Priest, formerly the Spider-Man writer/ editor named James Owsley, described how Mary Jane had changed from the 1960s to the 2000s. My favorite line is bolded.
I’m not sure where the misfire was on Mary Jane. MJ was a man-eater: a fiery and outgoing person who immediately became the life of any party and sucked all the air out of any room she walked into. MJ was aggressive in a playful way, very direct, and used to make Peter’s knees shake just by looking him in the eye. She was not this… onion… Dunst portrays in the movie, who has no idea the boy next door has a crush on her. Stan Lee’s MJ knew everybody had a crush on her. She didn’t use it to an unfair advantage, but she had fun with it. She was a party girl. She called Peter, “Tiger,” which was her way of gently mocking him (actually, she called all the guys, “Tiger,” because there were too many guys to remember all the names). Mary Jane was a much brighter personality, a much sharper person, than the Dunst character, who came across as a little vapid and very bland. Dunst was playing more of Gwen Stacey, Peter Parker’s actual love interest (his romance with MJ didn’t really kick into high gear until Marvel decided to pervert my Spider-Man versus Wolverine into an excuse for the two to get married, but that’s another story).
Kurt Buisek made a similar point in a CBR post about Spider-Man’s love life.
I’m one of the Vicious Cabal that thinks the marriage should never have happened. I thought Gwen was kind of a drip — very sweet and lovable and passive, when she wasn’t irrationally jealous or angry about something. She’d probably have made Peter an excellent wife, but the result wouldn’t have been exciting, which is why John Romita thought it would be a good idea to kill her off — she makes a much better “ideal girl lost forever” than she does an active player in an ensemble cast. I liked MJ when she was an overcaffeinated hipster, and lost a lot of interest in her when she turned out to be a product of a broken, abusive home, and under the “laughing on the outside” exterior was a sad, wounded moper like so much of the rest of the cast — Peter, MJ, Flash, Betty, Liz, Harry…sometimes it seems like everyone in the cast is from a damaged background. Still, she had more drive to do her own thing than Gwen did, and that made for better drama.
It’s worth remembering that Mary Jane was popular shortly after her introduction. Fans voted her the best female supporting character in comics in the 1967 Alley Awards. The take on the character changed drastically since then. The defining moment may have been when Defalco had Mary Jane reveal that she had always known that Peter Parker was Spider-Man, although the marriage was also quite significant. As far as I’m concerned, the changes that turned her into a more conventional spouse also regressed the character and made her less interesting.
Defining Mary Jane
A few years ago, youtube critic Mike from Milwaukee got some attention systematically pointing out the flaws of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. One of his arguments against the lesser movie was that it was difficult to describe the characters without talking about their appearance, their profession, their clothing, or their role in the movie. He used this to suggest that there wasn’t anything particularly unique about Qui-Gon Jin, or that version of Obi Wan Kenobi. Applying that standard to Mary Jane, her problem is that she doesn’t really have a consistent identity in the comics or other media.
The Lee/ Romita Mary Jane was the outgoing center of attention, which worked in a more localized context, when she wasn’t the center of attention among movie stars and celebrities. This was also a little bit at odds with the emotionally damaged celebrity (supermodel/ soap opera star) we usually saw as Peter Parker’s loving and supportive wife.
Ultimate Mary Jane (described as Brainy Jane in an early appearance) was a younger version of Peter’s supportive wife (minus the celebrity) but didn’t have much in common with the Lee/ Romita Mary Jane. And the movie Mary Jane seemed to be an amalgamation of several love interests in the Spider-Man comics. Like Liz Allen, she was the most popular girl in Midtown High. Like Gwen Stacy, she kept getting kidnapped by supervillains, and thrown off bridges.
This is not to suggest that one portrayal of Mary Jane can be dismissed because others have a different take. But this leaves me to wonder about what’s at the core of Mary Jane’s character. And that’s important when considering what she brings to the franchise. This is an issue with most characters in these types of serials, figuring out how to balance progression with maintaining the core appeal of a character.
Some readers think her background is compelling. I don’t think it’s particularly important, as it wasn’t a factor for the first 200 issues since her first appearance. Mary Jane was popular when she was introduced, and details about her life growing up were more of a blank state. One can argue that the progress made with the character, as she made peace with her upbringing, took her away from her considerable initial appeal. At the very least, it had nothing to do with it.
Why Mary Jane is Spider-Man’s third-best supporting character (at best)
A few years ago, there was an April Fools announcement that Aunt May would be a playable character in a Marvel video game. It struck me that this proved that she’s an iconic character. The joke’s only funny if you’re familiar with the character and what makes her unique, and almost everyone (in the category of people interested in a Marvel video game) is familiar with the character and what makes her different.
Mary Jane’s probably more popular, but I’d argue that J Jonah Jameson is the best supporting character in comics. He’s the definitive critic/ authority figure, the guy who just doesn’t understand the everyman hero. The Simpsons essentially had JK Simmons guest-starr twice as Jonah, banking on viewers instantly recognizing the character. And other details make the character memorable: his stinginess, shamelessness, temper and occasional moral fiber. In comparison, Mary Jane’s defining attributes are that she’s fun-loving, the center of attention and secretive. It’s good for a supporting character, but it’s not enough to elevate her to the all-time greats.
Kraven’s Last Hunt is probably the most acclaimed Mary Jane storyline. Her role in the “Night Gwen Stacy Died” is memorable, but it’s not really her story in quite the same way. You don’t really see her fun-loving center of attention side in either arc, although you definitely saw the secretiveness. One thing DeMatteis did quite effectively was that he showed the effect that Peter’s secrets have had on Mary Jane, ensuring that she still has to keep a facade for the rest of the world even when she found someone she can be honest with.
She had changed from the best female supporting character of 1967, as the readers became privy to her secrets. One thing that made her unique in the Silver Age comics was that when Stan Lee was writing the title the reader only ever saw her thoughts once (see below).
That contributed to a sense of mystery to the character that just doesn’t exist with most members of the supporting cast.
The same arguments that Wolverine is poorly served by overexposure apply just as well to Mary Jane. The character became more predictable and ordinary. Some of that was inevitable when she became the person Peter Parker spent the most time with. It’s difficult to make the character enigmatic if the lead is her top confidante.
But she was also poorly served by some of the generic superhero spouse stories. She could be worried that a bullet will get her husband. But it would be uncharacteristic of MJ to be worried that he’ll leave her for someone else. That said, she might worry about a violent ex of Peter’s doing something dangerous upon realizing that. Although those types of stories aren’t particularly interesting the tenth time around. She and Peter just continued to have the same arguments.
That scene was done before, and it was done again later. After One More Day, there’s more potential for Mary Jane to be able to surprise the readers. The writers might also prefer it as it makes life easier for them, but it’s also better for the series.