The young actress gives new meaning to “no small parts.”
his post contains spoilers for Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Let’s get this out of the way: Zendaya, the burgeoning superstar multi-hyphenate, is not in Spider-Man: Homecoming very much. Though she plays one of its female leads, the teen romp is mostly the Peter Parker (Tom Holland) show. Zendaya plays Michelle, a brooding genius with a penchant for math, protesting, and rude drawings. Most of the time she’s on-screen she’s sitting in the corner and making snide jokes, usually at the expense of Parker and his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon). All told, the actress—who is probably the most well-known entity in the young core cast—probably appears in the movie for about 10 minutes, if you squished all her scenes together.
But she handily lights up those few scenes. Zendaya, it turns out, is a comic delight, a onetime Disney child star who does a surprisingly good impression of a high school outcast with angsty waves covering her judgmental eyes, carving out a new archetype in the vein of Daria and Allison from the Breakfast Club. Some of her funniest moments come when she says the least, as when she disses Peter and Ned for being at a “lame party.”
“You’re here too,” Ned rebuffs.
“Am I?” she says drily. Never mind the fact that Michelle is also buttering a piece of toast while she says this—a very normal thing to do at a party.
By the end of the movie—when the character reveals that people who know her actually call her “M.J.”—it becomes apparent that Michelle will thankfully serve a bigger purpose in the Spider-Man universe.
Meet your new Mary-Jane Watson, folks. It turns out Liz (Laura Harrier), Parker’s crush throughout the course of the movie, was a romantic red herring all along. Of course, fans guessed long ago that Zendaya would turn out to be M.J., as the character is Parker’s canonical love interest and wholly vital to the Spider-Manuniverse. She always seemed like too big a star to be left in a bit part—and she’s also been one of the lead ambassadors in Sony’s publicity push for the film, appearing on an episode of Lip-Sync Battle alongside Holland and owning the red carpet in a bubblegum-pink gown at the film’s premiere.
The way Zendaya portrays Michelle signals a new era for leading ladies in the Spider-Man universe. In the past, the hero’s love interests—M.J. (played in the early 2000’s films by Kirsten Dunst) and Gwen Stacy (played by Emma Stone in the later two Amazing Spider-Man films)—have been thinly veiled damsels in distress, put in dangerous crosshairs to motivate Parker to reach higher levels of heroism. Spider-Man: Homecoming wonderfully side-steps this trope, as Parker’s motivation rests squarely on himself—a teenager coming to terms with his newfound strength and pushing himself to be better. Even Liz, Parker’s love interest, manages to mostlyavoid this stereotype (though Spider-Man does save her from a dangling elevator in the Washington Monument at one point). The crush goes unrequited, and even though it’s a tinge unfulfilling to see Liz and Parker depart each other’s lives without a dramatic goodbye, Liz manages to have a fair bit of agency and an actual identity outside of her relationship to Parker.
Michelle/M.J.—whose last name we still don’t know—will be even harder to box into damsel-in-distress territory, thanks to all the agency she’s been given already. Zendaya manages to pack the character with abundant personality in the few scenes she has, strongly piquing our interest to see what she can do with a bigger role in the next installment. The M.J. of the future is smart, cutting, and probably won’t be easily wooed by Parker’s web-slinging and superhero features. She’d rather make fun of him first.