Finding Her Zen

Zendaya has just finished a week she should remember for the rest of her life. She’s co-starring in a movie that’s made nearly $600 million in its first six days of release and her role on the summer’s buzziest new show continues to garner critical acclaim. Two very different roles. One is okay, the other is brilliant.

Weaving A Weak Web

In Spider-Man: Far From Home, she plays the latest incarnation of MJ, Peter Parker’s object of affection. Just because the film is doing the best box office of the year after Avengers: Endgame, doesn’t mean it’s good. Zendaya does a solid job in an average role. From the comics to the Maguire/Garfield incarnations of the franchise, MJ has always been main-character-adjacent. Our hormonal teen hero needs a place to direct his hormonal teen feelings, and MJ is the solution.

This time around she’s not just taking a backseat to the main characters and villain, she’s being overshadowed by loud explosions and excessive CGI. MJ is a sarcastic, too-cool-for-school death junkie, who is loathe to use more than one facial expression. And like the rest of the non-hero/villain characters in the movie, MJ has the depth of a puddle in the desert.

She may never be in a movie that is more profitable than her Spidey days, but her skills will be showcased in much, much better roles.

In fact, they already are!

Deep Dark & Depressing

Euphoria on HBO gives Zendaya a chance to show us her true skills. She plays Rue Bennett, a troubled teen swimming in a sea of troubled teens. Her trouble is drug addiction.

But she’s not one dimensional. How she interacts with drugs is just one part of her character. She’s not so self-absorbed that she doesn’t appreciate the affect her addiction takes on her family, especially her little sister who discovered her during an OD.

Rue also interacts with her friends and enemies in ways that are nuanced, the way we all do. She doesn’t treat everyone the same.

But the best part of the character is seeing how Rue interacts with herself. By her narrating most of the series, we get to take a deep dive into her psyche. Her conflicts, joys, and gut-wrenching pain are on full display. It’s easy to look away and hard to watch. ¬†And seeing Zendaya bring the character to life, seeing her consume and be consumed by Rue, is a privilege to watch.

It’s a complete 180 from her money-making-yet-cookie-cutter character in Spider-Man. Within the span of 60 minutes you want to yell at her, share dirty jokes with her, cry with her, and hug her. Yes, it’s a well developed character in a well written show. But there are few young actresses out there that could pull off this type of performance. Honestly, I can’t think of one.

So in a week where most people go “Oh, yeah, Zendaya! MJ from Spider-Man,” we should remember that it’s her role on Euphoria (the first four episodes are streaming now on HBO) that’s giving us a glimpse of what is in store from this amazing talent.

The Critic’s Cocktail Recommendation

I’ll have a glass of champagne. It’s the what Flash Thompson was having in First Class while taunting his coach-sitting classmates. They of course got their revenge by telling the flight attendants that he’d “blipped” and was really 16, not 21!

But it’s also perfect to raise a glass to Zendaya present and future.


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