An essay about Marvel Studios’ WandaVision and the significance of creating a show focused on a character’s emotional triumphs rather than their physical strength.
When ingesting a story, I often find myself rummaging for its purpose. What is the intention of this scene? What does this character want? Why do they want that? Is this worth my time? This sort of viewership ideology is often viewed as harsh by friends and family, leaving a story in the dust before it’s able to start combusting in the way I was promised. For me, I’ve digested a lifetimes’ worth of story, and have now mutated my patronage into an act of measuring worthiness. I’m currently pursuing my craft, attempting to discover how to make my own creative engine combust and earn a viewer’s time and investment. If the time spent away from that work is wasted or, in some way, invaluable, then I reserve the right to about-face.
One story that has most definitely earned my eye week-in and week-out is Marvel Studios’ WandaVision, streaming exclusively on Disney+. More accurately, screenwriter and showrunner Jac Schaeffer’s darling introduction into the MCU. Along with the dependable guidance of producer and Marvel Studios’ President Kevin Feige and a deft team of fellow writers, directors, production assistants, and set designers, they have constructed a wondrous brainteaser of a show. A show has found a way to tug at the roots of something specific to some and universal to all by choosing to let sadness direct the course.
After 23 films, it’s become fairly expected of the limitations inherent in a franchise architectured around mythic characters and ambiguous, thematically rich goal posts. There’s been the occasional specificity of confronting an oppressed world outside your utopia or standing up from every misogynist attempt to relegate you to a specified role in the world. But, predominantly, these stories operate off of an agreed-upon, genre-specific ambiguity that pertains to most. It’s never demanding much more of its audience than money and time, not to suggest the fantastical universe Feige and co have manifested is not worth my while. Anyone familiar with myself and my tastes knows that the MCU delivers the beats that I bob my head with most. Still, even I can notice the benefited advantage of delivering more than was ever asked.
Yet, instead of relegating to the tried and failed “bigger and bolder” strategy of Hollywood franchise filmmaking or even toning down the more convoluted natures of the source material, Marvel Studios is committed to presenting the crux of what makes comic books an art form unlike any other.
Refusing to follow the blueprint laid out by its own previous incarnations of marvel heroes being defined as those fighting for those who can’t, WandaVision focuses on Wanda’s character (played by Elizabeth Olsen), embattled by the waves of grief who rejects her duties as an Avenger. She refutes any attempt to resuscitate, to awaken the conscious mind, despite having mysteriously awakened her murdered beloved, Vision (Paul Bettany). At one point, she observes the arrival of a mysterious figure in a beekeeper outfit, clambering out of a sewer tunnel, and quietly mutters, “no.” She doesn’t flick her wrist; summon a swathe of red light to attack the intruder. Instead, she chooses to remain in the facade of a life untouched by the sharp edges of reality.
As Thanos (Josh Brolin) in 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War said, “now reality can be whatever I want.” This is the case for Wanda in WandaVision, but that — for all of the glorious touchstones it leaves to the comic books I adore — is not the reason I kept watching. Part of it was the mystery, the slow unraveling a show like Marvel must endure because of the obsessive, slightly compulsive examination fans often put forth. They chose to starve off time through mimicry, filling in the silhouettes of the ghosts responsible for television’s grasp on the nuclear family’s habitual purlieus that has occurred since the television became a household landmark. The iconography of sit-com’s heritage, from I Love Lucy to Modern Family, is painted into the crevices that exist between emotional truths at the crux of this, by way of Twilight Zone, superhero series.
It’s the first step into the realm of television that has the full commitment of the brain trust; it’s not off the record or constructed to present more mature material for sections of the audience. This is positioned to be required, or at least recommended, viewing. And the show has sliced off a layer at a time, too meticulously for some, even frustratingly sparse for others. Perfectly paced for moi.
Everything is initially designed to hide. It’s an overtly fake world created for more naive audiences, self-contained by storylines that force Wanda to keep a straight face, ignoring the intrusiveness of the world, laughing between her quirks as she buries complexity. It’s an obviously strange nature that often requires some esoteric influence but manages to manifest a plight for Wanda that is both more painful and more intense than it would’ve been otherwise. If you’re aware of the punchline, you notice the glimpses into the woman behind the hero, the texture behind the magic, the trauma behind the smile.
As we learned this last week, fantasy can keep anguish at bay only momentarily. And those not already in-tune with the tones put forth are now very much aware that WandaVision is not telling a story about an epic struggle to save the universe, but about one woman’s chronicle to save herself. It’s a revelatory creation for myself, a show acutely analyzing the scars beneath the skin. For a saga that culminated with the death of its first hero and then spent its final glimpses memorializing without dialogue and with undertones of bittersweet acceptance, it’s also revelatory.
Superheroes rarely stare into the fact of loss: significant deaths motivate, they don’t hinder. It’s always been purposeful to point to depression as a brief lapse in time rather than an intimate battle that seems aeonic. You endure; you don’t transition. Endgame itself is inspired by the very nature of battle-tested heroes refusing to accept the deaths from the preceding film, which established WandaVision as a landmark invention for the MCU. Not only for its importance in the future of Marvel Studios’ release system and sheer economic dominance of the entertainment ecosystem but for the ambitious commitment to testing a character’s emotional strength rather than the strength she’s known for.
The line circulating social media and haunting every writer for its obvious brilliance is said by Vision in the latest episode, amidst a flashback taking place momentarily after Wanda lost her brother in the battle of Sokovia he says, “What is grief if not love persevering?”
For all the belittlement anchored to a franchise that tells mythic stories of heroes versus cosmic villains, this heart-healing poetry is deserving of its acclaim. No matter what occurs this weekend, after witnessing the finale of this profound, delightful, and emotionally prolific series, I will forever place it in high regard. All of us ache to see ourselves on the big screen or someone like ourselves. Marvel is a tentpole for diversity, at least it hopes to be. While there’s a long way to go before we begin to echo the LGBTQ umbrella I dwell beneath or the other countless social identifiers others are patiently anticipating, I got to see a part of myself on screen over these last nine weeks.
A part that knocks me down and drowns me in a battle of fighting invisible foes, an enduring conflict that I can only adapt to but never conquer. That part of me was embodied by the universe I love most. If Wanda can persevere, so can I.