WandaVision was great. Elizabeth Olsen is a star. But it’s time for some queer, intersectional, feminist analysis. As a disclaimer, I’m a big MCU fan and I hope my facts are right but there may well be plot points and nuances I’ve missed, having only watched the show once.
Here’s (some of) the story in a nutshell (spoilers) – super hero Wanda Maximoff and her super powered robot husband, Vision, are living their best lives in Westview, a quirky, little American town. They end up having two sons together and couldn’t be happier. Each episode is in the style of a classic TV series such as Bewitched, Arrested Development and Malcolm In The Middle. But didn’t Vision die in the Avengers: Infinity War movie? And what’s with the TV shows theme? Plot twist – Vision is dead and Wanda, with her super magic, has created a giant force field around Westview, brainwashed all the inhabitants and created a fantasy life based on TV shows she liked watching as a kid to escape the grim realities of growing up in Sokovia, a dreary, Eastern European
cliche country. Turns out super heroes super grieve. A further twist is that Wanda’s neighbour, Agnes, is actually the super witch, Agatha Harkness, who zoomed on over to Westview because she was so fascinated by the powerful Chaos Magic Wanda was inadvertently using to power the whole shebang…but we’ll get to her later.
It’s a unique premise for a Marvel show and made for very entertaining and frequently hilarious viewing. It’s also great to have a female protagonist – of the 23 movies up to Spider-Man: Far From Home there has been precisely one with a female lead, Captain Marvel. But here’s the thing – Marvel has a history of reducing its female characters to stereotypes, primarily focussing on their reproductive and romantic possibilities (asides Captain Marvel who gets a typical-ish hero’s journey). And much of Wanda’s story is very domestic – doing household chores and raising children. I’d argue the earlier episodes encourage us to critique and laugh at this sexism because it’s so obvious in the dated nature of the TV shows, such as Bewitched, but come the finale and the narrative breaks down and Wanda must unleash her super powers to fight Agatha, fight Tyler Hayward (a human bad guy in charge of an intelligence agency called S.W.O.R.D who secretly wants to power up a new Vision to kill Wanda…it’s a long story), save her kids and end her brainwashing of Westview. Now we’re firmly in the MCU genre in which Wanda is contractually obligated to fight the Big Bad and save the day. This is progress for female characters in the MCU. Like Captain Marvel she is the protagonist and not playing second fiddle to a man. Unlike Black Widow (played brilliantly and regularly by Scarlett Johansson), she isn’t often little more than a plot device in men’s stories who occasionally gets to scissor kick villains. But underlying all this drama is a trope common to the super hero world – that when a woman gains too much power she goes off the rails and usually kills loads of people (even if accidentally), such as Jean Grey in the X-Men and the Invisible Woman in Fantastic Four. Incidentally, Wanda has already done this when she killed a load of people at the start of Avengers: Age of Ultron. I’m all for equal opportunities and, of course, Wanda can have a partner, raise kids, do domestic chores (Vision does his share of domestic stuff too), be a full-time super hero and go off the rails in a big way…but something tells me that this is all she can do in the MCU. Wanda may have trapped a bunch of people in Westview but she, herself, is trapped in the limited imaginations of her creators.
Even Agatha gets a rum deal because when we get her few minutes of back story we learn she was also super powerful but the other witches in her Salem coven didn’t like it and tried to kill her. Agatha managed to kill them first and drain them of their powers. It seems powerful women in the MCU sure have a thing for trying to kill other powerful women. This is especially problematic because the actual story of witchcraft is one of women being subjected to torture and murder. The Salem witch trials were femicide committed by (predominantly) men who feared powerful women and Christians who feared other worldviews and used slurs of witchcraft to justify the hunting and executions. WandaVision didn’t even touch on this history even though the comics did. Yes, we have a female lead and a female baddy but a lot of nuance got left behind.
However, I think one of the biggest problems with WandaVision is it’s failure to acknowledge that alongside Agatha and Tyler Hayward, Wanda is the third Big Bad. Brainwashing is a form of psychological torture and it’s happened before in the MCU. In the first Avengers movie, Hawkeye is brainwashed by the evil Loki to a do a bunch of bad things. He’s saved by Black Widow and when he wakes up he says: “Have you ever had someone take your brain and play? Pull you out and stuff something else in? Do you know what it’s like to be unmade?” To which, she replies, “You know that I do.” She says this because she was a former KGB assassin brutally sterilised and brainwashed by them to become a super spy. So the MCU does take brainwashing seriously when it’s expedient to the plot (and when committed by a baddy) but when it’s a goody whose done it to hundreds of adults and children, who literally plead with her for it to stop, it can be glossed over. Indeed, in the finale, Wanda talks with Captain Monica Rambeau (played by the brilliant Teyonah Parris), another agent of S.W.O.R.D who always believed Wanda meant good. Monica says, “They’ll [the inhabitants of Westview] never know what you sacrificed for them”, i.e. that she lost Vision and then had to lose her imaginary Vision and children – but this clearly cannot justify the immense pain she has caused. Wanda replies, “It wouldn’t change how they see me. And you, you don’t hate me?” – weirdly only concerned with Monica’s view rather than everyone else in Westview. Monica replies, “Given the chance and given your power, I’d bring my Mom back. I know I would” – fine, but that still doesn’t justify the behaviour. Wanda: “I’m sorry for all the pain I caused” – maybe she could repeat that apology to everyone else. “I don’t understand this power. But I will.” Yes, it must be a lot to be filled with Chaos Magic and it’s probably terrifying but it’s pretty clear she knew what she was doing when she created a giant, magic Hex around Westfield. As for Wanda’s fate – she gets to fly off to a boojy hut on a mountain rather than, say, go to prison and/or therapy.
It’s exciting to see more female characters take centre stage in MCU films and series. I cannot wait for the Black Widow film (finally!) in which Scarlett Johansson describes her character as “a woman who has come into her own and is making independent and active choices for herself.” More of this please (and why did it take so bloody long)! And hopefully Captain Rambeau will get more screen time as the first black, super powered female character. But, as the MCU diversifies so its limitations are further tested as we’re forced to ask if being an MCU super hero is all it’s cracked up to be what with its legacy of sexism and racism and its imaginative limitations. Ultimately, an MCU hero gains heroism through violence (they’re basically soldiers), they exist in a world of binary morals with Big Goods v. Big Bads, and their character development is limited by the requirements of the Hero’s Journey plot structure and the mandatory explosive finale in the third act. This doesn’t work out particularly well for the male heroes either who often suffer from PTSD/PTSI, depression and/or alcoholism. Perhaps we need a new genre entirely. In the meantime, here’s Agatha’s theme song – she’s the purple-wearing, super camp, super villain I’ve been waiting for and she deserves a spin-off (I listened to this thing on repeat for days).