Mary Jane Watson is one of the most iconic female love interests in all of comic book history and has been adapted many times. Let’s look at a handful and rank them by how good of an adaptation they are of the original version. **There will be some spoilers for Spider-Man: No Way Home**
Who Exactly IS Mary Jane Watson?
Believe it or not, there are a lot of people who don’t truly know this answer for sure. Many people just think of Mary Jane as ‘Spider-Man’s redheaded love interest’. For the most part, they would be correct. Mary Jane Watson debuted (kind of) in The Amazing Spider-Man #25 in June 1965 where her face was obscured. She was described by Peter Parker aka Spider-Man’s aunt May as having a “wonderful personality” which led Peter to believe she must be ugly. May had been trying to set the two up because Mary Jane was the niece of May’s dear friend and neighbor Anna Watson. After many excuses to avoid meeting her because Peter again assumed she would be unattractive, Mary Jane took matters into her own hands. At the very end of The Amazing Spider-Man #42, Mary Jane Watson introduced herself to Peter on his doorstep with one of the most famous lines and panels in all of comic book history.
So yes, while beauty was one of the first things about Mary Jane for Peter himself as well as the reader, her fiery personality was what really made her an instant fan favorite among readers from the very beginning. On the surface Mary Jane was always the ultimate thrill: an unbelievably gorgeous and sexy party girl who only wants excitement and hates banality, normalcy, and domesticity. She was fun, vivacious, and adventurous. In fact, Mary Jane was so popular, that she proved to be the preferred choice for Peter even more than Gwen Stacy who previously had been revamped to be more kind-hearted and a serious girlfriend (definitely check out Gwen’s little-known origins in the original comics as something of a bully before her transformation into the more recognizable girl-next-door she is almost universally known as, even posthumously on Sasha Wood’s video on Gwen on Casually Comics). Years down the line, we would get layers and vulnerability underneath all that fun-loving, carefree attitude. With a bad home life with her natural parents, a shame for her sister becoming saddled with motherhood too soon, and a desire for sensation, Mary Jane hid many deep-seated insecurities under a veneer of fierceness.
So who is she? Mary Jane is the actress, the model, the breathtaking beauty, but also the second love of Peter Parker’s life. Yes, Peter was on his way toward marrying Gwen when she tragically died. And Peter not only lost Gwen but so did Mary Jane. MJ lost her best friend. Peter and Mary Jane slowly fell in love in their shared grief over a woman they both loved and found love in one another. And by the time Peter and MJ fell in love, they had been friends for years. Their wedding was one of the most famous superhero weddings in comic book history and for decades they were a functional, healthy married couple until the One More Day storyline erased it, angering many fans to this day.
Nevertheless, Mary Jane Watson remains a unique, memorable, and effective comic book character who is distinct in that she is an actress and model, devastatingly gorgeous but also has a lot of fight in her, for she knows how and why Gwen died and she vowed never to let anyone come for her without a fight. Though possessing no powers of her own (in most versions, and the versions I will discuss later) or many fighting skills, Mary Jane on many occasions has used her wits to keep villains at bay or subdue them long enough to escape or buy time for Peter to arrive and save her. She has activated sprinkler systems to disrupt the tech of one villain and straight-up used a baseball bat to fight off another. Mary Jane is so much more than a pretty face, let’s see which other media versions remembered that.
6. Mary Jane Watson, Spider-Man (PS4)
I have to be honest. I despise this version of the character. But I also understand why the game developers went in this direction and understand that this is not the first time we’ve met a Mary Jane like this. For context, while Mary Jane Watson traditionally has an interest in acting and modeling, the Ultimate Spider-Man comic from 2000 gave us a version of the character who was interested in journalism, eventually becoming a reporter for The Daily Bugle. The Ultimate Spider-Man animated adaptation, unsurprisingly, also went in this direction for the character, though I believe there The Daily Bugle was a news blog or website instead of a newspaper (I fell off that show quickly because it was too derivative of Family Guy and turned me off). Mary Jane Watson as a reporter is not new, but for me, it’s just not great.
I prefer Mary Jane as an actress and model because comic book women reporters, especially ones that are love interests, are way too common. Lois Lane of course is the prime example but there’s also Lana Lang (in some versions), Chloe Sullivan from Smallville, Vicki Vale, Iris West, Linda Park, Cat Grant, Tana Moon, Cindy Moon (aka Silk), Betty Brant, Jessica Jones, Kat Ferrell. While certainly there are other women, comic book actresses, and models, none are as recognizable as Mary Jane. While Peter Parker isn’t usually a reporter, associating with the Daily Bugle (as a freelance photographer in his case), is usually his thing.
