Will Romance Make or Break Spider-Man's Future?
[This story contains spoilers for Spider-Man: Far From Home]
For a while, romance has seemed largely dead in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Gone were the glory days of fan favorite moments such as Iron Man's (2008) “Proof Tony Stark Has a Heart” and Captain America: The First Avenger's (2011) “I had a date." Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) exited the MCU after Thor: The Dark World (2013), while Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) and Steve Rogers (Chis Evans) romance ultimately fizzled.
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But Spider-Man: Far From Home builds on Avengers: Endgame’s reinvestment in the original power couples Iron Man and The First Avenger, ending the capstone epic with Steve traveling back in time to take the long, domestic route with Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell).
While Endgame invested in romantic drama perhaps more than any other MCU title to date, Far From Home doubles down on the John Hughes vibes established Spider-Man: Homecoming by dialing the romantic comedy elements up to 11 as Peter Parker (Tom Holland) plans to use a school trip to get closer to crush Michelle “MJ” Jones (Zendaya) are repeatedly thwarted by the call of duty.
Admittedly, “teenage boy’s elaborate plans to woo girl are repeatedly thwarted” is hardly groundbreaking, but in tone and execution Far From Home’s central romance presents an enjoyable change of pace from several current trends. Peter and MJ’s “aww”-inducing puppy love of awkward flirtation and chaste kisses is a far cry from the sex, drugs, and hard partying that’s become de rigueur for onscreen depictions of teenage life as shows like Riverdale and Euphoria seem to make a point of depicting teenage life as edgy and adult as possible. Even more refreshingly, in a summer that’s been dominated by clunky lip service to “feminism” and “Strong Female Characters” flat and stiff as cardboard, Zendaya’s MJ represents what those complaining about stereotypical female characters actually want — someone with a degree of interiority and nuance. MJ is clever and bold and keeps her wits about her in a crisis, but she’s also allowed to be a 16-year-old girl with insecurities who gets tongue-tied around her crush. Instead of being a shiny trophy for Peter to win, the bashful romancing in Far From Home is delightfully double-sided, ultimately as much about MJ “getting the guy” as it is about Peter “getting the girl.” Considering the entertaining side pairing of Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon) and Betty Brant (Angourie Rice) as well as new developments between “Happy” Hogan (Jon Favreau) and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), Far From Home is just as qualified for consideration as a rom-com as it is a superhero film.
Not only do these romances provide the latest Spider-Man installment with some of its greatest strengths, but also they ultimately present some of the series’ biggest questions moving forward. By the end of the film, Ned and Betty have amicably called it quits while May and Happy discover that they really need to work on their communication (he thinks it’s love, she thinks it’s a summer fling). While Peter and MJ’s first date gets off to an adorable start, the game-changing mid-credits scene in which reporter of questionable repute J. Jonah Jameson (JK Simmons) reveals Spider-Man’s identity and accuses him of murdering Mysterio in cold blood leaves the couple’s future decidedly in doubt.
How the franchise handles this fallout, particularly regarding how it impacts Peter and MJ’s relationship, will help determine the long-term potential of Holland’s run as Spider-Man. Between the Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield iterations and the start of an animated film series with the acclaimed Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Spider-Man is one of the most prolific properties in the well-saturated superhero market. Thus far, Holland’s Peter Parker set himself apart by virtue of his convincing youthfulness and earnest naivete. But having now featured in a total of five films in the four years since his Captain America: Civil War debut, Holland’s Peter Parker is growing out of the niche that once distinguished him from the crowd.
Considering the romantic history of the MCU is overwhelmingly populated by bland, forced and sidelined subplots, the winning chemistry between Peter and MJ that makes for many of Far From Home’s best moments could also prove key to the series' continued success. It is also a potential pitfall. As Jameson’s reveal inherently brings up the dilemma of “should I push away my loved ones to keep them safe?” to the forefront — a question that has fueled relationship angst in too many superhero storylines to name — the romance between Peter and MJ established in Far From Home could easily turn out to be the beginning of an unfortunate descent into the trite and cliched. Only time will tell whether the MCU will manage to navigate one of the most familiar narrative territories out there without destroying one of the most endearing dynamics it has built.
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