This post contains spoilers for Spider-Man: Homecoming
Before Spider-Man: Homecoming, some of Spidey’s most indelible cinematic moments have been thanks to his love interests. Sam Raimi’s 2002 take on the webslinger gave us that rain-soaked upside-down makeout scene, and Marc Webb’s less-than-beloved reboot The Amazing Spider-Man rode on the real-life chemistry between Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone.
But that’s not the case with the hero’s entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Jon Watts’ film has something better: Zendaya’s Michelle, who is your new weirdo icon. She’s an odd, truth-telling teen with a nasty streak, and the movie never apologizes for her quirks. It’s a rare role for any actress to get, and finding it buried in a mainstream comic book vehicle is even more surprising.
Like Ally Sheedy without the makeover
Watts , telling them to consume 1980s teen-films including John Hughes’ iconic The Breakfast Club. And Peter Parker’s academic decathlon team in Homecoming is sort of akin to Hughes’ stereotyped misfits if you think about it—the one caveat being that all of them can be labeled “brains” because they are ambitious attendees of a science and technology high school in Queens.
Still, Laura Harrier’s Liz has a bit of Molly Ringwald’s beautiful rich girl appeal, while Tony Revolori’s Flash Thompson has the bullying bravado of Judd Nelson’s John Bender. That, in turn, makes Michelle the equivalent of Allison Reynolds, the “basket-case” played by Ally Sheedy. Indeed, the similarities go beyond their shared love for messy hair and vaguely goth aesthetics. They also both elect to spend time in detention. “I just like coming here to sketch people in crisis,” Michelle deadpans.
But somehow—despite being one of a host of supporting characters in a blockbuster also concerned with crime-fighting—Michelle is arguably more fleshed out than Allison is. We know, through small details, about her interests. She’s a voracious reader, almost always carrying a book with her, and an activist. She offhandedly makes reference to wanting to do some “light protesting” in D.C., and refuses to go inside the Washington Monument because she doesn’t want to “celebrate” a structure built by slaves. And while all these traits yield for punchlines, Michelle herself is never the butt of them.
And, of course, the most crucial way in which she differs from Allison is that she never forced to give up her unique style to conform to standards feminine beauty. And thus Homecoming rights the biggest wrong of The Breakfast Club and so many other teen flicks that have followed suit. (Looking at you She’s All That.) Michelle stays blissfully DGAF until the end of the movie. Time and time again dances have been the setting for the big reveal where the girl wows in a pretty dress. In Homecoming, Michelle gives Peter the finger when he arrives. Now it’s not like Watts completely avoids buying into any tropes. As Peter’s crush, Liz occupies a more traditional space for a woman in a teen flick or Marvel movie. And while she is given nuance in the form of a charming fondness for TED Talks—it’s telling that Michelle, who here is completely exempt from the male gaze, makes a more lasting impression.
The MJ conundrum
The news , arguably the most famous of Peter’s canonical beaus, broke almost a year ago. And, yeah, that’s basically the case. At the very end of Homecoming, Michelle is appointed the captain of the decathlon team. Michelle tells the other members that “her friends” call her MJ. And, although it’s not clear whether she’s Mary Jane or Michelle Jane or MJ stands for something else entirely (Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige said in an interview with Den Of Geek that “she’s not Mary Jane Watson, that’s not who the character is”), it is almost certain she’s going to be a , and likely, at some point, have a romance with Peter. Like the actual act of being Spider-Man, that’s both a blessing and a curse.
Michelle’s interest in Peter is telegraphed throughout Homecoming. But at times it’s hard to read whether she’s just onto his secret or secretly in love with him. After her “MJ” declaration she gives a slight, vulnerable look that implies the latter. And that’s fine as long as we don’t get a Michelle 2.0 that goes all weak-kneed and loses her bite. A more intriguing scenario might be that she’s curious about Peter’s extracurriculars because she too has designs to save the world. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch for Zendaya, who essentially plays a superhero on the Disney Channel’s K.C. Undercover.
Frankly, it seems unlikely that the actress would even allow Michelle to get sidelined or underserved. The story cover reveals how she demanded to be a producer on K.C. Undercover so she could shape the part to her specifications, ensuring that K.C. was created to be both kickass and smart, Homecoming marks Zendaya’s first time in a feature film—a fact that’s almost remarkable given her fame and fashion icon status—but it’s an auspicious debut that defies all kinds of expectations. She’s not “funny, but.” She’s just flat out funny. She’s not “strange, until.” She’s simply strange. She’s a total original. Long may she stay weird.