Reporter or not, the thing that is the most aggravating about this version of Mary Jane is how annoying and illogical she is. She berates Peter for saving her as Spider-Man but, as a reporter, she constantly puts herself in mortal danger that then requires his saving her. Girl, what do you want? Do you want him to let you die just so you can feel like a boss? Get on that Silver Sable or Black Cat training program, or kindly switch careers. This ain’t it.
I also take issue that the developers seemed to think that going with Lois Lane-lite reporter Mary Jane was more “empowering” than being an actress or model. As an actor, I resent that shit. Acting takes skill, compassion, and empathy to do well. And modeling is an art and requires skill and discipline in and of itself. Why couldn’t Mary Jane be ’empowered’ by still being an actress and model and having a character design that was still drop-dead gorgeous? Did they think that if she was too pretty that feminists and womanists wouldn’t like her? Women can be just as pretty, ugly, slim, fat, or curvy as they can be, and still be embraced as long as they are treated with respect and crafted well as characters. Also, the gag is… her personality alone in this game made a lot of players dislike her. The modeling in this version could have been modernized to include something of Instagram modeling and the usage of social media (a version of which was already present in the game), and could have been something very different but very authentically Mary Jane.
5. Mary Jane Watson, Sam Raimi Spider-Man Film Series
I have a deep love for the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films and Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker aka Spider-Man. I loved Willem Dafoe as Norman Osborn aka Green Goblin, James Franco as Harry Osborn (and only as Harry Osborn…), Alfred Molina as Doctor Octopus, and J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson. I certainly appreciate the performance Kirsten Dunst gave as Mary Jane and bought her chemistry with Maguire, but she was absolutely not Mary Jane Watson whatsoever. The only things she shared in common with the character were red hair (which changed every movie), her interest in acting (her billboard suggested at least some modeling, but probably not as much as acting), and the fact that she is Peter’s main love interest and was also friends with Harry.
None of this was Dunst’s fault. She was an actress playing the part she was given. The issue was that Raimi and co. didn’t understand that Mary Jane Watson is more than just some basic checkpoints, she’s a very distinct, magnetic personality that draws people in, in-universe, and out. Mary Jane in these movies often calling Peter “Tiger” doesn’t make up for the absence of that personality. In my opinion, again while Dunst did the best with what she was given, Mary Jane here felt more like a generic love interest than the actual Mary Jane Watson. Some also feel she was a composite of Mary Jane and the archetypical version of Gwen Stacy (again, she was not always the sweet girl-next-door, she was very different in the beginning), a girl-next-door. This version is Mary Jane is saved by two truly awesome films and a gifted actress playing her.
4. Michelle “MJ” Jones-Watson, Spider-Man MCU Film Series
Zendaya as MJ is an interesting case, which I discussed in a previous article. Creators initially denied she even was a version of Mary Jane. Or at least used technicalities to explain “she’s not Mary Jane, she’s called MJ as a homage to that connection to Spider-Man”. So it was assumed from the start that she was Mary Jane, yet it was said she was not. And yet… the third film reveals her surname is Watson or Jones-Watson. In a film with a confirmed multiverse and the reveal of the character’s last name, it is clear that Michelle Jones-Watson is indeed the MCU version of Mary Jane Watson, just not exactly having the same given name or traditional appearance.
While personality-wise, MJ is pretty different from Mary Jane Watson in the original comics and many versions, she still shares some key similarities: an interest in Peter Parker aka Spider-Man, resourcefulness, the ability to think on her toes, her ability to read people (Mary Jane was also usually a pretty decent judge of character in the comics most of the time and as an actress, she would need to be able to observe and read people to play off of them), and her bravery. She even demonstrated in the sequel a fight in her when she fought off Mysterio’s drones (they were drones, right? I saw that movie only once, I don’t like Peter-Tingle, y’all). But most importantly, the comics eventually revealed, after Peter and Mary Jane got together, that she had known he was Spider-Man from the start but had never told him before. The MCU version of MJ also suspected and figured out on her own that Peter was Spider-Man, albeit it seems MCU MJ pieced it together while comics’ MJ witnessed Peter climbing into his bedroom window as Spider-Man the night his Uncle Ben died.
MCU MJ is interesting as a character, and a different take on a superhero love interest, honestly refreshing to see a visibly Black girl portray. But I feel Zendaya could and should have had so much more even as MJ, or better yet a twist reveal that instead of Michelle Jones-Watson she would be revealed to be either Angelica Michelle Jones or Michelle Angelica Jones and become the MCU version of Firestar. It would have absolutely driven fans, comic, and general fans alike, absolutely insane, and broken the internet. But that’s just my opinion anyway.
