Marvel’s Cinematic Universe has dabbled in a number of genres past the standard superhero stagings. The Winter Soldier had aspects of being a political thriller, Guardians of the Galaxy is more of a space opera, and the likes of Thor and Doctor Strange deal more in fantasy. But WandaVision is one of the more unique stories within the MCU because it’s a horror series.
It’s at least the most refreshing in that it has a sense of mystery from the very beginning. The first episode sets up nothing with zero context. We’re just immediately thrown into a sitcom of Wanda Maximoff and Vision living as a married couple in Westview, New Jersey, hiding their powers from their neighbors and co-workers. We don’t know how Vision came back to life. We don’t know what world they’re occupying. We just know that something doesn’t seem right here.
I really like the way the first episode wraps you into its world. It’s so committed to nailing the aesthetics of a 1950s sitcom that when there’s that brief moment of Wanda’s dreamworld slipping, it’s horrifying.
As the series goes on, each episode brings a new sitcom environment and the creepy nature continues to reveal itself slowly. Vision slowly becomes more self-aware of what’s going on and Wanda is reminded of the reality she is denying. We’re kept just as much in the dark as Vision so that we’re just as perplexed by these situations.
Well, that is until episode 4, in which there’s a massive exposition dump of SWORD agents standing around giving debriefings about how Wanda created this world. I really didn’t dig this episode because it goes back the typical Marvel movie format. We get the cameos, the callbacks, the origins of another hero with Maria Rambeou, and everything about the hex is explained to us, as characters sit around watching the past three episodes to recap. You could honestly skip this episode and still understand everything that’s going on in the show.
WandaVision has its moments of great homages to classic television and a unique emphasis on psychological torture going forward. Both Wanda and Vision have unexpected encounters in this small-town fantasy. Just when we think Wanda is in control, Pietro pops up from the dead in a manner that doesn’t seem to be of her doing.
At the same time, Vision is finding himself being able to temporarily break citizens of the town from Wanda’s mind control and is shaken at what she has done to this community. Even when we later learn that Agatha Harkness is pulling most of the strings in these plotlines, the bulk of the world is still the result of Wanda’s doing.
The fact that Wanda becomes so sinister in her manipulation of Westview while she deals with grief, burying herself in a sitcom fantasyland, is such a clever direction to take the character.
Where the show really falters is how it ends. On paper, the ending sounds like the right type of closure. Wanda comes to the realization that she needs to move on as her grief is not only killing herself but everyone that she pulls into her vortex of nostalgia. She has to defeat Harkness, of course, but also has to drop her vortex spell which means letting go of both Vision and her two children. Ashamed of what she has done, where a whole town realizes what she has done to them, Wanda goes into exile to learn more about her powers.
All of that sounds like a strong ending…for a villain. The problem is that by the end of the series, the staging still suggests that Wanda is a hero for what she did and not the monster for what she has done.
There should be a moment of tragedy when realizing the ethical errors of what she has done but that questioning feels lost when she has to get into a magical battle with Harkness. By the time Wanda wins the fight, her ultimate decision for Harkness’s punishment is that she remains trapped in her sitcom form as a sort of prison.
This runs counter to Harkness’s piercing words about heroes not torturing people. This could’ve been easily countered if Wanda chose the dark path in stating that she’s no longer a hero, which seems to be the route she is taking. But, again, Wanda can’t be seen as the villain here because, well, I guess we’re supposed to still see her as an Avenger by the end of the series.
But this aspect of her still being a hero becomes even harder to swallow when she makes her bitter departure. Just when it seems likes Wanda is leaving behind a society that no longer trusts her, Maria Rambeau gives her fond farewell and states that she sympathizes with Wanda’s plight, saying she would’ve done the same thing in such a situation given the death of her own mother during the events of Avengers: Endgame and that the people of Westview will never know what Wanda has done for them.
Sure, Wanda defeated Agatha and maybe prevented her from killing everyone if she siphoned Wanda’s essence, but it wasn’t only Agatha’s magic that was warping and torturing the minds and bodies of the populace. Maria is trying to make the point that Wanda’s ends will justify her means and that her personal growth is more important than her public perception as a manipulator. But the Westview population does have justifiable reasons to resent her because she will not answer or explain her actions to everyone she has tortured.
This brings up the other troubling aspect that Wanda will not be held accountable for her crimes of torturing people as she just flees the scene. And, yes, I know that the series establishes that SWORD in its current form is not capable of properly handling, detaining, or negotiating with meta-humans. But that is a poor excuse for Wanda not being held accountable for her actions.
