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In a Universe of Black-and-White Characters, Wanda Maximoff Exists in the Gray Areas

Through ‘WandaVision,’ the MCU is finally delving into one of the franchise’s most complex characters

Disney/Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

After three episodes of classic sitcom high jinks, the fourth episode of WandaVision finally revealed what’s actually happening: The Scarlet Witch has turned a New Jersey town into a classic-TV reality where she and the resurrected Vision are the stars of the show. With five episodes remaining in the season, there are many questions still left to answer—we don’t know how the mysterious Westview Anomaly came to be, or whether Vision is even alive. But this much is clear: Wanda Maximoff is not a superhero anymore.

The Scarlet Witch has been a bit of an anomaly, especially compared to the rest of the characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She is defined by her grief, and a rare instance of a villain turned hero. Her first proper appearance in the franchise came in Age of Ultron, when she and her brother Pietro fought alongside the murderous robot (who evidently should be referred to as He Who Must Not Be Named around Wanda these days). Seeking vengeance after Stark Industries tech killed their parents and left them orphans, Wanda and Pietro were in opposition to the Avengers. They only switched sides when it became clear that Ultron’s evil plans extended beyond killing Tony Stark and Co. to, uh, wiping out the entire planet. Since then, Wanda has never truly been a traditional hero or villain—she tilts between good and evil, always acting upon her human emotions instead of any greater agenda or moral code.

Last week’s illuminating fourth episode was a refreshing turn for both Marvel and Wanda, because while she may be launching human beings through brick walls with little hesitation, that “villain” title still doesn’t feel quite right yet either. The MCU has had a well-cited villain problem across its 20-plus films, largely because many of its antagonists have been vague and simplistic, poorly drawn figures who are there to inevitably be vanquished in the end. (For every Erik Killmonger, there are several Malekiths, especially in the MCU’s earlier phases. Go ahead and Google “Malekith” to remind yourself who that is, I’ll still be here.) Wanda, meanwhile, is firmly in a gray area in a universe of largely black-and-white characters. In WandaVision, her motives don’t appear to be malicious by any means; she’s not just another villain who wants to watch the world burn. Then again, she’s acting out of self-interest, looking to heal her pain by creating a world where it doesn’t exist in the first place. The problem with that is she’s apparently cast thousands of real people against their will to help her to cope. Really think about it: So many have been displaced, turned into characters in a sitcom series directed by and starring a superhero who’s lost her way.

Disney+

Wanda Maximoff has always been one of the more complex characters in the comics as well, one of the few for which Marvel writers have explored mental health issues. She started off as a villain there, too, as a member of the Brotherhood of Mutants, a group that essentially serves as the anti–X-Men, led by her father Magneto. And like her eventual turn in the movies, she becomes an Avenger, though she’s erratic, suffers from mental breakdowns, and is ultimately too powerful for her own good. The first half of WandaVision’s only season is notably influenced by Tom King’s The Vision and Steve Englehart’s The Vision and the Scarlet Witch 12-issue run in the 1980s. The former series focuses on Vision, some time after he and Wanda have broken up, as he attempts to start a new suburban life with a family of synthezoids he’s created, including a new wife that he’s built using Wanda’s brainwaves. The Vision and the Scarlet Witch, meanwhile, finds the newlyweds similarly moving to a suburb in New Jersey as they hopelessly try to start a normal life together away from the Avengers. And yet the comic that seems to be serving as the greatest source of inspiration for WandaVision is not one about the superhero couple trying out suburbia; rather, it’s the popular crossover series House of M, which places Wanda Maximoff firmly at the center of the entire Marvel universe.

The 2005 series begins with Wanda giving birth to twins, with Vision and Doctor Strange at her side—before X-Men leader Professor Xavier orders her to return reality to the way it was. Before long, the world reverts to its actual state, revealing a harsh truth: Wanda is alone with only Professor X in the room, facing the fact that she recently killed Vision and several other Avengers.

Marvel

As a subsequent recap panel explains, six months earlier, Wanda “suffered a total nervous breakdown after losing control of her reality-altering powers,” and in the midst of the ensuing chaos, Hawkeye, Ant-Man, and Vision were killed. As Wanda sinks deeper and deeper into depression, the Avengers and the X-Men gather to discuss the tragic possibility of killing her in order to prevent further destruction. (While recently revisiting the comic, I was quickly reminded of how dark, and even creepy, House of M is at times; its influences may continue to appear in the show as the MCU dips its toes into the horror genre for the first time, like it did last episode with a glimpse of Vision’s walking corpse.) But when the heroes travel to Genosha, the island nation and safe haven for mutants where Wanda is rehabilitating, she’s no longer there. Within moments of their arrival, heroes begin disappearing; everything turns white; suddenly, the entire Marvel comic book universe transforms into an alternate reality, shaped by Wanda’s vision of a better world. Wanda reshapes the entire planet, along with the lives of every human or superhuman in it, to create a new life in which she’s no longer suffering.

The scope of WandaVision is much smaller—it’s just a town in New Jersey. And the content seems lighter—sitcoms are fun, right? But at its heart, the series is just as dark, and similarly at the mercy of its teetering protagonist.


However, while it certainly seems like Wanda is taking a dark turn that only Vision may be able to stop, there’s still a chance that WandaVision isn’t a story about Wanda’s transition to villainy. There’s a popular fan theory emerging that she may be more of a red herring, and that her breakdown could—at least in part—be the work of a demon named Mephisto. The demon is essentially little more than the devil in Marvel comics, known for making those classically sneaky-bad, soul-exchanging deals with desperate earthlings. He has ties to Wanda in the comics—she used fragments of his soul in order to give birth to her twin boys. (That also didn’t turn out too well, as I briefly mentioned a couple of weeks ago). There’s a potentially revealing line from the second episode when the power-hungry town committee leader Dottie says, “The devil is in the details,” and in response, Agnes quietly quips, “That’s not the only place he is.” (We still don’t know much about Agnes. She’s somehow one of the few Westview residents who knows what’s really happening in the town—and also the only person Jimmy Woo couldn’t find identification for.)

Regardless of where her path takes her, this iteration of Wanda Maximoff has been a revelation. Before this series, Wanda’s most memorable moment was getting owned by Thanos—now she’s becoming a fully formed character, and honestly, one of the more complex heroes in the MCU. Elizabeth Olsen herself has said that she had grown comfortable with her small corner of the MCU, but WandaVision has given her the leading role, and so far she’s delivered a captivating performance to anchor the series and awaken Marvel from its pandemic-induced dormancy. After a series of bit parts, Olsen has finally been able to bring a complicated and intriguing character from the comics to life in all her glory.

Wanda’s story won’t conclude at the end of this series, thanks to it being ultimately tethered to Marvel’s big-screen agenda. But WandaVision is writing an exciting new chapter—for both an old character and the entire MCU.