’s animated series Ultimate Spider-Man would be bringing not only Gwen Stacy but her superhero alter-ego Spider-Gwen into the fold! Could it be that this cartoon was a test run to see how audiences might respond to a super-powered take of onscreen Gwen Stacy? And if so, could the filmmakers reluctance to talk about the Mary Jane rumors be subterfuge to keep us off the scent of an even bigger reveal: the setup for a Spider-Gwen movie.Female fans of the MCU have been hungry for greater representation onscreen. And what more thrilling way to deliver it than to give audiences a cool, updated version of the fan-favorite Spider-Gwen, played by an actress who is not only charming onscreen, but also a role model offscreen, who promotes body-positivity and self-love through Instagram and nearly every interview.Unfortunately, we didn’t get to speak with Zendaya on the set of Spider-Man: Homecoming. But we did ask her co-star Holland how she was handling the response to the rumors that Zendaya’s casting meant Mary Jane would be played by a biracial actress. Holland began by noting that Zendaya has had the full support of the cast and crew in the wake of the backlash, which included racist barbs.”She has such a large following on Instagram, and the majority of those people are all for her and love her,” Holland said, “And I feel like our generation of people are moving on from that. This whole, ‘You can’t cast someone who’s not of the right race for a character and such,’ I really feel like we’re breaking through and changing that. And Z is perfect. She’s so strong willed, it’s not going to shake her at all.”Who do you think Zendaya is playing in Spider-Man: Homecoming? Is it as simple as Peter’s pal Michelle? Or does the MCU have bigger plans for Zendaya?

Images: Disney Channel, Marvel, Universal Pictures

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