3. Mary Jane Watson, Spider-Man: The Animated Series
Before even the Sam Raimi films, many people had this version of Mary Jane from the 90’s animated series. Reportedly, the series chose Mary Jane because they didn’t want to choose Gwen Stacy. They had said this was a kid’s show and they didn’t want a character that would die… even though they wouldn’t be obligated to kill Gwen off in their show. Also, much like the Sam Raimi version that would come after, this version of Mary Jane would end up becoming a composite version of herself and Gwen in the sense that she was also somewhat of a girl-next-door type of figure. Felicia Hardy, who was Peter’s initial love interest in this series and would of course become the Black Cat, was more similar to Mary Jane from the comics in terms of personality, though Mary Jane did have some moments of the real Mary Jane’s style and flare.
Part of why I ranked her higher on the list is pure nostalgia, I admit. She was the first version of the character I ever encountered since I was a 90s kid. Truly, however, as an adaptation of Mary Jane she had more in common with Gwen Stacy, even down to a kid-friendly version of Gwen’s infamous death at the hands of the Green Goblin (the first Raimi film also adapted it a bit at the climax, but obviously Peter managed to save Mary Jane there), where Mary Jane gets lost in an interdimensional portal and lost instead of… the neck snap. She even got Gwen’s false return and clone storyline from the comics in the series.
2. Mary Jane Parker, Spider-Man: Web of Shadows
This underrated game from 2008 was released for PS3, PS2, PSP, Nintendo DS, Nintendo Wii, Xbox 360, and Windows. This was the Spider-Man game where the player got to make choices that would affect the tone, direction, and outcome of the storyline. Your decisions also affected which non-playable characters you would fight alongside and which bosses you would have to fight as well as whether you were the traditional red-and-blue Spider-Man or the more aggressive symbiote version. This game was more so based on the comics at the time in which Peter and Mary Jane were already married. This, along with the PS1 games Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 are some of the few games in which Peter and Mary Jane are married. In this game, however, Mary Jane plays an active role, actively engaging enemy symbiote creatures with a shotgun despite wearing a cast from an injury. The good ending of the game sees Peter reject the symbiote and Black Cat, save the city and remain with his wife, while the bad ending has him leave Mary Jane and pursue Black Cat instead while also embracing the symbiote, giving in to its intoxicating power and vowing to take over the city.
I liked how in this game Mary Jane played a larger part than in previous ones and was more than just a damsel-in-distress. She was a badass, but it also made sense for who the character actually was. I am also a big Spidey and Mary Jane shipper and it was really fun to see this game turn them into a bit of a battle couple.
1. Mary Jane Watson, Spectacular Spider-Man
While I am a ’90s kid and the 90’s animated Spider-Man series holds a special place in my heart, it honestly does not compare to the masterpiece that was this criminally short-lived series, gone way too soon. This series from 2008 (2008 was just an excellent year for Spidey content, huh?) featured an excellent voice cast, memorable character designs, and choices, and has one of the best theme songs of literally any series, by far the best Spider-Man theme song ever. Part of what interested me about this series was that it featured Gwen Stacy, a character who I always liked and who fascinated me even though she was dead even before my birth. Plus she was voiced by Gretchen Wieners herself from Mean Girls, Lacey Chabert (excellent actress and voice actress). While Mary Jane wasn’t introduced right away, she did eventually turn up and prove to be something amazing, no pun intended.
The Spectacular Spider-Man version of Mary Jane Watson is the single most comics-accurate version of the character, especially in her beginnings, I have ever seen. Her personality is spot-on, she has a mischievous, carefree personality and even her voice actress is the perfect fit for her character. Mary Jane in this series, much like the earlier comics, is initially uninterested in anything serious with the boys of this series. She is Peter’s blind date to the school dance (the series even captured the original storyline where Peter avoids meeting her because he assumes she’d be ugly by May’s comments about her personality, leading to the infamous first meeting on his doorstep the line. The 90’s animated series also introduced Mary Jane this way, but after that, she had very little in common with the character from the comics.
While Mary Jane eventually seriously dates Mark Allan, the brother of Liz Allan, this doesn’t negate her comics-accuracy, but rather reinforces it as even comics’ Mary Jane was capable of serious relationships. The series just decided to gravitate towards Peter and Gwen (even as they dated other people in the series, for the drama of course). It is unclear if the show creators would have done the slow-burn approach towards Peter and Mary Jane getting together (but with this version of Gwen surviving), or if Peter and Gwen were meant to stay, but nevertheless, Mary Jane’s personality was simply perfect and the creators obviously were faithful Spider-Man fans who appreciated the comics.