WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Spider-Man: Homecoming, in theaters now.
Speculation began swirling around Zendaya's role in Spider-Man: Homecoming virtually from the moment she was cast last year, and the revelation that her character's name is Michelle did little to tamp down rumors. Is Michelle really Mary Jane Watson? Or maybe she's secretly the daughter of Adrian Toomes, the villainous Vulture. What is the deal with Michelle, anyway?
Now that director Jon Watts' franchise reboot is in theaters, we can say that Michelle Jones is ... nobody from Marvel Comics lore.
Simply put, Zendaya's character is a sardonic, slightly rude, very smart classmate of Tom Holland's Peter Parker. She’s also the first person, aside from Ned (Jacob Batalon), to suspect Peter. She’s basically Allison from Breakfast Club, but played by Zendaya, which makes her one of the best things an already-amazing film.
On a more complex level, she’s also Mary Jane. Sorta, kinda. Not really.
See, her name is Michelle, but at the end of the film she reveals she likes to be called "M.J." Like Mary Jane Watson, get it? But unlike the “Robin” reveal at the end of The Dark Knight Rises, this doesn’t feel annoying or even slightly like a feint. Michelle isn’t Mary Jane, a character who's been so central to Spider-Man's history, both in comics and on the screen, but by bestowing on her the nickname "M.J.," the filmmakers are likely hinting at the importance she'll have in Peter's life.
The most interesting aspect of the revelation isn't the name itself, but the dialogue surrounding it: "My friends call me M.J." The emphasis, by both the filmmakers and the character, isn't on "M.J." but rather on "friends." Peter observes that he didn't think Michelle had friends, to which she responds that she does now.
That’s a completely different character than the dance-happy, party-loving Mary Jane who covered her darkness with so much light no one could notice. Michelle is M.J. without all the baggage from decades of comics, or from Sam Raimi's Spider-Man movie series (or even from Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-Man 2, from which Shailene Woodley's scenes as Mary Jane were cut).
In actuality, Michelle more closely resembles the rebellious Gwen Stacy from Marvel's Ultimate Spider-Man comics. While Michelle is unlikely to be killed by Carnage in a sequel to Spider-Man: Homecoming and then transformed into a version of vampiric organism (aren't comics great?), there's a pretty good chance she'll discover Peter's secret. After all, she’s the one with which he's had the most interaction with in costume, and her expression as Peter walks away to meet Happy Hogan in the bathroom at the end of the film would seem to indicate she knows there's something more to him.
So, Zendaya is Michelle, who is M.J. But she’s definitely not Mary Jane. She’s better.
In theaters now, Spider-Man: Homecoming stars Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, Tony Revolori, Tyne Daly, Bokeem Woodbine, Marisa Tomei and Robert Downey Jr.