Cigarettes and Dancing:
Mary Jane Watson's Top 10 Most Unhealthy Reactions
to Spider-Man Stress
Mary Jane Watson's Top 10 Most Unhealthy Reactions
to Spider-Man Stress
It’s pretty obvious at this point that the marriage between Spider-Man and Mary Jane Watson was an abject failure. In the over 50 years of Spider-Man’s existence, his comics have been some of the most consistently entertaining in all of the medium, except for the nearly 20 year span when he was married. If you look at the list of his most beloved storylines, almost all occur before or after the marriage years, with a few exceptions. That cannot be a coincidence. But how could something as relatively minor (in a fictional sense) as a relationship status be such a detriment to entertaining comics? Let's explore further.
There never was a whole lot of substance to Mary Jane Watson, and that was fine when she was the occasional love interest. I liked that Mary Jane Watson a lot. (When I was a kid, she represented the ideal girlfriend that I would someday like to have.) It’s when she became Mary Jane Watson-Parker, that writers and editors had to try to find something to do with her, and she’s just not that interesting on her own. The fundamental problem with her becoming the wife of Spider-Man, was that it made it mandatory for her to appear in every single story, no matter if she had anything relevant to do. Story is born from conflict, and there’s only so much conflict you can present in a marriage without it becoming unbearable to read. Now, I’ll grant you that many writers were able to handle the marriage fairly well. It wasn’t exactly entertaining, but it wasn’t an anchor dragging down the series. However, the majority of writers did not do a very good job at all with the marriage and Mary Jane’s role in the comics.
With that in mind, here are the 10 worst ways Mary Jane dealt with the stress of being married to Spider-Man, in no particular order.
MARRYING PETER PARKER
Every bad decision has to start somewhere, and the simple act of marrying Peter Parker in the first place is where it all begins. She knew from the very beginning that she struggled with the danger Peter puts himself in on a regular basis, and that his sense of responsibility would never allow him to quit, and yet she did it anyway. Marrying someone with the hopes that they will eventually change something that defines them as a person, is never a great idea. Granted, it’s not like she didn’t struggle with the decision, which leads us to the second example.
SPENDING THE NIGHT WITH BRUCE WAYNE
Lots of people get cold feet in the days leading up to their wedding, but I’d think most would agree that spending the night with a romantic competitor isn’t a very decent thing to do. Exactly what happened that night with Bruce (otherwise known as Batman) is left open to each reader’s interpretation. Considering she spends most of the night unsure that she even wants to marry Peter and then shows up late to the wedding the next day, I think we can all agree that whatever happened, it falls on a spectrum of kinda bad to awful.
SEARCHING FOR HER HUSBAND LATE AT NIGHT ON THE STREET’S OF NEW YORK CITY
From time to time, Spider-Man goes missing because a crazed lunatic in a loincloth will shoot him with drugs and then bury him alive so that he can take his place. As the wife of a superhero, this is just something you’re going to have to accept as a certainty. The proper thing to do would be to carry on with life as best as possible, until the eventual moment when he returns. The incorrect thing to do is, is to patrol the streets alone at night in the hopes of finding him yourself. As Teddy KGB in the classic film Rounders would say, “Bad judgment.” (You have to read that in Malkovich’s terrible but awesome version of a Russian accent for it to have the proper effect.) I'll give her the benefit of the doubt as a newlywed irrational with worry and feeling powerless. But c'mon, make better choices.
Some might say that spending the night performing a strenuous activity in a public setting might be a terrific way to relieve stress, and maybe that’s true. Except that the reason Mary Jane usually went out dancing was as a punishment to her husband for leaving her while he went out to go punch criminals. She was almost always by herself when she went out, and always was in the company of strange men. Look, I'm not shaming her for trying to have a (presumably) harmless good time in a very stressful situation, but her dependence on this bordered on the pathological. That cannot be healthy.
The previous examples before this one may not have been healthy ways to deal with stress, but at least they provide some level of entertainment value to read. There is nothing entertaining about a woman using cigarettes to both relieve stress and punish her husband. For the most part, Mary Jane is at least a sympathetic character. She may not have always been entertaining, but you could at least understand her pain at having to live with a husband that was constantly risking his life. But her smoking habit (combined with the next example on this list) simply made her unlikable. (While I personally don’t like cigarettes, I’m not trying to suggest that smokers are bad people. I’m only saying that in the context of these stories, she was clearly smoking to punish Peter. That's not cool. Plus, smoking kills people, so there’s that.)
While there were many times when Mary Jane was loving and supporting of Peter’s life as Spider-Man, there were just as many when she decided that he should give up on his overwhelming sense of responsibility and quit. For some reason, many writers felt that this would be something entertaining to read. Nobody in any walk of life likes to be nagged for being who they are, and it’s just as unbearable to read about in fictional circumstances. Again, in a real world sense, Mary Jane is probably right in a lot of cases, but that doesn’t make it fun to read in a comic book. Especially since we know that Peter can never quit being Spider-Man (clones aside) so it’s a losing proposition to demand otherwise. For all the talk about how relateable Peter Parker is as a character, most people read the book to see him as Spider-Man at some point.
