Mary Jane Watson and Peter Parker got married on 9 June 1987, in The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21. For someone who began reading comic books in March 1986, their marriage was a central tenant of my experience of Spider-Man. You don’t have Spider-Man without Peter Parker and you don’t have Peter Parker without Mary Jane! Despite Marvel’s editorial staff having “instant regrets” about their wedding, fans have passionately embraced the marriage for over twenty years. As their relationship evolved, especially as it approached it’s end in 2007’s “One More Day” storyline, Mary Jane and Peter were increasingly painted in the light of Soul Mates. Their relationship then allows us to ponder one of romantic love’s most intoxicating questions – are Soul Mates real? It’s end allows us to reflect on the potential of finding and losing the one. Now let’s see if I can write about them without getting overly emotional and/or angsty…
When it comes to romantic archetypes, it’s hard to think of one more fascinating than the Soul Mate, right? The idea of God, the universe, destiny – whatever force you want to attribute it to – intentionally intertwining your life with another at a point outside of linear creation is the kind of thing you can’t help but think of. Twin souls (or two pieces of the same soul, depending on your approach) forever seeking each other. Your other half. Your missing piece. The One for you, recognized by the light in their eyes and how your soul rings, filled and nourished in a way you thought impossible before them, whenever you’re in their presence. You realize the curve of their smile, the slant of their shoulder, the lilt of their voice contains all that is magical, mystical, sacred, and real in life. And you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, this is the most important truth you’ll ever learn. How can you not think about this?!?
I can’t even begin to imagine how many times I’ve asked family and friends or started discussions for youth group members or students by asking – Which do you think is the more romantic idea? That we find the one because our destinies are interwoven in the stars or because we chose them out of all our potential options? THEN I follow it with – Which do you think is the truth of how it happens? Do we honestly have a Soul Mate or is it all a matter of choice? This topic has fascinated me for ages. I’ve found our own answers are as unique varied as our hearts.
And in my life, I’ve know with absolute certainty Soul Mates aren’t real. I’ve also known with absolute certainty they are. Such is life :).
What makes Mary Jane and Peter a perfect couple to explore this idea is they’re never definitively identified as Soul Mates (although, to be fair, the Devil comes pretty close to doing so – saying all but the term specifically – when they sell their marriage to him to save Aunt May’s life in the aforementioned “One More Day” storyline…ugh, let’s leave that to the side for now). Through the years we’ve seen Peter and MJ continually grow closer and stronger in spite of all which threatens to tear them apart. The narrative doesn’t expressly tell us if they’re Soul Mates, just as we are left to answer the question of whether or not we believe in Soul Mates in real life. And I find them almost as compelling as I do contemplating this in regard to my own life ;).
Mary Jane’s first appearance came in November 1966 with The Amazing Spider-Man #42. Aunt May had been pestering Peter for nearly a year (of comics, not in narrative time) to go out with the niece of her friend Anna Watson. When Mary Jane first entered Peter’s life, she did so with one of comic book’s most iconic scenes:
They began dating and broke up. Through college, they remained friends but lived very different lives – Mary Jane was the forever-popular party girl, Peter the more introverted and reclusive student (obviously secretly being a superhero will do that to you). In the wake of the death of Gwen Stacy, Peter’s first true love, Mary Jane was there for him in a way no one else was. From there, their friendship truly blossomed. Ultimately, MJ tells Peter she’s known he was Spider-Man for a long time. As trauma continued to drive them into each other’s arms for healing and support, eventually Peter proposed. Mary Jane rejected his proposal (twice over the years) but ultimately accepted. And while the shadow of having caused Gwen’s death (both in the fact that the Green Goblin targeted her because of Peter’s double life and her neck breaking because of the angle he used to grab her with his webline) will always haunt him, Peter managed to overcome his guilt and chase real happiness in marrying Mary Jane.
As far as exploring romantic archetypes through the lens of Spider-Man stories goes, MJ and Peter give us several classics. First we have the idea of the on-again-off-again relationship. We also have the best-friends-first trope. Just like Peter’s relationship with the Black Cat gave us something we can all identify with in our own romantic pursuits, so too do Peter and Mary Jane. We’ve all had that person (or people) we keep going back to despite the fact that it seems like it never works out. And who hasn’t had romantic feelings for a friend?? C’MON. It’s basic math. In an ideal romantic relationship we’re looking for someone we can have fun with, someone we connect with, someone we love being around, someone we trust, someone who’s always there for us, someone who gets us, someone we love…that’s the definition of a great friend. So if your good friend happens to be of the same gender you’re sexually attracted to, sooner or later the “Hm, what if…?” is going to pop into one of your minds. From there, all it takes is a little natural sexual chemistry alongside a little fanning and that spark will blossom into a full-on romantic flame.
