• Joel Ryan

"Wandavision" Reactions and Takeaways


Anyone who knows me or has read my work over the last couple of years will probably tell you that I have become a fairly outspoken fan of most things coming out of Marvel Studios these days… most things.


Let me be clear. I have never been a diehard comic book fan, I do not worship Kevin Feige or the powers that be at Marvel Studios or Disney, and I have no problem being critical of bad writing.


I simply appreciate good storytelling, competent, patient storytellers, and great writing that manages character and world-building effectively; and I believe Marvel Studios has done a pretty effective job in all three areas.

In any culture, our heroes, whether real or fictional, reveal something about the things we value and choose to pass on to future generations. They create the culture as much as they help define it.


Comic books and costumed superheroes, therein, have become a much bigger part of our modern mythos than we probably realize.


Despite what Martin Scorsese may think, what Kevin Feige and his team at Marvel Studios have created in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is arguably one of the most important chapters still being written in the history of cinema, not to mention pop culture; and yes, what happens in pop culture and entertainment does inevitably influence public policy.


This leads me to Marvel Studios’ newest phase and the next chapter in the MCU:


Wandavision


SPOILER ALERT. If you haven’t seen Wandavision on Disney+ and don’t want any story details spoiled, turn away now.


The nine-episode MCU/Disney+ series that premiered on Disney plus earlier this year and concluded last week, follows the events of Avengers: Endgame by taking us into the mind-bending, reality-warping world of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), arguably one of the weirdest and most powerful "heroes" (I use that word in quotation marks) in the Avengers lineup. And, yes, the debate over who’s the most the powerful Avenger is discussed in the series. Thank you, Darcy (Kat Dennings) and Agent Woo (Randall Park), who I might add, are perfect additions to this already eclectic cast.


As the rest of the world recovers from the cataclysmic events of the Infinity War and multiple Infinity Gauntlet “Snaps”, Wanda also struggles to work through her own recent (and past) trauma and loss, using her power to construct an alternate reality in the style of her favorite American sitcoms she used to watch with her family growing up in Sokovia.


In Wanda's vision or version of reality, she can finally have the ideal, happy life with Vision (Paul Bettany) she’s always wanted.


But, as we now know, the road to hell is often paved with the best intentions; and most attempts at trying to become the god of our own universe end in disaster.


Wanda’s twisted simulation that she controls with a scarlet fist has severe consequences on the real citizens of Westview trapped as characters in her “perfect” American sitcom.


I emphasize the word simulation here because that is exactly what Wandavision is. A simulation of reality, not reality itself. And to anyone who wants to argue that we "create" our own reality, I'd point to the chaos of Wanda's version of Westview as a cautionary tale to that kind of thinking.


For this reason, Wanda's vision, along with her struggle to come to terms with her own loss and grief, threaten to make Wanda the villain of her own story, which she certainly becomes.


But now to my confession of the day.


When Disney and Marvel Studios announced that Wandavision would be one of their first series coming to Disney+, I couldn’t have been the only one who wondered if this series was going to be ridiculous or amazing.


We'd heard for years about the potential of Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Hawkeye, and maybe even Loki getting their own Disney+ series, but Wanda and Vision in their own through-the-decades-sitcom? How was that going to work, especially given Vision’s un "timely" demise in Avengers: Infinity War? Would MCU fans be willing to explore the more magical, mystical storylines of the comics and follow some of the weirder characters of the MCU without Steve Rogers and Tony Stark to lead the way?


I can now admit that Wandavision is weird, absurd, deeply philosophical, dark and creepy, but oddly wonderful at times as well.


As Marvel Studios’ first foray into the world of streaming, Feige and company have proven, at least for now, that, in the right hands, there is a multiverse of new stories to be told, worlds to explore, and interesting characters to develop in the post-Cap/Ironman world of the MCU.


Will fans get on board? I honestly don't know. Reactions to Wandavision have been mixed, and at some point, superhero fatigue may become a factor in future MCU storylines.


