Revisiting Mary Jane Watson: The Greatest Female in Comic Book Movies
I wrote the following editorial for another website a while ago, but it didn't start the kind of discussions I was looking for. I'm reposting it on this site to spark discussion. So, have at it!
Kirsten Dunst. Mary Jane Watson. Let's restore that reputation, what do you say?
In 2004, complaints about Kirsten Dunst’s portrayal of Mary Jane Watson were far apart from word of the newly released Spider-Man 2, which had seemed to claim the title of “Greatest Superhero Movie Ever Made.” The film was a smash hit, thanks to an endearing, powerful story, spectacular writing, fantastic action, and top-notch performances from all the actors.
Flash forward to 2012 and we find the Internet ripe with hate and disdain for Dunst as MJ, calling her character “whiny” and too much of a “damsel in distress.” Now, of course, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but it seems that a general (and seemingly newly-found) dislike for the actress seems to have diminished the fantastic character of Mary Jane Watson in the original Spider-Man trilogy. So, I’d like to take this opportunity to break down MJ in Raimi’s set of films and possibly attempt to bring her back to her place as the strongest female character in comic book movies.
Women in comic book movies provide some fantastic performances. Recently, Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle was a showstopper, and one would be stoned if they don’t mention Natalie Portman’s turn as Evey in V for Vendetta. And of course there’s Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts in Iron Man to bring some wit and substance to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as well as Peggy Carter, played by Hayley Atwell, in Captain America: The First Avenger. But do any of these characters experience the real, genuine character arc achieved by Mary Jane in the Spider-Man films? Let’s look between the lines at the trilogy.
In Spider-Man, we’re introduced to Mary Jane, the girl next door, as the unachievable, outgoing, and beautiful person of interest to Peter Parker. As the film progresses, we find out that she comes from an emotionally abusive father and begins dating someone she’s not fully convinced she likes (Harry Osborn). After being victim to the first public attack by the Green Goblin, she (and tons of others) are subsequently saved by Spider-Man. Later in the film, she and Peter become closer. She’s then saved by Spider-Man from some muggers where she shares a now-iconic kiss in the rain. Later, she’s once again victim to Green Goblin, being thrown off the bridge (a homage to Gwen Stacy) but is saved by Spider-Man. At the end of the film, MJ has decided to abandon her relationship with Harry to be with Peter Parker, who she has discovered a new love for. Peter, not wishing to hurt her in his role as Spider-Man, rejects her affections. Roll credits.
So, in part one, we find that the popular girl who comes from an mentally abusive family ends up leaving a rich billionaire’s son and rejecting fantasies of following Spider-Man around to fall in love with childhood friend Peter Parker, who, for reasons not revealed to her, rejects her at the last possible moment. Right away, we’re given a look into a wholesome character with obvious dreams and passions, who takes control of her life and doesn’t live to serve the protagonist.
In Spider-Man 2, we find that MJ has since become a Broadway star. Wait a minute. She wasn’t a Broadway star when we last saw her, which means she must have, through her own hard work and determination followed her dreams from high school and made something of herself. It should be noted that the first thing we see in Spider-Man 2 is her face plastered on a billboard; she’s already made and cemented herself before we’re even given any exposition. Within the first few seconds of the movie, she’s already an independent character. As we come to find out through the film’s progression, she’s left the idea of being with Peter, choosing instead to date arguably one of the most famous men in New York City: the astronaut John Jameson. Skip ahead and we see her battling her inner desires for Peter as he suddenly becomes a staple in her life again. During the climax of the movie, she finally finds out that Peter is, in fact, Spider-Man. She then chooses to leave media icon Jameson for Peter, despite the fact that she knows he has a responsibility as Spider-Man. She promises to share Peter with his destiny, without compromising her own life as seen in Spider-Man 3.
With this further development, we have a woman who literally has the world and chooses love over convenience. This is a woman who is in complete control of her own life and answers to no one, despite the possible and probable media backlash that could come from her leaving John Jameson. She’s not so hopelessly in love that she abandons her reality to follow an unachievable dream; she’s already proven her complete independence despite her background being from a lower-middle class, single-parent family. Spider-Man has nothing to do with her success. Peter has nothing to do with her success. She does it all on her own.
Spider-Man 3 is a punching bag on all fronts. And it’s this film that begins to draw in the “whiny” complaints of Mary Jane. But I pose this question: is Mary Jane seriously out of line in her desires to be with Peter? She’s obviously very aware of the decision she made to be with him, but it’s completely realistic to regret that slightly once the relationship starts rolling. That, and witnessing your boyfriend reenacting your kiss with another girl for all the public to see may be a little less than appealing. And having him then show you up in your own establishment of work to rub your failures in your face probably won’t do too much for your ego either.
The point is this: does Mary Jane really get out of line, or is she acting realistically? Are we attacking the old trilogy to raise the newer Spider-Man film to new heights? Is that fair? I’m no fan of The Amazing Spider-Man, but I hold its failures and successes by its own merits and not because of a preference to Raimi’s trilogy. The Spider-Man trilogy is by no means perfect, but I do find it to lack more problems than the current installment in the Spidey mythos.
So, the next time we treat Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane as a lamb being led to slaughter, let’s step back and analyze her arc. It’s perfectly fine to prefer Emma Stone or Gwen Stacy or other comic book movie females; but to berate Mary Jane Watson from the Spider-Man trilogy just to jump on the current bandwagon is the definition of juvenile. Flat, boring, useless, underdeveloped and horribly-acted character? Try again.
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