CAUTION: SPOILERS AHEAD!
Like many long-time comic book fans/deeply nerdy people, I was stunned and thrilled at the news that Marvel would be launching an entire TV series built around the Scarlet Witch and her android husband the Vision. In the last twenty years, some of the craziest and most game-changing Marvel comic book storylines have been built around Wanda, and a few of the most confusing as well. (Ask a comics person whether Wanda is a mutant or not and watch their eyes roll back in the head …)
The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Wanda has always been a radically different iteration, less reality-changing mentally-imbalanced sorceress, more “cool lady with power blasts.”
Until now, that is. In the course of its nine episodes, WandaVision has more or less transformed the character into her comic book alter ego, complete with reality powers, imaginary children, and a penchant for mental instability. As a long-term fan, it’s everything I wanted.
Or so I thought until I saw it unfolding onscreen and realized it’s basically a modern retelling of one of the most fundamental misogynist tropes, that of the “hysterical woman.”
All season, we were teased with this big mystery—who is responsible for the strange bubble world that is Westview? Who is manipulating Wanda?
Much of the online commentary surrounded Mephisto, basically Marvel’s version of the Devil. For a moment, it seemed the answer would be Kathryn Hahn’s Agatha Harkness, who near season’s end revealed herself to be a witch that based on her costume seems to have escaped from Hocus Pocus.
But no, Agatha is just someone who wants to steal Wanda’s power. The actual cause of what’s happening is Wanda herself. Overwhelmed with grief over the death of Vision, she went crazy and created a sitcom-centric bubble in which they can have their happy ending.
Stories of a good person falling apart are always interesting. You never know what they might choose to do, but whatever it is, the consequences will be high. However, in WandaVision, Wanda is strangely not afforded the “privilege” of making real choices. Although Wanda seems to know exactly what she’s doing at times over the course of the season, we later discover that she is somehow not fully conscious of what’s going on. In fact, self-delusion is essential to her happiness. If she knew she was living in a fiction, she couldn’t enjoy it.
Instead of the story of a traumatized character making strong but bad decisions, what we have in WandaVision is the story of a fragile woman whose grief has so completely overtaken her that she has become a danger to everyone around her. It’s pretty much every misogynist take on women rolled up into one—unable to control their emotions or live on their own; dangerous to all those around them; and, for those who’ve been pining for a super old school take, clearly possessed.
That last idea is actually how the series ends, and it, too, is built straight out of the misogynist playbook. What causes her to become possessed? The exercise of her own power, of course.
And here’s the thing: the very same kinds of repressive attitudes and behaviors are brought to bear on the show’s other female characters. The shadowy governmental paramilitary organization tasked with figuring out what’s going on seems to be populated by nothing but military dudebros who get off on putting down women. But time and again, those behaviors are called out, and the women prevail.
Why would things be so different for Wanda? It’s not because her powers make her a danger to the MCU, but because her back story does. In the penultimate episode of the series, WandaVision finally gives viewers all the exposition it’s been withholding. What we discover is that most of Wanda’s trauma comes back to the Avengers. Tony Stark built the weapon that killed her parents. She and her brother Pietro (aka Quicksilver) joined Hydra to try and get revenge, only to have her experimented on as a result. Her brother dies protecting Hawkeye. And her husband will die in Infinity War, because Thor basically chooses not to cut off Thanos’s head.
People love to gush about Marvel’s Captain Marvel and Black Panther films as though having female or Black leads is something new to our universe, rather than just Marvel’s. In point of fact, Wanda’s trauma points to the ugly truth that the MCU is dominated by straight white men who leave a trail of casualties everywhere they go and yet never bother to look back to see them. Say what you will about the so-called liberal ethos of the Marvel Universe, its characters largely emerge out of a Trumpian ethos of male bravado, unchecked power, and SWM privilege.
Confronted with this new awareness, Wanda could have become an exciting figure of resistance and challenge, someone who calls out the way the system is fixed and refuses to play along anymore. If anyone has a rationale for going dark and burning the whole thing down, it’s Wanda.
Instead, she’s painted as strictly a victim of her own mental state. The only fully conscious choice she’s allowed in the entire series is to destroy the family she’s claimed for herself—an experience shared historically by so many women when they’ve refused to do as they’re told, and so many queer people and persons of color as well.
WandaVision was created and run by Jac Schaeffer, the female screenwriter who co-wrote Captain Marvel and the forthcoming Black Widow. And it has some great elements; the sitcom conceit alone never stops adding oxygen and joy to the proceedings. But its story comes straight from the world of comic books, where it was men who first conceived of her as a character, men who defined her as a witch, men who put her in ridiculously revealing costumes, and men who have kept finding one reason after another for her to go crazy.
But probably I didn’t need to tell you that. It’s all right there on the screen.