The Promise and the Failure of WandaVision
March 25th, 2021 | 8 min read
This article references plot points from the full run of Wandavision.
Superhero films are mass-casualty events. As the Marvel Cinematic Universe has grown, it’s success has won it a little more space to consider the griefs and resentments of the people left on the ground. Both Spider-Man movies pitted the friendly, neighborhood webslinger against more ordinary people with legitimate grievances, if super-villainous ways of expressing them.
In WandaVision, Marvel’s first TV show to air on Disney+, the aggrieved protagonist is Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), a sometime superhero, sometime terrorist, who becomes monstrous when facing an antagonist she can’t pummel into submission — her own grief.
In the Avengers films, half the universe was wiped out, disintegrated by the Malthusian villain Thanos. His “Snap” was eventually undone, but not tidily. Everyone came back to life, five years after they were destroyed. The resurrection was messy — little siblings had grown older than their vanished-and-returned big brothers, widowed spouses might have remarried.
Wanda has returned to herself, like half the world, after five years of absence. For her, the death-resurrection-and-then-redeath (it’s complicated) of her beloved, Vision (Paul Bettany), at the hands of Thanos, is the last thing she saw before her own disintegration. For everyone who remained, it’s a small tragedy blotted out by time and the scale of the Snap.
Wanda uses her magic to enclose a small New Jersey town and rewrite her life story. Inside the red glowing walls of her enchantment, Vision is alive, they live as a married couple, and they are blessed with children (who grow up quickly in a blend of sitcom-magic and magic-magic). Her reality warping is so pervasive that, for the first few episodes, her home life plays out as a simple pastiche of I Love Lucy, I Dream of Jeannie, and other early sitcoms. There are a few moments of strangeness, but her grief rarely escapes the lacquered shell she’s made for it.
The show uses the heightened style of a superhero story — as well as the genre conventions of sitcoms — to tell a big story about the quiet, internal work of mourning. Fantasy stories let us blow up our lives to heroic scale, to give small moments gravity.
Wanda plunges herself into American sitcom structures as a way of keeping grief at bay. In a sitcom, the world is safe— no trouble is allowed to be big enough to disrupt the show’s premise.
As the show unfolds, she must fend off internal and external attempts to take down the walls she’s built. Outside the town, a squadron of military types are preparing to engage her as a threat. Other bit players from the Marvel Cinematic Universe show up, and, in their attempts to dismantle Wanda’s enchantments, they’re also making a claim about what kind of story she belongs to — one full of gadgets, weapons, and standoffs.
Inside, her husband Vision is gradually catching on, despite Wanda’s attempts to re-edit the world around them — she even rolls the show credits to cut him off when he tries to argue with her.
For much of the show, it’s unclear how much Vision is independent of her. He recoils as he discovers that Wanda is puppeting all the real-world residents of the town, forcing them to play the part of comic extras. But, in the real world, he’s dead, so the viewer is left asking whose horror we’re seeing. Has Wanda cast Vision as the voice of her suppressed misgivings and pangs of guilt? Did she cleave off her conscience and find that, given a will of its own, it returns to accuse her?
The show took a turn in the seventh episode, where Wanda begins to acknowledge her responsibility for the world she’d made. She might have still been manipulating others (throwing up Buster Keaton-like roadblocks to prevent Vision from accusing her), but it was in order to delay a reckoning, not to deny it altogether.
But, just as she began to consider her own role as a villain, she was let off the hook by that most hackneyed of television devices: a final act twist. Her kooky neighbor Agnes (a delightful Katherine Hahn), revealed herself as the real villain — a campy witch named Agatha Harkness (with a catchy theme song to boot).
If Wanda wanted to avoid being drawn back into the usual Marvel genre, but couldn’t keep up her sitcom defense any longer, this felt like a final shift of genre tropes to protect herself. She was “rescued” from facing her guilt by recasting Agnes/Agatha. Even better — her new antagonist took Wanda prisoner. By chaining Wanda up, Agatha was setting her free from the duty to put things right.
In our own lives, we succumb to the same temptation, retelling our stories with new, all-powerful villains. We cast ourselves as powerless in order to let ourselves off the hook for whatever we’ve left undone. It can be tempting to dream of martyrdom at the hands of an implacable enemy while neglecting our neighbor.
I wondered if, in order to defeat Agatha, Wanda would need to own up to her own power and how she’d abused it. Instead of a cosmic punch-em-up, the series was calling out for a resolution more like that of Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, in which magic, however powerful, is not as potent as naming and making amends for our faults.
Unfortunately, the eighth and penultimate episode was doubly disappointing. It was a not-clever-enough riff on the clip-show genre, in which Agatha shepherded Wanda through her memories of trauma, before building up to the final revelation, a declaration of Wanda’s true identity, “You are the Scarlet Witch!”
“The Scarlet Witch” is Wanda’s superhero nom de guerre in the comics, but it had never been mentioned in the films. The moment fell flat, because its meaning was meant only for fans — it had no emotional heft for Wanda herself. It was the final genre-shift, to a franchise burdened by its commitment to fan expectations over storytelling.
As Disney has gobbled up stories and properties, the Marvel Cinematic Universe isn’t the only franchise to show this strain. The Rise of Skywalker also put fan service at the center of it’s story, displacing what had drawn those fans to the series. As fantasy author Rosamund Hodge observed, “Rey didn’t fly Luke’s X-Wing, become All The Jedi, or claim the name Skywalker because the story had set those things up as organically satisfying conclusions to her story. She did those things because they’re all things that fans dream about doing.” A trilogy that began as a warning about the dangers of slavish worship of the past ended as a decadent nostalgia trip, with every moment of originality in Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi firmly rebuked and retconned by The Rise of Skywalker.
WandaVision doesn’t fall as hard, but the finale is a strange mish-mosh. Genuinely touching moments are given short shrift as the worst tendencies of the superhero genre take hold. Agatha confronts Wanda by letting the townspeople free of Wanda’s control. They beg to be released to resume their real lives, and tell her that she’s shunted her grief and horror onto them. They dream her nightmares.
Before Wanda can give this accusation the consideration it deserves, the show shifts back to sky battles where heroes pelt each other with blasts of light. The reckoning Wanda owes her victims is never resolved — when she relinquishes the stolen town, it’s treated as heroic self-sacrifice. The final moments are spent slotting all the characters into places for their next Marvel outing, treating the show as an entr’acte to the real story.
But the adventurous storytelling isn’t wholly wasted. There are still a few quiet moments as Wanda admits she can’t hold onto the false story she’s been telling. She and Vision tuck their boys tenderly into bed, as the collapsing walls of her enchantment flicker in the windows. The parents make sure the boys are asleep before they, and Vision himself, are finally relinquished by Wanda. When her husband and house dissolve, she’s left standing on a bare foundation —something real, at last, to build on.
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