Marvel Studios is never bound to play by its previous rules, though acknowledging what has worked in the past and what gotten them this far is probably a wise move. That being said, trying new things, taking risks, and pushing the boundaries of their own expectations (and ours) might be the only way to forge ahead into new territories that keep fans interested in the MCU, which is not going to be easy.


Some people might not be quick to embrace the weirder storylines, unusual characters, and more ideological underpinnings of Phase 4 and beyond.


But whether you are a casual fan, a comic book aficionado, or just a committed storyteller developing your craft, here are my initial reactions and takeaways from Wandavision.


Trust Has to be Earned


Unfortunately, it took a total of two whole episodes for Wandavision viewers, like everything else in life, to become intensely (and vocally) divided about the series.


While some (myself among them) were entertained by the often campy, trope-inspired Wandavision-best-of-sitcom, others quickly decried Wandavision as the dumbest series on Disney+ and worst thing to come out of the MCU since Mickey Rourke slapped on a bunch of prison tattoos and tried out a bad Russian accent in Ironman 2. By the way, if you haven’t already checked out my analysis of Ironman 2, you can do so here.


Sadly, what many in this group struggled to accept (perhaps understandably), is that it was only a matter of time before the writers paid off what they were setting up. It just came a few episodes in.


Director Matt Shakman and the writing team, led by showrunner Jac Schaeffer, did what many storytellers forget or fail to do altogether. They made a promise to their audience and didn’t wait until the final episode to keep it.


They returned their audience’s investment in the oddity of Wandavision’s premise like payments in the form of answers and small reveals and gave us just enough to keep us coming back for more.


As an audience, we do want to know what’s inside the mystery box, and it’s up to the magician to determine when is the right time to pull the rabbit from the hat.


In many ways, the writers of Wandavision were always the Wanda Maximoff of their own story. But this is true for all storytellers, who must shape the world for their characters to inhabit and choose what parts of that world they want to broadcast or edit out.


How controlling or tyrannical they become is up to them, though I always hope they are more benevolent with their characters and audience than Wanda was with the citizens of Westview.


Now it’s doubtful that Marvel could have pulled off something as experimental and downright weird as Wandavision in the first few phases of the MCU. But twenty films, a universe of established heroes and villains, and the triumph of the Infinity Saga later, and they’ve earned enough trust to push the boundaries of our disbelief just a little bit more.


Whether you love Wandavision or hate it, patience and respect for both their story and audience have afforded Marvel Studios and their showrunners the opportunity to try new things and take bigger risks.


In this instance, the mysteries of Wandavision’s world unravel more than they unfold. Sometimes we know more than the characters; sometimes the characters know more than us. This is certainly the case with Wanda Maximoff. However, the one person who we have to trust knows what’s going on and is in full control is the storyteller.


Spectacle or Character? How About Both?


Like Wanda Maximoff, Jac Schaeffer, Adam Shakman, Kevin Feige, and the writers definitely weren’t afraid to bend and even break the rules with each episode of Wandavision and have fun while doing it.


From each episode's unique sitcom-inspired theme song written by Disney duo Robert and Kristen Andersen-Lopez, to the MANY easter eggs, sitcom tropes, and fan theories sparked by numerous plot twists, lines of dialogue, and character arrivals, Wandavision embraces its own oddity while still keeping ties to the past and future of the MCU. Heck, they even decided to shoot the first few episodes in front of a live studio audience to stay true to form and because, well, why not?


In the past, Marvel Studios has been accused of being formulaic with their feature films. It’s also not a stretch to say that most MCU films thrive on big budget spectacle. I don't think those are necessarily bad things.


However, with multiple miniseries in the works, not only have they given themselves more time and space to explore more intricate storylines and go deeper into individual supporting character's arcs, something that’s really hard to do with the ensemble nature of the bigger Avengers team ups, they now have the freedom to test the waters, invite new creative vision into the room, and see how far down the rabbit hole they and their viewers are willing to go.


