Ah, WandaVision… such a great start, and then you went careening off the rails, heading down a path you should have avoided. Such wonderful acting, such amazing production quality, but ultimately, a terribly disappointing story.
There was a lot to enjoy about this first major TV series in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (I don’t really count Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., as it quickly disconnected itself from the MCU and played in its own space), but it could have been much more than it was.
More – with spoilers – after the cut:
The first three episodes of the nine-episode season were great, although I understand how they weren’t for everyone. Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and her android husband the Vision (Paul Bettany) settle down as newlyweds in the town of Westview, living a life modeled on sitcoms of the 50s, 60s and 70s. There wasn’t exactly anything new here, except for the acting clinic Olsen puts on through all three episodes.
But the slow burn of revealing how things aren’t quite right in Westview (you know, other than everything) is artfully done: The slightly creepy neighbors, the man in the beekeeper outfit who climbs out of a manhole one night, the closing shots of someone watching it all on television.
But I got a bad feeling in the third episode when Wanda gave birth to twin boys.
In the comics, there was a mini-series about the two in which Wanda is able to become pregnant with Vision’s children through magical means (because he’s an android, you see), and the series covers her pregnancy with the birth of their twins at the end. It’s been largely forgotten now, but at the time it was a touching celebration of their love and their ability to have their own lives away from being superheroes.
Unfortunately, unending comics continuity is a ravenous beast, and the happiness of fictional characters are ultimately sacrificed to the gods of melodrama, often in the worst ways when the laziest or least respectful writers come along. In Wanda and Vision’s case, their time came when John Byrne took over Avengers West Coast, revealing that her children were actually mystical constructs, pieces of the soul of the demon Mephisto, and along the way dismantling the Vision and erasing his memory. Wanda was turned into an outright villain after this, and things only got worse from there. It was a giant “fuck you” to everything the characters had been before.
(To his credit, Kurt Busiek put both characters back together in his Avengers run – but then Brian Michael Bendis wrecked them again in the execrable “Avengers Disassembled” story. Maybe they’ve recovered again? I don’t care anymore.)
So when the twins were born in WandaVision, I was worried they were heading down a similar road. Surely they couldn’t be so stupid as to turn one of the MCU’s two most powerful and prominent women heroes into a villain? That was the obvious story, but surely they’d learned from the mistakes of the comics writers, right? Right?
The fourth episode was pretty great: Seeing Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) return from oblivion when the Avengers undid Thanos’ “snap” was an outstanding glimpse into the everyday lives affected by it. (Aside: I haven’t yet seen Spider-Man: Far From Home.) She meets Jimmy Woo (Randall Park, reprising his role from Ant-Man and The Wasp) as the outskirts of Westview, and gets sucked into it through the field surrounding it, where she becomes the “Geraldine” character from the earlier episodes. Scientist Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings, reprising her role from the Thor films) arrives with a contingent of S.W.O.R.D. agents to research the situation, and they watch the show that Wanda and the Vision have been starring in.
This episode is great fun, and a lot of it belongs to the sparkling dialogue and performances by Park and Dennings.
Unfortunately, then my fears are realized, when Monica is thrown out of the field and she confirms that Wanda is the one behind it all.
I was immensely frustrated at this point, though hopeful that this was a ruse and that something else was happening. But in order to work they’d have to get through that ruse in an episode, or two at the most. And, as we now know at the end of the series, things were in fact exactly as they appeared.
The next few episodes feature a bunch of clever gimmickry: Casting Evan Peters as Quicksilver (he’d played the role in the X-Men films, while Aaron Taylor-Johnson played Wanda’s “real” brother in Avengers: Age of Ultron, where the character was killed) was a neat idea, and he did a good job in the role. The Halloween episode was decidedly spooky. And the kids age up to about 10 years old rapidly. But we also see Wanda confronting S.W.O.R.D. and Monica. She really is the one behind it all.
Kathryn Hahn as Agatha Harkness (who is absolutely nothing like her comics source character, though that’s not a problem of itself) also puts on a pretty great acting clinic. Unfortunately her role ends up being more one of “obligatory super-villain” than anything else, as she’s not really “behind” anything (despite the catchy “Agatha After All” song that ends the 7th episode), and mostly serves to drive the 8th episode, which is the backstory of how everything got to this point. The final episode wraps things up more or less, as Agatha is defeated, S.W.O.R.D. acting director Tyler Hayward is arrested (even though his actions made basically no sense, since he could have done everything he did in good faith without lying about Wanda’s actions), and Wanda restores Westview at the cost of her imaginary Vision and childrens’ existences.
(Oh, and the imaginary Vision apparently restores the memories to the body of the real Vision, which Hayward and sent in to kill Wanda, and the real Vision flew off, with no one – not even Wanda – knowing what happened to it.)
The final episode’s battle between Agatha and Wanda is a bit anticlimactic, since I wanted them both to lose. Additionally frustrating is that Wanda’s development here is apparently just setting her up to be the threat in the upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. And the fake Pietro ended up being… nobody at all. (He doesn’t even get a scene in the denouement once Westview is freed from Wanda’s control.)
I understand that the show was exploring Wanda’s grief at everything that had happened to her, but I think it was so clumsily done that a lot of it fell emotionally flat. It was impossible for me to see Wanda as a sympathetic character after seeing how in control and enraged she was when she confronted S.W.O.R.D. at the end of episode 5. At best, I pitied her for not getting the help she clearly needed – not that she didn’t also deserve to be held accountable for enslaving several thousand people for several weeks. I felt much more sympathy for the Vision, a good man – or Wanda’s vision of a good man – caught in a terrible situation, unable to do more than react to the events spiraling out of control around him. What happens to his original body is more interesting to me as a character thread going forward than what happens to Wanda.
One of the challenges of writing popular-serial stories about characters with powers like Wanda is that you need to decide whether you’re going to tackle the nature of their powers, what they can do, and the moral implications they carry – or if you’re not. WandaVision wants to have it both ways, with this supremely powerful woman who is at best mentally unstable, and possibly downright selfish and evil, without calling her to account for her heinous actions. Heck, Monica wishes her luck as she leaves! That may not be the story they wanted to tell, but that is the story they presented, but then didn’t actually grapple with.
I think they could have put together a more nuanced story with more sympathetic characters by taking a different tack: Have someone else be manipulating Wanda, perhaps by actually leeching her powers. Maybe that someone is Agatha, maybe it’s yet another party (Hayward? That would require a bit more plot-building, but maybe worth it if – for example – Agatha also got caught up in the web). Have Wanda and Vision figure it out and manage to stop them and rescue everyone in Westview. But also have Wanda realize that her Vision isn’t really her Vision. In the end, she uses her powers to merge the imaginary Vision’s consciousness into the original Vision’s body, but in doing so manages to de-power herself to reasonable levels. That wouldn’t set things up for Doctor Strange, but enh, let them find their own villain. (Oh, and as an extra stinger when she restores the Vision, she also brings the real Pietro back to life, but far away so that nobody knows. Which I’d appreciate since I thought he was a great character.)
Alas, instead WandaVision ended up being a lot less than it had promised. A fun ride, but a frustrating one as well. Sadly I think Wanda has been thrown into the bin of irredeemable heroes, because I just don’t think the MCU showrunners will be willing to have Wanda do what she needs to do to atone for the hell she put the citizens of Westview through.
I don’t know why writers seem to hate Wanda Maximoff, but if I were her I’d look for a different line of work. One that keeps her off-panel.