Zendaya in Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Zendaya is having a moment. The Disney-minted actress-singer seems to be everywhere promoting her role in Spider-Man: Homecoming: She’s on the cover of Vogue! She’s going toe-to-toe with Tom Holland, the new Peter Parker, on Lip-Sync Battle! She’s turning heads with her fashion choices on a global press tour! Truly, it is now Zendaya’s world, and all we can do is live in it … as well as teach our curious dads how to pronounce her name. (The middle syllable is drawn out like “day,” not pinched like “Princess Di.” Now you know, Dad!)
A word of advice, though: Enjoy all these moments you’re spending with Zendaya right now, because it all adds up to markedly more screen time than she’s got in Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Are you surprised? Would you think, given how often Marvel has pushed Holland and Zendaya out as a promotional pair, that she must be playing his love interest? She isn’t. Zendaya’s character, Michelle, is one of several high-schoolers in Peter Parker’s loose-knit friend group, popping up every so often at the end of a scene to say something snarky. She is not present for most of the movie’s major scenes or action set pieces, has no bearing on the plot, and disappears for wide swaths of the film. Spider-Man never saves her, and Peter Parker never kisses her: In fact, he barely seems to know she exists.
Now, is Zendaya an utter delight in the limited time she spends onscreen? Yes, absolutely. Her punch lines manage the rare feat of seeming tossed-off but comically precise, her sarcasm is a great foil for Holland’s zippy pep, and her character participates in one scene that’s so woke it will have Fox News anchors frothing at the mouth like J. Jonah Jameson. (You’ll know it when you see it.) But insofar as Spider-Man: Homecoming has an actual female lead, it’s probably Laura Harrier, who plays Peter’s crush Liz Allan.
Though she’s not as prominent as past onscreen flings like Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane and Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy, Harrier’s Liz fulfills a similar narrative function. Tall and willowy, she’s got the heavy-lidded eyes and a sleepy sensuality of a literal dream girl, and Peter moons over her for most of the movie, trying to muster up the courage to ask her to the titular dance. We go to Liz’s house, we meet her parents, and several times, she presents Peter with the sort of plot-advancing quandary that’s at the core of his super-identity: How can he juggle his obligation to fight crime with the needs that come from simply being a normal teenager?
There’s a scene where Zendaya’s Michelle watches from the sidelines as Spider-Man rushes off to save Liz, and that moment kind of sums up how important both characters are to the plot. Still, you can understand why it’s Zendaya’s star power that Marvel is leveraging to sell Spider-Man: Homecoming. Though Holland was introduced in Captain America: Civil War, he’s not exactly a household name and he certainly hasn’t reached the one-name level of fame that Zendaya has hit at only 20 years old. Harrier is intriguing but comparatively unknown, and the most famous faces in the movie — Robert Downey Jr, Michael Keaton, Marisa Tomei, and Jon Favreau — are all over 50, though Homecoming aspires to be the youngest-skewing Spider-Man installment yet.
But Zendaya fans, fret not: Near the end of the movie, enough has happened to suggest that Zendaya’s role in the sequel might be commensurate with the part she plays in promoting this franchise. (No spoilers, but you can read more here.) It may take a while, since the sequel to Homecoming is two years away and Spider-Man has some big Avengers battles to fight in between. But Peter and Michelle are high-school sophomores. They’ve still got plenty of time to come into their own, even if Michelle doesn’t yet command the same sort of spotlight as the girl who portrays her.