Where Peter and Mary Jane (may) become less real and more poetic is their relationship works out. Their will-they-won’t-they ends with will. Their best friend becomes their lover. The dream comes true. Some of us are blessed in realizing this in our own lives and they have twenty years of comics where they can see their own romantic reality represented in Mary Jane and Peter.
Despite the poetic power of their passion, the relationship itself is far from idealized. When discussing Peter’s time dating the Black Cat, I wrote one of the things I loved about their relationship was how she could share in all of Peter’s life. She could do the normal, banal day-to-day couple things (even if she didn’t really dig them) but she could also swing through the city alongside her lover and fight the forces of evil just as he did. Peter didn’t have to worry about her being endangered and Spider-Man never came between them. In fact, it was Spider-Man Felicia was first attracted to. That’s not the case with Mary Jane.
MJ loves the totality of who Peter is. She accepts his life as Spider-Man and honors the responsibility he carries. She does her best to support him too. However, it’s not an easy life. Seeing the one you love constantly risk their life against everything from muggers to an Infinity-Gauntlet-wielding-Thanos can’t be easy. Never knowing if he’s going to come home – never even having the assurance that you’ll know if he dies as he may die in another dimension or on another planet – is far from ideal. Mary Jane knows their relationship, in many ways, will always be subordinate to Spider-Man’s job. That wears on her, becoming all but unbearable at times. How couldn’t it? And Peter knows he will put Mary Jane through such emotional torment and his life will always put hers in danger, but he can’t give up being Spider-Man. And that wears on him as well. How couldn’t it?
So their relationship is strong but they struggle. In this too we see something universal. No relationship can go any length of time – whether it lasts or breaks – without encountering increasing struggles. Dr. Cox, speaking to a psychology research fellow who’s talking to the staff at Sacred Heart Hospital about love, outlines this brilliantly in the “My Bed Banter and Beyond” episode of Scrubs:
Relationships, well Zigman, relationships are so…fragile. It takes just one thing one…tiny little offense and it can snowball on you. And if that snowball starts to pick up speed, God forbid, you better tuck and go my friend.
And BAM! The shine’s off the apple. And that’s when you find out that pretty little girl you married isn’t a pretty little girl at all. No. She’s a man eater. And I’m not talking about the “Woah woah here she comes!” kind of man eater. I’m talking about the one that uses your dignity as a dish towel to wipe up any shreds of manhood that might be stuck inside the sink. And of course, I may have tormented her from time to time but honest to God that’s what I thought marriage was all about, so much so that by the end of that relationship, I honestly don’t know who I hated more, her or me. I used to sit around and wonder why our friends weren’t trying to destroy each other, like we were. And here it turns out the answer is pretty simple: they weren’t unhappy. We were.
Relationships don’t work the way they do on television and in the movies. Will they, won’t they, then they finally do and they’re happy forever, gimme a break. Nine out of ten of ‘em end because they weren’t right for each other to begin with and half of the ones that get married get divorced anyway and I’m telling you right now, through all this stuff, I have not become a cynic. I haven’t. Yes, I do happen to believe that love is mainly about pushing chocolate covered candies and you know, in some cultures, a chicken. You can call me a sucker, I don’t care. ‘Cause I do, believe in it. Bottom line, it’s couples that are truly right for each other wade through the same crap as everybody else but the big difference is they don’t let it take ‘em down. One of those two people will stand up and fight for that relationship every time if it’s right and they’re real lucky. One of them will say something.
For twenty years this is exactly what Peter and Mary Jane did. They struggled. They hurt. They broke. They almost crumbled. But one of them stood up and fought for their relationship. Because it was right. And they were real lucky. So one of them always said something.
Then in 2007, J. Michael Straczynski – at the direction of Joe Quesada, then Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief and now the Chief Creative Officer of Marvel Entertainment – penned the “One More Day” storyline that brought about the end of Mary Jane and Peter’s marriage. I said I’d never read the story but, in preparation of this piece, I finally did. I wasn’t impressed. In all honesty, it was one of the most contrived, lazy, nonsensical stories I’ve ever read. In brief, Peter had revealed his identity to the world when he joined Tony Stark’s side in the first Superhuman Civil War. With this knowledge in hand, the Kingpin hires an assassin to kill Peter. While Peter’s spider-sense allows him to dodge the bullet, it hits Aunt May. As she lays dying in her hospital bed, Peter scours the world seeking help from everyone from Dr. Strange to Doctor Doom. In the end, Mephisto – the Devil in the Marvel Universe – offers to save May’s life in exchange for Peter and Mary Jane’s marriage. In my mind, it’s one thing to tell an honest story of struggle and divorce. Not all marriages last. Relationships end for all manner of reasons. It can be hard. It hurts. But it’s a part of life. If told correctly, it can make for a powerful story, too. But to just have the Devil take their marriage? Eh, it didn’t work for me.