Oh, and they have the budget to marry story and spectacle to rival what we see on the big screen. Television has been moving in this direction for quite some time now.


The MCU is always at its best when it allows its storytellers to play with universal themes, well-defined worlds, and genre-blending storylines. There’s a reason why Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier are some of the most consistent fan favorites.


Any proof we needed that Wandavision was going to be wildly different that anything we had seen before and become the MCU’s own experiment with the mystical and magical can be found in the genre description in the Disney+ menu.


Romance, Mystery, Drama, Science Fiction, Superhero, Sitcom


That’s a lot of genres to be combining into one series, and there are even more we could probably add, but if there’s one character perfectly situated to handle it, it’s Wanda Maximoff.


Hero or Villain?


Because the later storylines involving Wanda in the MCU are often brief and focused more on Wanda’s telekinetic powers, it’s easy to forget that Wanda Maximoff was first introduced as an antagonist to The Avengers with her mind-meddling, reality-distorting abilities in Avengers: Age of Ultron.


Have we already forgotten how efficiently Wanda tore the Avengers apart with just a flick of her fingers? That power, unfortunately for the citizens of Westview, reaches new levels in Wandavision.


Wanda Maximoff is a remarkably powerful and often disturbed individual, and we get further clues about the true source of her power in Wandavision (Hint: it wasn’t the Mind Stone that gave rise to the Scarlet Witch).


However, the scope of her power has always been subdued, in part, because Wanda has always wanted to keep it under control.


And yet, it was Wanda’s power that caused enough collateral damage to prompt the Sokovia Accords and Avengers divorce in Captain America: Civil War.


Will she be held accountable for her actions in Wandavision, which many would argue are markedly worse that what happened in Lagos in Civil War? We'll have to wait and see.


Since her parents' death, Wanda has always tried to blend in, keep her powers in check, and have a normal life because she wants to do the right thing and find a family to replace the one she's lost.


But what happens when you take all that away? How much trauma can one person endure before they begin to crack? How much “restraint” or control will Wanda have when she has nothing left to fight for, no home to go back to, and no one to provide moral guidance and direction, which she desperately needs?


-Tony Stark’s weapons took her parents.

-Hydra took her freedom.

-Ultron took her brother.

-Thanos took the love of her life… twice!

-Clint Barton (Hawkeye), a former mentor, has retired.

-Steve Rogers (Captain America) is no longer the moral compass and leader of The Avengers.


And now there are others eager to take her power for their own. Enter Agatha Harkness (Kathryn Hahn). And yes, it was Agatha all along!


Just because our "heroes" are part of the Avengers doesn’t mean they always act like heroes. They make mistakes and also struggle, grieve, or occasionally lose their way.


Unfortunately, Wanda's grief goes far beyond just self-harm, and her attempts at controlling her reality prove that she is actually not in control at all.


Wanda's “chaos magic” dramatically impacts others in the world she has created, and not for the better. As her control of her reality begins to slip, her lapses become even more frightening, reminiscent of the kind of world unraveling found in similarly haunting movies like Get Out, The Truman Show, and even Pleasantville at times.


A Much Darker Universe


There's also the question of Wandavision's treatment of witchcraft and the occult. There's a LOT to say on this subject, which I'll save for another post.


Marvel Studios had previously tried to limit Wanda's power to her telekinetic abilities and connection to the Mind Stone. In Wandavision, however, there are a few moments of magic that go well beyond Infinity Stones, Avengers, and mutation, as far as Wanda's power is concerned; and I'll be honest, this was the stuff that made the later episodes lose some of their momentum.


Wandavision's treatment of magic and witchcraft also concerns me moving forward into Phase 4 of the MCU.


Now that we've entered a post-Endgame world, I fear the gloves are off when it comes to the darker, more mystical dabblings of the MCU.


