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Addressing pandemic-induced topics such as loss, grief, and mental illness, Marvel’s ‘WandaVision’ serves as a metaphor for life in the time of COVID.
After the release of Avengers: Endgame (Russo Brothers, 2019), Marvel Studios and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) were at a crossroads. Endgame and its epilogue, Spider-Man: Far From Home (Watts, 2019), concludes the 11-year, 23-film “Infinity Saga” macro-narrative, requiring the MCU to determine a new overarching narrative direction. Additionally, the dual protagonists of the Infinity saga, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), ended their stories in Endgame. Marvel needed to either cultivate its deep bench of supporting characters (looking backward) or introduce new characters and concepts (looking forward).
However, the changes at Marvel Studios were not entirely based on narrative and character. In August 2017, Disney announced its intention to launch a streaming service in the Fall of 2019, when their licensing deal with Netflix ended. Disney+ would feature the extensive library of Disney films and shows, and eventually those of 20th Century Fox as well. But Disney also wanted to take advantage of the popular production companies under its umbrella to produce original programming. They launched programs from Pixar, Lucasfilm (home of Star Wars) and, of course, the most popular studio of the decade, Marvel Studios.
The first Marvel live-action series on Disney+, WandaVision, focuses on previously-established characters, but it feels like anything but backward-looking. It is the first release of “Phase 4” of the MCU, and a remarkable start to the post-Infinity Saga era. The nine-episode series sees Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) cope with the grief and trauma of her life, most recently the death of her android true love, Vision (Paul Bettany), by magically remaking a small New Jersey town and its residents into a decade-hopping version of an idyllic family sitcom. She and Vision live in the town, hide their powers, hijinks ensue, and the ‘show’ evolves from the ‘50s to the ‘00s.
The story is first and foremost a deep, touching meditation on coping with grief and trauma. It’s also a character study of Wanda. It is also a brilliant, detailed examination of the history and evolution of the network family sitcom. For their first television show, Marvel Studios produced a deconstruction of television itself. Finally, it is a unique take on a Marvel superhero story that is anything but formulaic (a common criticism of MCU films). WandaVision is bold, ambitious, deeply personal storytelling, and an undeniable triumph.
In the comics, Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch is known for undefined but massively powerful abilities, a traumatized psyche, and flirting with villainy. She appears first as a villain, in X-Men #4 (March 1964), as a member of Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants alongside her brother Pietro/Quicksilver. But she soon changes her ways, joining the Avengers during the first major membership changeover in Avengers #16 (May 1965). In Avengers #57 (October 1968), Vision, an analytical but emotionally curious android created by the evil Ultron, is introduced and soon joins the team. They begin a romance, primarily out of convenience, since they appeared in no other books, and it would not complicate continuity.
By the mid-‘70s, Wanda’s personality is more assertive, her loosely-defined magical powers develop under the mentorship of Agatha Harkness, and she marries Vision in Giant-Size Avengers #4 (June 1975). The couple star in a four-issue miniseries The Vision and the Scarlet Witch (November 1982-February 1983), followed by a second 12-issue miniseries (October 1985-September 1986). In both, Wanda and Vision attempt a quieter life in suburban New Jersey. In the latter series, Wanda gives birth to twin boys, Thomas and William.
Around then trauma and “reality”-endangering power began to define Wanda. In West Coast Avengers in the late-‘80s, Thomas and William are revealed to be illusions created by Wanda. They are inadvertently linked to the souls of demons. They are removed from existence and Wanda’s memories of them are erased by Agatha to sever her tie to the demon Mephisto. Shortly after, Vision is dismantled and rebuilt without his emotions, effectively ending the marriage.
These events push Wanda over the edge, and she temporarily becomes a villain. Things come to a head in the “Avengers Disassembled” storyline in 2004. Wanda remembers her children and lashes out in anger and grief, creating illusions as a form of attack on the Avengers. Vision and Agatha, among others, are killed and the Avengers temporarily disband. In 2005, the “House of M” storyline picks up from there, with the Avengers and X-Men discussing how to handle Wanda’s fragile psyche and immense power.