BUT, while I was not a fan of the story’s execution, it IS important to our discussion here. Because not everyone ends up with the one – with their Soul Mate, if you prefer – in the end. Some, for one reason or another, may never romantically come together with their would-be Soul Mate in the first place. Others, for one reason or another, may find each other only to be driven apart by life. It hurts. But it happens.
As Tom Petty sang with such haunting truth in “American Girl,” “God it’s so painful when something is so close but still so far out of reach.” While I would’ve preferred a different avenue to the end of their marriage than a deal with the Devil, the fact that they’ve lost each other is still important. Just as some of us know the blessing of ending up with the one, some of us struggle with having found them only to lose them in our own lives too. It is in the dissolution of their union and the stories that have followed it, where those who have loved with all of their heart and soul only to have lost can see their romantic realities reflected in Peter and Mary Jane.
No matter what stage in their relationship you’re looking at, Mary Jane Watson and Peter Parker reflect all that is beautiful and broken about romantic love. They give us the highs and lows of trying to follow our heart. Are they Soul Mates? Are Soul Mates even real? Who knows? Will they find each other again in the end? I don’t know that either. But I choose to believe they will. My favorite comic couple can’t be apart forever :). More importantly than that though, I believe they’ll find each other again because I’m a hopeful romantic and because there’s nothing I believe in more than love.
Want more of my li’l series exploring romantic archetypes using Spider-Man comics? Well you’re in luck! Check out:
Spider-Man and the Black Cat: Flirting with Perfection to see how the Black Cat represents those people we know may be wrong for us and/or we know it won’t work out with in the long run…but we’re drawn to them all the same and we seemingly can’t stop flirting with or the pursuing them no matter how hard we try :).
Spider-Man and the Spider Family: A Look At What Might Have Been… to contemplate the “What if…?” people we think of when we consider our romantic “what might have been”s care of the alternate reality series The Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows.
Spider-Man and Gwen Stacy: All the Beautiful Angst of First Love to consider how Gwen Stacy has far more significance than just “the girl who died” and how her relationship with Peter perfectly presents all the awkward, cringy, and still oh-so-magical moments of the first time we fall in love.
Spider-Man and Silk: You Gotta Love A Physical Attraction looks at Peter and Cindy Moon’s relationship as an example of those people who inexplicably turn us on. The attraction, the draw to these people, is like a force of nature, completely beyond our control. It’s fun buuuut complicated without romantic feelings, too.
Spider-Man and Captain Marvel: The Super Friend Zone which uses the one date Peter and Carol Danvers went on as the frame to examine the friends we’re attracted to, the nature of “the Friend Zone,” and what we do when, consequences be damned, we start to feel a li’l romantic chemistry percolating in a platonic pairing.
Spider-Man and Betty Brant: Complicated Affairs of the Heart uses one of the oldest characters in Spider-Man’s character history to explore everything from first crushes and first dates to the confusing pull of falling in love with someone who’s married.
Spider-Man and Michele Gonzales: Hook-Ups, Hang Ups, and Bad Habits and explore how all the personal problems and issues and baggage we have that we refuse to acknowledge/own/see can hurt our ability to make it work with a really fantastic partner, as well as what happens when we meet someone who calls us on all our shit.
Spider-Man and Mockingbird: The Allure of the Workplace Romance looks at Peter’s relationship with Bobbi Morse during his time as CEO of Parker Industries to consider why we are so drawn to the workplace romance…and what awkwardness may be waiting for us if it doesn’t work out.
Spider-Man and Jessica Jones: Harkening Back to the High School Crush opens the door to reminisce about allllllllllll those awkward, anxiety-filled high school crushes we had and could never find the courage to act on while also considering the influence we may have on all the people we hardly know who come in and out of our lives.
Spider-Man and Jean DeWolff: The Lonely Echo of Unrequited Love is a sort of mirror to the cute-anxious experience of the crushes we don’t voice in high school, as it examines the very real pain we can carry in our hearts when we love someone who has no idea how we feel nor loves us back in the way we love them.
Spider-Man and Debra Whitman: Substitute People and Surrogate Relationships explores the toxic relationships we find ourselves in when we don’t articulate our boundaries and advocate for our own needs within our relationships, why we may struggle to do so, and briefly considers the nature of abusive relationships as well.