I say this because the portrayal of witchcraft, the demonic, and the occult as innocent or even good is troubling. That's because this kind of darkness and evil does exist and is practiced in many parts of the real world today; and it's far from innocent or good.


We'll know if this is the road Wanda Maximoff travels when Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is released next year. I am not holding my breath, though, given who's now at the helm of the Dr. Strange sequel.


Sam Raimi is arguably a great director, and I'm sure comic book fans will forever appreciate his contribution to the superhero genre with 2002's Spider-Man franchise, however, I believe director Scott Derrickson managed the relationship between fantasy, philosophy, and spirituality in the original Dr. Strange quite beautifully. In fact, there are times where Strange slips in some really profound theology. I'm sad to see Derrickson not be a part of Doctor Strange and thee Multiverse of Madness.


Sam Raimi, though immensely talented, is known for playing with the demonic and occult more in his films; and given Wandavision's later episodes dealing with witchcraft, I fear that this may be where things are heading.


To be honest, Wandavision might have worked just as well, if not better, without the later episodes and descent into this kind of subject matter. There's enough substance in Wanda's reality bending simulation, Monica Rambeau, Darcy, and S.W.O.R.D.'s presence, and the relationship between Wanda and Vision to keep the story alive and grounded to the MCU.


And yet, these later episodes aside, I do believe Marvel Studios took full advantage of the time they had to explore Wanda’s backstory and emotions that we haven’t always seen in previous films.


This has always been a strength of narrative television, and now with modern television and streaming services gaining the budget and resources to rival most theatrical releases (which we all hope return in the near future), it’s probable that we’ve entered a new era of storytelling in which cinematic spectacle and strong character writing can be combined to create something truly spectacular for the small screen.


Of course, numerous fan theories involving an MCU multiverse, Quicksilver's return, X-Men crossovers, and a Dr. Strange cameo never came to fruition... not in this series at least.


Would the assistance of Dr. Strange be appropriate? Considering the nature of his cosmic responsibilities and the more than disturbing use of magic present in Westview following Avengers: Endgame, I'd say yes. The events of Wandavision seem like something he'd at the very least be aware of.


But in the end, the series has enough mystery and dare I say heart-wrenching moments to hold its own without a Dr. Strange cameo, though it would have made sense.


Wandavision still foreshadows future storylines and characters for the MCU, including Wanda’s inevitable encounter with the Sorcerer Supreme in Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, Monica Rambeau’s future in The Marvels, Loki's multiverse and Secret Invasion, and the return of Vision in some capacity in the MCU.


At its core, Wandavision is proof of what can happen when interesting characters lead the way, great actors get cast in the right roles, and talented storytellers respect the fans, the process, and the stories they are entrusted with.


Wanda Maximoff may not be a clean-cut-Captain-America hero. She may not be a hero at all. She's a troubled child who's been manipulated, feared, and cast aside her entire life. In many way she's still figuring out her power and battling her own fear, much like Elsa in Frozen. However, that might not be the best thing for anyone involved, including Wanda.


Good natured? Perhaps, but Wanda is also deeply flawed, irresponsible, and selfish at times, to the detriment of herself and others.


Will Wanda be held accountable for all she's done to the poor people of Westview? It's hard to know, but one thing is for certain, The Scarlet Witch should be a major force in the future of the MCU. Whether that force is good or bad remains to be seen, though after Wandavision, I'm sensing a much darker future is in store for Wanda Maximoff.


In the end, my hat is off to Marvel Studios, Jac Schaeffer, Adam Shakman, and especially Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Kathyrn Hahn, and the rest of the cast for their work on Wandavision.


It's a weird and sometimes wonderful first entry into the MCU world of streaming, Phase Four, and the post-Endgame era.


Will we get a second season? Probably not. This might be a one-off story and impossible-to-repeat format, and that’s probably for the best. But while Wanda may have had to say goodbye to Vision… again, but let’s hope that the success of Wandavision and development of these characters give us all the chance to say hello once more. We'll see where things go from here.


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