by Samantha Vargas | March 6, 2021
Makeover Montages. Mean cheerleaders. Crushes on athletic himbos.
Although The Princess Diaries (2001) embodies the classic coming-of-age film archetypes, its characters stand out from the cinematic sea of quirky, shy-girls that undergo transformations to impress vapid high-school boys. There’s an inherent strength and resilience beneath the surface of Mia’s character that sets her apart from the cliche, “not-like-other-girls” girl of the early 2000s. Mia Mignonette Thermopolis Renaldi (Anne Hathaway), Princess of Genovia, is the brave, relatable female-role model of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. It’s time that Disney starts acknowledging the film’s legacy.
Just like other iconic superheroes, Mia’s role as a teenage bureaucratic leader finds its affirmation in an inspirational quote: “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something is more important than fear. The brave may not live forever, but the cautious do not live at all.”
Now, you might be thinking, “That’s ridiculous. The Princess Diaries isn’t a superhero film. Mia isn’t a superhero,” but for a myriad of reasons, you’d be wrong.
The Princess Diaries follows Mia, the typical quirky-girl-turns-overnight-princess after discovering that her late-father was the heir to the throne of Genovia, which makes her next in line for the throne. The Princess Diaries is instrumental in the adolescent timeline of countless late 90’s and early 2000s’ kids and remains a staple in Disney’s nostalgia vault. The film truly has everything that you’d want out of a coming-of-age film: a plot that exists just within the realm of possibility, makeover montages, dreamy ball gowns, a comedic-relief best friend with a cute, yet unattainable older brother, and Julie Andrews.
Still, these factors aren’t what make her a superhero. Just like every other Marvel figurehead, Mia’s strength comes from her inherent desire to help people beyond herself.
Throughout the film, Mia fights an internal conflict about abdicating her claim to the throne, thus giving up her power. Upon the inevitable acceptance of the title, Mia says, “See, if I were the Princess of Genovia, then my thoughts – and the thoughts of people smarter than me – would be much better heard, and just maybe those thoughts could be turned into actions.” She doesn’t want to be a princess because it’ll make her popular or make some cute guy notice her; Mia wants to rule Genovia because she wants to make the world a better place. The film even establishes that she’s heavily involved in social and political campaigns alongside her best friend, Lilly Moscovitz.
Mia’s character arc is reminiscent of Marvel’s revamped depiction of Peter Parker in 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. Both Princess Mia and Peter Parker discover their individual “powers” at 15-years old. They both go on their own journeys to discover the importance and ramifications of this secret, unimaginable power. Most people wouldn’t instantly associate Spider-Man’s story as a coming-of-age film, but Marvel’s rework of the superhero really showcases the grounded, relatable-nature of Peter Parker’s character. Especially if we compared it to Sony’s various depictions.
Marvel has created a surplus of overpowered, almost-omnipotent superheroes, and while everyone loves Iron Man, Thor, and Black Panther, these characters stand as aspirational – not relatable – figures. Children can watch these 30-year old heroes and see them as role models, but there aren’t really moments in their expositional films that allow younger audiences to see themselves in the character, especially in the later installments. Yet, depicted as high school students, Peter and Mia go through the same emotional and enlightening trials of their young viewers.
The Princess Diaries and Spider-Man: Homecoming also have several cinematic parallels that draw the two stories closer together. Both Queen Clarisse Renaldi (Julie Andrews) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) act as mentors, providing our protagonists with the tools and lessons needed to establish themselves as leaders in their respective communities. Incorporating the generational mentor trope is fairly common in films aimed at younger audiences because formative relationships with authority figures are relatable. Both Mia and Peter crave validation because both have been subjected to a lifetime – at least to teenagers – of ridicule and criticism. Both have experienced the superficial trauma of high school torment and the unspoken trauma of losing parents, and now they’re faced with the possibility of emotional and material validation from two people of massive affluence. It’s easy to see the parallel between Queen Clarisse and Tony Stark as notable political figures, but what really draws them together is their role as suitable replacements for paternal role models.