One of the more perplexing choices in comics history came in 1999, when Amazing Spider-Man relaunched for the first time with a new #1, with Peter Parker having made a promise to Mary Jane to retire as Spider-Man. Never before had their been a better jumping-on point for new or lapsed readers, and then he spends months avoiding being Spider-Man as much as possible. Riveting!
MURDERING SMALL ANIMALS
Granted, it is a rat. But still, beating a small animal to death with a boot is probably not the healthiest way to relieve stress. Or is it?
Since that one really shouldn't count, let's go with...
REMINISCING ABOUT THE "GOOD OLE DAYS"
From time to time, usually when fraught with worry, Mary Jane might pull out an old yearbook and start reminiscing about the good old days when her husband was in love with her best friend. I don't care what you say, that's just complicated and weird.
There was a time period where Mary Jane entertained the idea of having an affair with a character named Jerome James, accompanied by the clichéd reluctant kiss. While this may be a realistic story to tell of a wife that often feels abandoned by her husband, there’s probably no quicker way to turn an audience against a character than infidelity. Even the contemplation of infidelity. (The one and only time I ever wrote and mailed a letter to Marvel as a kid, was to express my complete disgust of this subplot.) Even her eventual "heroic" denial of his advances did little to undo the damage done.
DRESSING HER HUSBAND IN THIS OUTFIT
Okay, that’s just a joke, but on the subject on outfits…
DEMANDING PETER GET RID OF THE BLACK COSTUME
Mary Jane’s feelings were hurt by Venom, so she decided that Peter could no longer wear what was arguably the best alternate costume ever created. I liked the black costume, and she was just being unreasonable. Okay fine, maybe she was being perfectly reasonable, and with the creation of Venom there was a good editorial reason for Spider-Man to stop wearing the costume. But still, I liked it.
ABANDONING HER HUSBAND
Almost from the moment the decision was made to marry Peter Parker and Mary Jane, editors were looking for ways to erase it. Nobody wanted Peter to be a divorcee or widower, so that left only convoluted methods to end this vile abomination of a status quo. The Clone Saga famously began as a way for Peter and Mary Jane to ride off into the sunset and return a younger-seeming, unattached Spider-Man to the forefront. That didn’t work out, so next came John Byrne. His first attempt was to have Mary Jane appear to be killed in a plane crash, but despite how unlikable she sometimes became, nobody wanted to her to die. So instead, it turns out she was really kidnapped by an obsessed stalker, and Spider-Man had to find her and save her. (I’ve never actually read this story, so if I got the details wrong, whatever, you win.) The trauma of her imprisonment, and Peter’s continued adventuring, forces her to decide that they’re better off apart. (I’m guessing those were the reasons, because I’m not reading that comic in full.) Thus began the separation status quo, with Mary Jane out of the picture off in California, and Peter on his own but not really single in NYC. It was not a good look for either character. You either have to end the relationship, or embrace it (for all of JMS’ faults as a Spider-Man writer, and human being, at least he decided to depict the marriage as positively as possible) but keeping the marriage in limbo served no one.
(For the record, I think the McFarlane and Larsen runs had some of the best depictions of Mary Jane as a loving and supportive wife. They also had Jonathan Caesar, but that's a whole other topic.)
Infidelity, abandonment, cigarettes, and dancing. Not a good look for what was once one of the best supporting characters in the Spider-Man comics.
That's not even mentioning the other terrible subplots we were subjected to that were not her fault. It may not have been her fault in-story that she was sexually harassed by Jonathan Caesar in a story that refused to ever end, but it's not like we would have ever had to read it if she didn't become Spider-Man's wife. To be clear, I'm not blaming the victim in any way, I'm blaming the creative teams for believing that would be even remotely interesting to read. I do not like reading or watching anything like that, ever. I actively choose to avoid fiction like that. Beyond that, there were the little dramas that came with being, and I hate even typing this, a soap opera star. Nothing says fun-filled superhero action like Mary Jane being chastised by overzealous elderly fans. Hey kids, this issue Mary Jane and Aunt May get in a spat over Peter's best interests! Excelsior!
I know some of you will read this and come to the conclusion that I hate Mary Jane as a character, but I can assure you that is not the case. Like I wrote earlier, when I was a kid she helped form the template for what I wanted in a wife one day. Now, that was mostly based on her being smoking hot and usually very loyal and supportive (and also they had sex a lot, like A LOT) but those things don’t hold as much weight on an ongoing basis as an adult reader. The fact remains, that beyond her usefulness as eye candy and that occasional support system, her status as the wife of Spider-Man was so badly mishandled that there’s no objective way to conclude that the marriage was a success narratively. Almost everyone that argues otherwise, argues for the marriage as an idea, or because it represents something to them, and not based on actual storytelling execution. Sure there are always exceptions (the Sensational Spider-Man annual written by Matt Fraction being one of the best) but the examples above are far more damaging than any of the good. At her best, she was a loving partner and friend to our main character. At her worst, she made Peter (and us) feel bad about him continuing to save lives as Spider-Man.
Either way, she was always dancing.