For many fans, Spider-Man: Homecoming exceeded already lofty expectations; however, there is one aspect of the re-reboot that, at least for some viewers didn’t work as well: the portrayal of Aunt May. To be clear, this is not a criticism of Marisa Tomei in Spider-Man: Homecoming – she’s a brilliant actress and a worthy successor to Sally Field. Instead, it is the way Marvel and Sony ended up distracting from the image of Parker’s surrogate mother by making her objectified and sexualized by men throughout the film.
When Tomei was first cast as the aunt-by-marriage of Tom Holland’s Peter Parker, some fans were shocked and skeptical about her casting. Tomei is a beautiful, vivacious woman who looks ten years younger than her actual age of 52, so a far-cry from the comic book image of the elderly May Parker. In terms of physical likeness, the first big screen version of the Marvel character was in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, played by Rosemary Harris who was 74 when the first film came out in 2002. Next, Sally Field was 65 when she appeared as the new Aunt May in Marc Webb’s 2012 reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man.
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Tomei’s casting was announced in 2015 and many saw it as both “sexist and ageist” – seeing that every version of Aunt May onscreen has skewed increasingly younger (as a product of Hollywood’s obsession with making female characters as young as possible). However, unknown to some, there was a basis for this middle-aged portrayal thanks to Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Marvel characterization: a strong, independent woman in her late forties.
Then came Captain America: Civil War and the introduction of Spider-Man into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “It’s hard to believe she’s anyone’s aunt,” Tony Stark says to Peter upon first meeting, and later, when asking if anyone knows about his secret Spider-Man identity: “not even your unusually attractive aunt?” The novelty of seeing Robert Downey Jr. and Tomei together again onscreen quickly wore off when it became clear that after making a jokey reference about the backlash over Aunt May’s age, Sony was actually going to double-down on her character as the “hot aunt” in every MCU appearance.
Unfortunately, the “hot aunt” joke only increased in scope for Spider-Man: Homecoming, as director and co-writer Jon Watts played up the fact that Ben Parker’s widow is a beautiful woman fancied by men around Queens. When May and Peter go out for Thai food, after a failed cooking attempt no less, the young waiter brings over a rice pudding for her. “We didn’t order that,” she says to which the waiter replies with a flirty smile, “It’s on the house.” In earlier scenes, Tony Stark (confirmed to still be dating Pepper Potts) makes yet another “hot Aunt May” joke while dropping Peter off in Queens. Meanwhile, the Deli store owner makes a similar crack while the young Spidey is grabbing a sandwich. Even Peter’s best mate Ned (Jacob Batalon) is suggested to be crushing on May and can barely get a sentence out in her presence.
It’s all the more unfortunate when it was revealed that Tomei actually had a powerful deleted scene in the original cut of the film – one that would have painted May as a hero in her own right (not just as a parent to Peter and a hot women to the rest of the men in the film).
Speaking about the scene, Tomei said:
“There was something going on in the neighborhood, and there was a little girl in distress, and I saved her, and Peter saw me save her, so you kind of saw that he got part of his ethics from her … Then I come home, and I don’t even tell him that that’s what happened, and, of course, there’s all this stuff that he’s not telling me. So he’s like, ‘How was your day?’ And I’m like, ‘It was fine,’ but really I was shaking inside because of this whole crisis that had happened in the city. I’m kind of fibbing to him, and he’s fibbing to me, and we’re living in this house together, and it was a very interesting setup. I was quite disappointed that wasn’t in there.”
Spider-Man: Homecoming co-producer Eric Houseman Carroll had said that in casting Aunt May they thought “wouldn’t she be more of a big sister and closer to his age than in the classic comic?”
On the surface, there is definitely a case to be made for a more natural approach to the character – and Marisa’s performance is endearing, funny, and shows she clearly has great familial chemistry with Tom. There is also this “I don’t know how to raise a kid” element to her personality that certainly endears the audience to May, because she doesn’t have everything figured out.
However, all this focus on how good looking she is and making her more of an older sister, distracts from the real purpose of Aunt May – to be a mother figure in Peter’s life that loves him for who he is out of the suit and someone he can turn to for sage advice. In both Raimi and Webb’s Spider-Man films, May has been the voice of reason and support for her nephew who she guided from a boy to a super man (at times without even knowing his crime-fighting life), but in Spider-Man: Homecoming, Peter is getting his big and meaningful life lessons from Tony Stark while his aunt is reduced to dropping him off at parties and aiding in date preparation (YouTubing a Windsor knot video).
Clearly Marvel is trying to position Stark as a parental figure for Peter in lieu of Uncle Ben, and allow Tony to iron out (forgive the pun) his own daddy issues by comparing his fatherly treatment of the young superhero to his own experience under Howard Stark. Yet by giving Stark these pivotal parental moments in the storyline, the story steals those moments away from Aunt May.
All the same, it’s exciting to see what Marisa Tomei will do with this modern interpretation of Peter’s aunt down the line – a far cry from the elderly woman-in-distress presented in the original comics; though, hopefully, the studio can dial-back the amount of eye candy jokes in favor of scenes like the one that was apparently deleted. Let her be beautiful and funny, but also let her be capable of molding Peter Parker into the brave, thoughtful and loving man we know he’s going to be – by expanding her presence and influence in the franchise.
This is just the beginning of Spider-Man’s new cinematic journey, with confirmed appearances in Avengers: Infinity War and the Spider-Man Homecoming sequel. I just hope that as we see the webslinger develop, we’ll also see May Parker evolve away from this hot “older sister” persona into an ageless surrogate mother that helps Peter become an inspiring Spider-Man.