This aspect ties back into the events of Captain America: Civil War which asked the tough question of accountability in the work of the Avengers. The Avengers do not answer to higher authorities for their actions which led to the development of the Sokovia accords to make sure the Avengers can’t run around causing whatever damage they feel like for whatever level of threat they are dealing with.
I couldn’t help but think of this film considering the inciting incident of that picture was Wanda trying to use her powers to stop Crossbones from detonating a bomb in a crowded city area. She reduced the loss of life but still caused it as well. What she did may have been morally right but her actions require inquiry and accountability, making a good argument for the Sokovia accords being something the Avengers should sign.
And throughout Civil War, Wanda’s dangerous nature is called into question, where a conflicted Vision finds himself torn on how to feel about Wanda being kept under stricter confinement. Civil War doesn’t exactly favor either side but is more concerned with the idea of superheroes being held accountable. It’s more intriguing for the question than the answer.
But in WandaVision, there’s no question that what Wanda was doing was wrong. It was an emotionally-driven choice she made to handle her grief that ended up torturing and potentially killing an entire town. In the first few episodes, whenever she uses her powers of manipulation, she is terrifying. Her control of the sitcom world that created Vision is of her own doing.
Her realization that she has made an error should be treated more as a cathartic realization to have better control over your emotions when it comes to wielding such power. That’s what led to Thanos snapping half the universe out of existence; it wasn’t a logical choice but an emotional one. And think about how horrifying it is that the people of Earth have their whole concept of existence snatched from them when its manipulated by both villains and people they thought were heroes.
That’s my biggest problem with the ending of WandaVision. It’s a story of Wanda becoming a villain but doesn’t have the guts to fully make her a villain by the end of the show because I guess she’s gotta be in one more Marvel movie to rock that new outfit.
And, yes, I know that fans have bigger issues with the fact that their fan theories didn’t come true but this is the case with all fandoms. It honestly didn’t surprise me that Evans Peter’s portrayal of Pietro was a red herring for the series. It’s an aspect that makes sense when considering both the narrative and the production.
Narratively, Pietro was revealed at several points to not only be a pawn of the dark magic at play but another ghost of Wanda’s past that she had to let go of in her perfect world. If Wanda was to get over the loss of Vision, then she’d have to get over the loss of Pietro, which meant that the character would either have to die or fade out of the picture.
Bringing back Peters as the permanent Pietro in this story doesn’t make sense in that it runs counter to the themes. And, yes, I know those themes become hazier and lost as the show ends but that’s not a good argument for making this finale more of a trainwreck, being less for the benefit of the show and more for the sake of future MCU stories.
In terms of production, WandaVision started its writing back in early 2019 and went into production soon after, just as Disney’s purchase of Fox for its remaining Marvel properties of X-Men was starting to become finalized. Even though the writers did admit they wanted Peters for the role of Pietro early on, the idea that the character would continue on into an MCU X-Men film was not set in stone way back in 2019.
Marvel Studios had just recently acquired the X-Men franchise and retooling the rest of that universe to sync with the rest of the MCU would’ve been in the very primordial stages. Yes, there is a possibility that the Fox X-Men cast will return for an MCU film as Marvel Studios does seem to be moving ahead with mutants in their future, but at the time WandaVision was being written, that was not a thing.
Speaking of X-Men, I had similar issues with the last Fox X-Men film of Dark Phoenix. Much like WandaVision, this is also a story of grief, loss, uncontrollable powers, rebellion, and loneliness. And just like WandaVision, Dark Phoenix also borders on becoming horror with Jean Grey’s descent into losing herself to her fury and dangerous powers, turning her into a villain.
But in the end, Jean comes to terms with herself and her powers by making the ultimate sacrifice. And it’s so close to becoming a horror film that it’s aggravating how much potential is squandered by not following through with such a story.
This is a common problem throughout comic book movies that want to be about villains as the central protagonist. Sure, we have films like Venom and Birds of Prey, but the villains of those pictures are not really villains. They’re anti-heroes. They still do bad stuff but we’re meant to identify with them and even root for them in the end.
The closest any comic book movie has come to embrace the story of a villain without giving him a hero’s end was Joker and even that film has some troubling themes that become lost in its dark and muddied atmosphere.
WandaVision comes so incredibly close to being a surreal villain story and then wusses out in the final episode to keep Wanda maintained as a sympathetic hero or at the very least an anti-hero. And it really makes me question just how far comic book films are willing to go with crafting stories about villains and horror if they’re going to be this timid with the subject matter.
Oh well. At least we’ll always have Agatha.