Mary Jane Watson is a character whose tragedy is not from the villains in her no-longer-husband’s life, nor her own issues with her father but from the people responsible for writing her. No, I’m not going to get into a huge rant about the Spider-Writers or Joe “married people aren’t relatable to the everyman, and now come meet my wife” Quesada because that’s not what we’re talking about this time. No, it’s the movies and TV appearances of the redhead (an increasingly scorned image in movies and TV to the point that the Doctor stopped asking to be ginger) that’s up for debate.
Specifically, the video below by Implicitly Pretentious going over the two theatrical appearances of “MJ” highlights how Sam Rami and Jon Watts (funny how I don’t have to look up Sam Rami or Marc Webb because you’re always told their names when discussing their movies but nobody mentions Jon Watts on the MCU films as often) both approached their MJ compared to Mary Jane in the comics. However, I think he makes a mistake by not mentioning a couple of other appearances, so allow me to build on his take.
It should be noted that when it comes to Michelle Jones that Watts didn’t really have a choice when it came to her personality. He may have indeed salvaged her proper role in Peter’s life according to the comics but Sony insisted that much of the iconic parts of Peter’s world (while the MCU got as much of Spider-Man himself as they could, though sticking with the teen Spidey trend) be removed in case the MCU movies turned out as bad as their more recent attempt or Sony wasn’t making the money they wanted to. Watts’ hands were tied in what he could make MJ, which is why we didn’t get Mary Jane Watson but Michelle Jones. You have to wonder how different she’d be if she were allowed to be the right person. Also this:
That said, the host only goes over the two movie versions, but fails to acknowledge any of the animated appearances. The MTV series was just an offshoot of Rami’s first movie so she has only slightly more agency…and any of Peter’s supposed concerns about dating her while being Spider-Man was tossed out the window when the show introduced Indy as Peter’s girlfriend, even if her death gave us the cliffhanger (thanks to MTV royally screwing up the airing) of Peter ditching the Spider-Man costume. Ultimate Spider-Man followed along with the cartoon, where Mary Jane is into the science stuff as well as is Peter’s platonic friend (the show even says in the first episode that they tried a date and it didn’t work out) and I don’t think she was in the show very long so this one doesn’t really matter either. That leaves three other appearances, not counting the PlayStation exclusive game which from what I hear turned her into Lois Lane, so forget that one too.
While Mary Jane only has one appearance in Spider-Man Unlimited she’s clearly a more mature person, having lived the life of being Spider-Man’s…girlfriend? Unless he lost his keys this seems to be Mary Jane’s apartment…and she must be doing good in the acting game given how big her sectional is and the room it’s in. She also wants Peter out of the Spider-Life but not for her benefit necessarily. She’s been worried that something will happen to Peter in Spider-Man’s dangerous world and while she may not want to lose him (which she kind of does when he heads off to Counter-Earth where Naoko takes on a forbidden fruit aspect at times leading to issues with Counter-Goblin since he’s really her missing husband thought dead but actually another victim of Sir Ram’s experimentation) she’s afraid for Peter himself. She also serves as Peter’s biggest motivation to get back to Earth, keeping from getting involved with the rebel movement against the High Evolutionary and doesn’t even tangle with the symbiotes that brought him here unless forced to, though he feels more responsibility about their appearance.
The Spectacular Spider-Man showed up at the wrong point in my life (in 2008, the first time Crohn’s disease sent me to the hospital) but even when the weird combination of iconic comic moments and original takes on characters just kind of lost me. Gwen is now a science geek because Peter needs to stick to his own kind or something. However, Mary Jane was here as well, serving her role as an alternative to the straight-laced Gwen… but so was Liz, who was also a love interest in the show. She wasn’t necessarily a party animal but despite her obvious attraction to Peter she was still a serial dater. Of course this was another “make Peter a teen again and de-age the supporting cast he didn’t meet until college except for Liz and Flash” story so I guess Mary Jane couldn’t be the party animal she was in college.
The Fox Spider-Man cartoon was a bit different as she was both Mary Jane and Gwen at the same time. She was the counter to Felicia Hardy as far as Peter’s love interest and somehow she kept ending up in trouble because she was somehow connected to what some of the bad guys were doing for one reason or another. (At least Felicia and her parents were sometimes targeted for their business or operations of questionable morality.) She did have a bit more of her own self and her relationship with Peter had to develop because she didn’t know Peter was Spider-Man (or at least her water clone didn’t…long story). However when she did know he was a benefit in both identities, like the comics. When she gets lost in a dimensional portal it tears him apart but it’s the development of their relationship that made that work, and for me is the best Peter/Mary Jane paring outside of the comics.
Granted I haven’t watch the current Disney XD Spider-Man show where she was just recently added but that show is even less tied to comic or multiversal continuity than any previous version, and I still haven’t seen Into The Spiderverse so I can’t assess them all, but what live-action gets wrong the cartoons made up for and that really should be brought into consideration when judging Mary Jane Watson. These examples show that you can get her right and still tie her to modern society without altering her personality too much. That’s a sign of a good adaptation.