Mary Jane Watson is now canonically a black woman in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The confirmation of Zendaya’s leading role in Spider-Man: Homecoming led to enough chatter to keep “Mary Jane” trending on Twitter for hours on Thursday, August 18th. And unless you’re a suspiciously passionate advocate of redheads, the chatter has for the most part been joyful with the occasional naysayer. Comic fans or not, a great deal of people love the idea of a black woman playing one of the most iconic superhero love interests ever.
There’s been a yearning for better representation onscreen which has only grown louder with the advent of social media. Marvel began very slowly answering that yearning: giving us Nick Fury, James Rhodes, Sam Wilson and T’Challa on the big screen. Michael Peña even stole the show in Ant-Man as one of Marvel’s current Latino characters, Luis (Don’t forget about Maximiliano Hernández as Agent Jasper Sitwell). But these were all roles for men and – though some of them were heroes in their own right – they were playing second fiddle in movies about white men. Where was the representation for women of color?
Marvel already made a little headway in television, with Agents of SHIELD gloriously including two Asian women at the center of the action and even later casting a Latina (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) as Yo-Yo. Even DC made waves when they cast Candice Patton as Iris West on The Flash, which paved the way for Kiersey Clemons to portray her in the upcoming film. And now the MCU has finally followed suit with one of their most famous leading ladies. There’s a reason this latest news is making such a big splash, and it harkens back to what award-winning director Ava Duvernay (Selma) calls a desire for inclusion, rather than diversity.
Diversity can sometimes be a trojan horse, promising riches but leading to sidelined or mistreated characters. This is a trap that shows and movies fall into when very few people of color are hired behind the scenes. Or when there are several minority actors onscreen, but their roles are stereotypical or diminished. Of course, we don’t know how balanced the writing for the various characters of color in Spider-Man: Homecoming will be. But we do know that the love of Peter Parker’s life will be played by a black woman, and that’s a huge step forward. Mary Jane won’t be killed or cast aside, and her role will most likely increase if there are more films. That’s not something we can say about most prominent non-white characters even now.
Even better, the casting of Zendaya in Spider-Man and Tessa Thompson in Thor: Ragnarok opens doors for other actresses as fair representation becomes more widely accepted. But that doesn’t mean the fight for visibility is over, it means it’s just begun. We still have plenty of heroines of color who deserve a debut on the big screen – amazing young women like America Chavez and Kamala Khan, for example. And we have darker-skinned heroines who deserve just as much appreciation, like Monica Rambeau and Riri Williams, who will hopefully appear and eventually star in Marvel movies as well. So let’s keep celebrating, but remember to keep questioning and pushing so that tomorrow’s landscape can be even more colorful than today’s.