For the longest time, one of the biggest desires of Marvel Cinematic Universe fans was to see the rights to Spider-Man revert back to Marvel/Disney. This would allow for one of the most popular superheroes ever to take his place next to heroes like Captain America and Iron Man in some of the biggest movies of the decade. Those fans got their wish when Sony and Marvel struck a deal allowing for the webslinger to appear in Captain America: Civil War. That debut was met with tons of praise but one of the most interesting things that came with it was the appearance of Marisa Tomei as Aunt May. That conversation got slightly more intense as the hype towards Spider-Man: Homecoming shifted into high gear. Tomei, at 52, is the youngest woman to ever play the role. When paired against Robert Downey Jr., who’s the same age as Tomei yet playing a superhero, criticism came swiftly. While that criticism is fair, I believe that Tomei’s casting has allowed for Aunt May to be explored in a vastly different way than before and I think that it challenges the way we see mothers and mother figures in media.
Unlike many other famous mothers in media (particularly comic books), May Parker has a different path to parenthood. While her nephew, Peter, was still very young, his parents died; she and her husband, Ben, took the boy in. Over the years, they raised him as they would their own and things were fine until Ben was tragically killed during a robbery. May was left a widow, a single mother, and a beloved mother figure in superhero comic books and pop culture. Like many famous mothers in pop culture and superhero comic books, Aunt May upholds a certain level of standards and stereotypes that are quite honestly not what real motherhood looks like. In particular, the classic version of Aunt May is not what a single mom and widow living in Queens 2017 would probably be like.
When we think of our favorite fictional moms, we probably imagine and assume a few things. They are the beacons of perfection. They can cook, clean, teach the kids a valuable lesson, have a full time job, and still be sexually available at all times to their husbands. Single moms? Well, they have to do all that but aren’t allowed to have personal lives because those are the rules. With superhero moms, all that gets amplified because not only do they have to do all those things but then they also have to go save the world (Spider-Woman, Jessica Jones, Sue Storm) and if they don’t have any powers (May Parker, Martha Kent) they must spend all their time baking cookies and being worried.
Growing up, I was surrounded mostly by younger mothers and single mothers. My mom was only 22 when she had me, my grandmother was 18 when she had her first child, and two of my aunts were moms before hitting 18. I grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, a city where the poverty rate is above the national average. In this city there are also more shelters than you’ll see in many smaller New Jersey towns and Elizabeth, NJ also boasts a few programs to help struggling mothers including WIC and rent assistance through the county. Growing up here, the women I was surrounded by were unlike anything you’d ever see in fiction. They were brave, hard working women with desires of their own. Each day would be a struggle just to manage everything. While I grew up with both my parents in the household, I saw my aunts and friend’s parents have to deal with all that comes with being a single parent. Comic books have a hard time addressing motherhood and in mainstream corporate comics, that isn’t even something truly attempted aside from a couple of exceptions (“Spider-Woman,” for instance).
That brings me to Marisa Tomei in the role of Aunt May. Aunt May is a curious character. She’s typically aged up into her seventies despite being only one generation older than Peter. While it’s important to not ignore women in their golden years, I think the de-aging of Aunt May is one the most interesting and modern things that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has done. By casting Tomei in this role, the story feels like it takes place in 2017. It’s also the first to try something different with the May/Peter relationship. Aunt May, even when Sally Field was in the role, always felt a little out of touch with Peter Parker. She could deliver great advice but she didn’t feel like she could relate and again, she felt very cookie cutter.Continued below
Tomei, despite not getting nearly enough screentime, feels like the funky aunt you love to hang out with. Tomei’s Aunt May is fun and quirky. Her apartment isn’t very big and she’s not a great cook but she’s there for her nephew and his weird internship and his friend at their house all the time. She’s understanding and gives good advice but isn’t there to pry. This relationship feels more like an aunt/nephew relationship instead of May trying to replace Peter’s parents. She’s a guardian and a friend and isn’t written like any parent or guardian we’ve seen in the MCU. While the movie struggles to give her a real arc, there is an extremely cute scene where she helps Peter prepare for his big date with Liz. I think it does a great job showing how close these two are and even how they share a similar sense of humor.
Spider-Man: Homecoming falters heavily with how it frequently brings up May’s attractiveness. Yet, Aunt May didn’t expect to be a widow or a mother to this teenage boy at this point in her life; I like that people find her attractive and she’s kind of oblivious to it. It touches the surface in regards to her losing Ben. Still, the movie could have been far less heavy handed in how it approached this.
Tomei, to me, represents some of the women I grew up around. She’s not a perfect character but she’s something that I, a city kid, can kind of relate to in some way. She’s a woman making the best of an unexpected situation. She’s always got a smile on her face and she’s dedicated to this young boy and his well being.
Marisa Tomei is not the Aunt May that we’re used to but she’s the Aunt May I think we need in 2017.