Left alone, Wanda creates a utopic new reality where the heroes’ deepest wishes are reality. When the heroes resist and end the alternate reality, Wanda angrily removes the powers of 90% of the world’s mutants. Some of these major shifts were later altered (Wanda was revealed to be partially mind-controlled, Vision was rebuilt), but they set the tone for Wanda’s character moving forward. Her powers are magical, have the potential to alter reality, but are loosely defined. Her psyche is fragile after many traumatic events, raising concerns about so much power in her hands.
The MCU version of Wanda is more straightforward, but it establishes the trauma that fuels her through WandaVision. She briefly appears in the mid-credits scene of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Russo Brothers, 2014), but her full story is told in Avengers: Age of Ultron (Whedon, 2015). She and her brother Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) grow up in Sokovia, a fictional, war-torn eastern European country. Their parents are killed by a missile, designed by Tony Stark/Iron Man, that bursts through their apartment, but the missile fails to explode.
Wanda and Pietro survive, become radicalized, and volunteer to be experimented upon by the evil organization, Hydra. A scepter containing the Mind Infinity Stone gives Pietro speed and Wanda a version of telekinesis and telepathy. They work with the evil robot Ultron against the Avengers, helping him create a perfect android, Vision, using the Mind Stone. When they realize Ultron is evil, Wanda, Pietro, and Vision help the Avengers destroy him. In the fight, Pietro is killed.
A year later, in Captain America: Civil War (Russo Brothers, 2016), as a member of the Avengers, Wanda uses her powers to contain an explosion until the explosive device is safely moved from a crowded market, but she allows it to kill innocent bystanders. The resulting international outcry results in the creation of the Sokovia Accords, putting superheroes under government jurisdiction.
The Accords create a schism in the Avengers that tear them apart, and Wanda goes into hiding. In the midst of this, she began a romance with Vision, and they continue to meet in secret until Thanos attacks the Earth while looking for Infinity Stones in Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Brothers, 2018). The Avengers plan to remove the Mind Stone from Vision’s head, allowing Wanda to safely destroy it. The arrival of Thanos forces her to destroy it immediately, killing Vision. But Thanos uses the Time Infinity Stone to reverse time and snatch the Stone anyway. He then eliminates half the population of the galaxy, including Wanda. She returns five years later in Endgame, when the Avengers reverse Thanos’ actions, and she nearly kills Thanos.
And so, Wanda experiences much trauma in the MCU, and as we see in WandaVision, she does not process this grief and trauma in a healthy manner.
Kevin Fiege, head of Marvel Studios, had a kernel of an idea about the false comfort of old sitcoms and using that to process grief. He thought it could be a vehicle for Wanda, tying in comic book elements of The Vision and Scarlet Witch, House of M and The Vision. Disney+ seemed like the perfect medium for such a strange idea. In January 2019, Jac Shaeffer was hired as the head writer and showrunner of the mini-series. Her early pitch closely followed the five stages of grief. The show ultimately loosened that concept, but the idea of working toward acceptance remained.
The core idea was that Wanda was avoiding her grief and self-medicating using her magical abilities. Although expressed in a fantastical way, this is relatable to many. Schaeffer insisted that Wanda be nuanced and complex, not untethered or ‘crazy’ in the show. She would act as a harried showrunner of the broadcast she is creating, attempting to manage all the pieces in her control to distract from her trauma.
Wanda’s grief became the primary antagonist of the show, with characters such as Agatha Harkness (Katheryn Hahn) becoming secondary baddies. Wanda’s grief causes her to inadvertently create a massive illusion and kidnap a few thousand people. She cannot release the hex until she has addressed her grief. Agatha, meanwhile, seeks to understand Wanda’s massive power and, if possible, steal it. Hahn compares Agatha to Salieri from Milos Forman’s 1984 film, Amadeus. She is both amazed and infuriated that Wanda’s power seems limitless and effortless, dwarfing her own.
Schaeffer considered Wanda’s journey to be very simple and linear. To make it more interesting, she limited the first three episodes almost entirely inside the sitcom illusion, with only slight hints that reality is fraying around the edges. The studio pushed for an earlier reveal, but Schaeffer held firm to avoid the narrative from feeling too satirical.
The decade-hopping of the hex originally occurred in response to problems within the show. Similarly, the commercials with the show originally signified specific ideas about that reality, or even Dr. Strange, a powerful sorcerer, reaching out to help Wanda. In the end, the decade-hopping and commercials are more abstract and subtle than intended, representing aspects of Wanda’s subconscious, but they form a fascinating examination of the evolution of network television.