clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

‘WandaVision’ Is Superhero Content Finally Centered on Womanhood, Not Girl Power

Disney’s first MCU series avoids an on-the-nose approach to depicting a woman with superpowers—something other franchises in the genre have long struggled to do

Disney/Ringer illustration

Per the naming conventions of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, WandaVision was advertised as a two-hander. Black Panther was about T’Challa; Iron Man was about Tony Stark. So it stood to reason that the first fully integrated TV show of the Marvel Cinematic Universe would shed equal light on both sides of its central couple: Wanda Maximoff, a Sokovian refugee with magical powers, and Vision, a carbon-based synthezoid who’s basically Siri fused with the Terminator. Both Avengers, Wanda and Vision—and their relationship—ran through the background of the MCU’s many installments. Now, they’d be the centerpiece. Together.

Of course, there were always clues this wouldn’t truly be the case. As even casual MCU fans were aware, Vision wasn’t really around to star in his own show; he’d died, twice, in the grand finale of the Avengers saga. Nor was WandaVision, the title, just a portmanteau of its two leads. Given the heavy references to classic sitcoms on display in early teasers, it was more like a pun. Wanda and Vision, yes, but also Wanda and television. Cue the Bewitched theme.

Still, the early misdirection had the effect of disguising one of WandaVision’s distinguishing characteristics within the MCU. Over nine episodes, the last of which arrived on Disney+ last Friday, WandaVision slowly revealed itself to be largely about just Wanda, a woman who subconsciously sublimated her grief into a simulacrum of scripted togetherness. The Vision of WandaVision is a projection, as are the couple’s rapidly aging twin sons. Virtually every other character, from Kathryn Hahn’s Agatha Harkness to Teyonah Parris’s Monica Rambeau, is defined by their relationship and reaction to Wanda, who quite literally runs the show.

Had WandaVision been shortened to just plain Wanda, the name—while perhaps not as catchy—would’ve underscored a notable trait. Not only is WandaVision the first true-blue MCU story to take the form of a TV show, but it’s also a member of what’s still a very select club: mainstream superhero epics built around women. And while WandaVision was never explicitly marketed as a female-fronted franchise entry, a stark departure from some of its predecessors, the relative subtlety of its approach ultimately worked to its advantage. By avoiding some of the off-putting, on-the-nose messaging of certain titles before it, WandaVision could explore the idea of a woman with superpowers more indirectly, and more specifically, than films that made it their sole premise—letting story and style do what direct statements cannot.

In the modern blockbuster era, Warner Bros.’ Wonder Woman was a massive hit. But it also arrived far too late—Diana is just as iconic as Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne, but didn’t get her own movie until years after they did—and featured a simplistic, girl-power type of feminism. On the Marvel side, Black Widow preceded Wanda as the MCU’s first female Avenger, but her headlining prequel got pushed off the calendar by the pandemic and related theater closures. Captain Marvel was relatively understated about its status as the MCU’s first stand-alone entry for a female superhero, perhaps not wanting to call attention to its arrival in 2019, but also underwhelmed as a film on its own merit. (WandaVision showrunner Jac Schaeffer cowrote both Captain Marvel and the upcoming Black Widow.) And the less said about the Endgame CGI shot from #resistance hell, the better.

Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the strongest example in the short, fraught history of woman-led superhero projects within a capital-e Extended Universe is also the one most tangential to its IP mothership. The debut season of Marvel’s Jessica Jones, the first and best-reviewed of Netflix’s ill-fated MCU satellite, turned mind control into a metaphor for the all-too-common experience of abuse and assault. The show’s title character may have super strength, but much of the plot revolved around the less extraordinary, more affecting experience of recovering from sexual trauma.

Wanda Maximoff, too, has trauma—lots of it. Neither loss nor the grieving that follows are generally understood as gendered experiences, at least not in the way that Jessica Jones’s depiction of sexual assault is. (It bears mentioning that Jessica Jones was free to get into darker, more R-rated topics while WandaVision, aired on the family-friendly Disney+, is not.) But the way Wanda mourns her parents, brother, and, finally, husband is implicitly coded, to the point where it’s hard to imagine the story playing out in the same way with a male lead.

The fantasy Wanda weaves for herself is one of domesticity. Her magical force field pops up in Westview, New Jersey, because the suburb is where she and Vision planned to build a home and start a family. With that future closed off, Wanda plunges into the past, casting herself as an idealized housewife who cooks, cleans, and nurtures. Motherhood is a key part of said fantasy, with Wanda mourning not just what she’s lost, but also the children she and Vision will never have. (The biology of cyborg-witch re-creation doesn’t have to check out for Wanda’s angst to be real.) And while it’s hardly unprecedented for male superheroes to care about their kids—remember Hawkeye’s farm?—anxiety around motherhood is a classic trope in horror, a genre WandaVision dabbled in from time to time but the MCU has never committed to in full. Pregnancy, birth, and parenting can be gnarly stuff, making for rich thematic territory.

Crucially, the past Wanda re-creates isn’t her own, but rather a manifestation of old-fashioned gender roles imparted by the American sitcoms of Wanda’s war-torn youth. It’s not an entirely alien impulse, even to those who haven’t experienced despair like the newly widowed witch. Life in the real world is complicated, filled with ambiguity and hard decisions. What modern woman could be blamed for wanting to retreat to a pre-scripted role, ensconced in a bubble? It feels apt that Wanda’s illusion grows less tenable the closer her references get to the 21st century. By the time Elizabeth Olsen does her best Julie Bowen, Wanda’s a mess, unable to do more than stay in bed and hide from reality.

That said, it also must be noted: Wanda is a witch, and witchcraft seems fun as hell. Once Agatha drops the nosy neighbor act and reveals her true nature, there are some allusions to the more allegorical parts of her origin story. (Agatha compares tanks and guns to stakes and pitchforks—just another way for men to take out their fears on powerful women.) Mostly, though, Wanda’s newfound identity as the Scarlet Witch opens up an entire field of imagery—Salem! Runes! Robes!—that’s both inherently feminine and instantly at home in Marvel’s grab bag of references. The internet has been riddled with debates over WandaVision’s perceived profundity, or lack thereof. Lost in the discourse is the fact that the show doesn’t have to be a gender studies text to cover ground the sprawling superhero complex has somehow left untouched.

With its mysterious “anomaly” and military expeditions, WandaVision has earned some half-joking comparisons to Annihilation, Alex Garland’s 2018 film adapted from the novel of the same name. Annihilation is far weirder and wilder than WandaVision, which is merely weird by the standards of the MCU. Still, WandaVision shares one of Annihilation’s simple pleasures: a piece of mass entertainment that’s centered on women and adds depth as a result, but doesn’t demand up front to be read as such. The show is far better for it, and demonstrates the real point of a franchise expanding its repertoire. Once a behemoth like Marvel is done loudly declaring its intent to be inclusive, it can actually start to get interesting.