How WandaVision Gets Wanda's Story of Grief and Trauma Right
After more than a year without new Marvel Cinematic Universe stories, thanks to the coronavirus [...]
After more than a year without new Marvel Cinematic Universe stories, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the debut of WandaVision on Disney+ was big deal for Marvel fans. Not only did the series offer up another look at what the post-Avengers: Endgame world looks like, it also served to connect viewers to other upcoming projects as well, including Captain Marvel 2 and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Given its placement after the acquisition of 21st Century Fox in 2019, for many fans, it also offered up the hope of introductions for eagerly anticipated Marvel characters previously off-limits, such as the Fantastic Four and the X-Men. But for all of those things, WandaVision presented a different opportunity for Marvel Studios in that it was a chance to explore a story of grief, loss, and complex trauma in a way not often seen in comic book entertainment and, it's something that Marvel got right.
Trauma, especially that associated with grief and loss, is something that is frequently central to superhero stories. Even within the MCU the heroes almost universally have some sort of traumatic origin or influence. Tony Stark becomes Iron Man after being kidnapped and gravely injured by terrorists. Steve Rogers, though he volunteered for his transformation into Super Soldier, is impacted in his heroic journey by the seeming loss of his best friend Bucky Barnes. T'Challa becomes Black Panther and King of Wakanda after the death of his father. But while the stories of the male heroes are woven into the larger picture -- Captain America: Civil War is literally a narrative built from the collision of Tony and Steve's grief and losses -- the trauma and grief of its few female heroes have been largely unexplored or, when touched upon, isn't exactly handled with nuance or depth (Natasha's weird fertility storyline in Avengers: Age of Ultron, for example.) Even Wanda's grief is barely touched upon until the very end of Avengers: Endgame in a brief conversation with Clint at Tony's funeral despite nearly everything we've seen about the character to that point is defined by her life-long nightmare of loss: her parents, her brother, and then the love of her life.
That changed with WandaVision. Though wrapped in the mystery of what exactly was going on with Westview and the mysterious Hex surrounding it, the story from the start was Wanda's with more and more of her pain and suffering unfolding each week. To an extent, that's what was so brilliant about it. Viewers tuning in aren't initially aware of the significance of Wanda's grief to the story and that's where Marvel first begins to get this story right. Pain and trauma aren't always immediately identifiable with people. There's that saying that goes something like "be kind because everyone is fighting an invisible battle" and it's true. You can't look at someone and know what they're dealing with just like those early issues of WandaVision had viewers a bit confused as to what exactly was going on inside the Hex.
But as the series deepened and it became clear that Westview was an extension of Wanda's suffering, the show presented that suffering with great realism. Viewers see Wanda struggling to maintain "normal" and even to convince those around her that everything is fine. When "Geraldine"/Monica Rambeau brings up Pietro's death via Ultron, Wanda literally throws her out of the Hex -- a representation of Wanda's denial as well as a representation of how help can't be truly accepted until one is ready. Wanda wasn't ready. When her false world is threatened first by Hayward and then when Vision goes outside the Hex, she reacts irrationally, escalating her behavior in order to extend the illusion so that she doesn't have to face her loss.
The true test, though, came in the final two episodes of the series when Agnes/Agatha Harkness forced Wanda to confront what she'd done and, in the process, literally walked her through her origin. "Previously On" saw Wanda forced to revisit the most painful moments of her life and while it narratively served the purpose of showing exactly how Wanda's control over Westview started and set up for her ultimate transformation into the Scarlet Witch, it also saw Wanda truly face her losses. What is especially standout about this episode is what many fans called a continuity error: the bedroom scene in the Avengers compound. While many were quick to note the differences between Captain America: Civil War and WandaVision, it instead served as a way of showing how memory is fallible. Wanda's revisited memory is focused on her pain, not the details of the space.
Where WandaVision ultimately truly excels and gets things right in not only its exploration of trauma but in its characterization of it is in "The Series Finale". It would have been very easy at this point in the story to take Wanda and turn her into a villain. After all, the series had laid some solid groundwork for the idea that Wanda was dangerous. It would have been a perfect moment for a villain turn. Instead, faced with the impending destruction of the world she'd created and a threat to her control, the series had Wanda face her pain and truly begin to process it. She uses that pain to fuel her transformation into the Scarlet Witch while also accepting her losses, ultimately letting go of her perfect world -- including her Vision and her children. There's even a truly beautiful moment in which she thanks her children for choosing her that may not seem like much -- or may seem like a tease for something more -- but also feels very much like a signal that Wanda's healing process has begun before she heads off to do even more work on herself. That post-credits scene of her studying the Darkhold is as much about her learning about her magic as it is her learning more about herself.
Ultimately, WandaVision gives viewers a story that shows the pain, the struggle, and the long road to approaching one's trauma and grief. Where previous Marvel presentations of grief have largely been superficial, WandaVision digs deep and in the end, sees the birth of a hero who is deeply flawed but working to be something more. Her experiences aren't romanticized by culminating in some big dramatic sacrifice the way Tony Stark's was or Natasha Romanoff's was. Instead, the series presented healing as a process, one that is ongoing and one that speaks to the real-life experiences of so many who watch it.
WandaVision is now streaming on Disney+. If you haven't signed up for the service yet, you can try it out here.
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