Spider-Man: Far From Home’s MJ (Zendaya) is the most relatable on-screen heroine we’ve had in recent memory. “Strong female characters” are becoming de rigueur in film, but so often they’re signaled either through clunky dialogue (Mystique’s “X-Women” jab in Dark Phoenix, “The Men and Women in Black” in Men in Black: International), hollow character updates (the would-be Disney panacea of giving young heroines a facile interest in science), or equating strength with literal muscle and making women into mostly silent killing machines (Laura in Logan, Arya Stark in Game of Thrones).
MJ — short for Michelle Jones, but abbreviated in tribute to the comics’ Mary Jane Watson — suffers from none of the above. In fact, she’s an indication that the ingredients necessary for creating believable female protagonists don’t require new inventions, as many of this summer’s blockbusters seem to believe. Zendaya’s MJ should feel familiar to anyone who watched MTV’s Daria, which shirked the cheerleader/nerd binary with fleshed-out characters and sardonic worldviews.
The difference is that MJ isn’t living through a typical high school experience. The world she lives in has superheroes and monsters, and Spider-Man: Far From Home sees her thrown into more than a little peril as the Midtown High School summer trip gets caught in the middle of an Avengers-level threat. But she doesn’t have to become “super” in any way to prove that she’s strong enough to cope with it all. She also doesn’t have to sacrifice any stereotypical markers of femininity (a night out sees her wearing a floral-patterned dress) or give up her deadpan sarcasm in order to get Peter Parker’s (Tom Holland) attention.
[Ed. note: Mild spoilers for Spider-Man: Far From Home follow.]
MJ feels real in that respect; she’s not just one thing in the way that so many movies seem to demand of their female characters, nor does she have to be. The updated Bo Peep in Toy Story 4 is one of the only other characters of the summer movie season who manages this — once relegated to watching from the sidelines due to being made of porcelain (and embodying an old ideal of femininity in that respect), she’s now become part of the action. The key is that Bo Peep isn’t suddenly indestructible. She’s still made of porcelain, and she does eventually break, but she can handle it.
MJ isn’t invincible, but she still can keep her wits about her in a crisis, and is the only person observant enough to put two and two together when it comes to Spider-Man’s secret identity. That she’s a feminist is also a natural character detail rather than something hammered home with jokes in the vein of, “Men? What about WO-men?” Instead, her shirts bear imagery of Sylvia Plath, Joan of Arc, and the suffragette movement, without needing further comment.
One of the best parts of Far From Home plays with those expectations. When Peter tells MJ she looks pretty, she immediately responds, “And therefore I have value?” After a moment of stunned silence, she assures Peter that she’s joking, then telling him (in a moment of wonderfully awkward earnestness) that he looks pretty, too. It feels like the kind of scene that, in any other movie, would have ended with that initial retort, ultimately failing to grasp that real people are more complicated than that (and don’t tend to speak in such platitudes).
It’s all part of why Spider-Man: Far From Home marks the first time I can remember in a long while that I got out of a movie and wanted to text a friend, “The female lead reminds me of you.” MJ may not have superpowers, but she’s strong in her own right, and her particular brand of “quirkiness” — her refusal to go into the Washington Monument because there’s a good chance it was built by slaves; her love of the Black Dahlia flower because of its association with the infamous murder — balanced with her varied styles, which range from fairly punk to traditionally feminine (so often incompatible in film), feels almost tangible.
The MCU’s MJ is human, rather than an approximation of what a strong female character should be. And in a summer full of blockbusters that settle for one-dimensional portrayals of women instead of striving for more, she feels like a hero in her own right, too.