Although Mia has a healthy relationship with her mother, it’s made clear through expositional dialogue that she had never met her late-father. Meanwhile, it’s implied that Peter’s only source of a parental relationship is with his young aunt. Both Mia’s mother and Aunt May are depicted as young, idealistic women with lively dispositions, and while their relationships are very strong, there’s a notable lack of grounded, parental authority. Now, of course that’s not to say that these women are bad role models, they’re both incredibly strong single parents, but that’s why Queen Clarisse and Tony Stark play such vital roles in the development of Mia and Peter’s character.
There’s a general thematic conflict throughout both films that show the importance of balancing having fun while you’re young and accepting and embracing the responsibilities of growing up. Visually, that can be seen by comparing Mia’s mother and Queen Clarisse or Aunt May and Tony Stark. Both films even include conflict points where Mia and Peter overextend and make mistakes, thus causing their respective mentor to doubt their abilities. But once Mia and Peter are able to redeem themselves, it’s made clear that they don’t have to give up the characteristics that make them lively and fun, they just have to balance them with their newfound responsibilities.
To the same extent, there’s an important dynamic between the side characters from each film that represent Mia and Peter’s social responsibilities. Both films have stoic underling characters – Joe (Héctor Elizondo) and Happy (Jon Favreau) – that offer comedic and poignant perspectives to the protagonist. These men act almost like a set of unseen training wheels to the protagonists, protecting them from the brunt of social agitators. While both men have the mentors best interest at heart, it’s clear that they’re able to help mediate the obscenely difficult realities that come along with our protagonists new job. The audience loves to see Joe and Happy because they’re often met with blunt, deadpan humor, but the audience also knows that these men are there to keep Mia and Peter safe.
Still, the most compelling comparison between the two films is apparent at the conclusion of both stories. Both Mia and Peter are able to acknowledge and accept that they aren’t quite ready to accept the full force of their potential. Peter turns down Tony Stark’s offer to become an Avenger with the understanding that he still has a lot to learn about his responsibility and power. Mia, who was hesitant about accepting her role as a political leader through her film’s entirety, chose to accept her title with the understanding that she could continue to pursue education until she was ready.
Using this specific method of conclusion instills the idea that it’s perfectly alright to continue to grow and learn at your own pace, especially for younger audiences. If princesses and superheroes can have flaws and need time to figure themselves out, you can, too.
And while her internal strength is commendable, there are definitive ways that Princess Mia fits into the Marvel Universe.
Following Disney’s acquisition of Marvel in 2009, the MCU officially belongs under the same proprietary ownership of the Disney Corporation as The Princess Diaries. While their shared parent-company is an important factor in the cinematic universe’s connection, what really establishes Mia’s canonical tie is the presence of a single, vital cameo appearance: Stan Lee.
The late Stan Lee was instrumental in Marvel’s canonical catalog, and in addition to writing, editing, and producing, the creator also lent himself to Marvel’s on-screen depictions. Lee made a point of appearing in every on-screen portrayal of a Marvel character in major motion pictures, culminating in 60-cameo appearances across Marvel’s projects. From Iron Man to Avengers: Endgame, fans of the franchise could count on seeing a brief glimpse of Lee, all of which can be characterized as unnamed minor appearances.
Now, Stan Lee has made a variety of cameo appearances outside of the Marvel Universe. Yet, every live-action, non-Marvel cinematic cameo casts Lee as himself. Seen in popular cult-films like Kevin Smith’s Mallrats and Larry Cohen’s The Ambulance, audiences can usually find Stan Lee signing autographs for starstruck young fans. There are only two instances in cinematic history that depict Stan Lee as an unnamed, minor character outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Kevin Smith’s Yoga Hosers and The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement. Lee makes a surprise appearance alongside Princess Mia on her wedding day and is described in the end credits as the “Three Stooges Wedding Guest,” thus cementing The Princess Diaries’ canon in the same universe as the MCU.
Following its release, princess movies have not been able to achieve the monumental reach laid out by The Princess Diaries. The film was a building block into the self-love and self-esteem movements, teaching viewers always to have faith in themselves. Mia is a hero to countless young kids, whether the MCU chooses to acknowledge her or not. Still, hopefully one day, Marvel’s catalog of superheroes will extend a helping hand to keep Genovia safe.