Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Disney Plus’ <i>WandaVision </i>rewrites the myths of surviving trauma

Disney Plus’ WandaVision rewrites the myths of surviving trauma

Photo: Disney Plus/Marvel Studios

Wanda Maximoff’s debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, much like her solo outing in the recently concluded WandaVision, sparked a lot of discussion. Early on, the casting of Elizabeth Olsen in Avengers: Age Of Ultron as the Scarlet Witch (though she wouldn’t receive that title until much later) faced criticism for effectively erasing Wanda’s backstory as a Jewish-Romani witch driven by the injustice she faced. But after seeing Wanda’s first MCU appearance, I couldn’t help but resonate with her quest for justice after repeated trauma. In the midst of figuring out who I was in the aftermath of surviving violence myself, Wanda Maximoff became my problematic fave.

Six years later, and my emotional resonance with her character has only deepened, especially after the series finale of Disney Plus’ WandaVision on March 5. The first new addition to the MCU since the conclusion of the Infinity Saga in 2019, the limited series is an intensely intimate exploration of Wanda’s psyche as she grapples with Vision’s violent death after Avengers: Infinity War. They’d just committed to their love for each other when Wanda was forced to sacrifice him to save the universe from Thanos, only to helplessly watch as the Mad Titan brutally tore the Mind Stone from Vision’s skull anyway.

Nearly obliterating Thanos in Endgame in her immediate rage, Wanda’s compounded trauma and grief in light of her growing powers deserved a nuanced portrayal. After Daenerys Targaryen’s abrupt heel-turn at the end of Game Of Thrones, one that undermined the character’s years-long arc, I couldn’t bear it if Wanda also followed the path of the “Emotionally Unstable Woman Of Mass Destruction Who Must Die.” In her TV iteration, Daenerys is established as a survivor of political trauma and gender-based violence, who channeled her ancestral rage in her fight to liberate the marginalized and oppressed. To “subvert expectations” in its series finale, series creators, writers, and directors David Benioff and D.B. Weiss abruptly abandoned her compassion and humanity, having her commit genocide as she becomes overwhelmed by her trauma and immense grief. In a sociopolitical climate shaped by movements like the Women’s March and #MeToo, trauma survivors deserve nuanced portrayals in the media that humanize us, not reduce us to cruel caricatures.

undefined
Photo: Disney Plus/Marvel Studios

WandaVision subverts this trope by confronting, rather than ignoring, the complex and debilitating effects of severe, repeated trauma. As a TV series, the show affords Wanda the opportunity to move through the entire reality of her trauma, ultimately transmuting her loss to further her personal growth and sense of self. Speaking to Fandom as the series streamed, showrunner Jac Schaeffer said: “We were not interested in [portraying Wanda] like her powers were too much for her... [The crazy lady narrative] is tired so [I hope fans will see] a nuanced portrayal of a very complicated woman.” Like its titular heroine’s newfound powers as The Scarlet Witch, WandaVision rewrites the mythology of surviving trauma, depicting the possibilities of a world where survivors are supported and empowered to own their truth rather than fear it.

Storytelling is a powerful tool in the trauma recovery process. Surviving violence is an inherently isolating event that disconnects us from our humanity, and disrupts our identity and capacity for interpersonal relationships. Talking about our trauma in a safe, supportive environment can be cathartic and therapeutic—it helps survivors psychologically process our experience, and it invites the people around us to affirm our humanity by bearing witness to our pain. Wanda takes this concept to a superpowered extreme in her unconscious traumatic response to Vision’s death, creating The Hex, her personal sitcom reality. Described by “Pietro” (Evan Peters) as “always the empathetic twin,” Wanda likely experiences her emotions differently than the average person, especially with telepathic powers. Her grieving process begins as her Chaos Magic explodes from her broken heart, establishing “WandaVision” as a week-long intensive therapy session. “A quarantine-style staycation,” as she calls it.

Of course, Wanda’s new reality doesn’t come without a price: She unknowingly strips her neighbors of their free will, unaware of the true extent of her powers. Yearning for the idyllic security of a loving family she’d had in her childhood, Wanda dissociates from her pain and embraces her new life as the archetypal sitcom housewife. Under her telepathic control as extras in her show, the Westview civilians bear the brunt of her traumatic symptoms and repressed grief while in her state of denial. This is true to real life, where without adequate support or treatment for one’s mental illness, pain can poison not just the grieving individual, but the people around them as well. We’re not to blame for our trauma, but we are the ones responsible for how it impacts our interactions with people. The series doesn’t shy away from teaching Wanda that with great power comes commensurate consequence, using its supporting characters to interrogate and challenge her façade of control.

undefined
Photo: Disney Plus/Marvel Studios

Wanda meets her matches in Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) and Agatha Harkness (Kathryn Hahn), who both catalyze her inevitable confrontation with her trauma. A precursor to her forthcoming appearance in Captain Marvel 2, Monica’s arc deliberately echoes Wanda’s, having returned after The Blip only to discover that her mother had passed away years prior. Unfortunately, Marvel’s choice to whitewash the Maximoffs undermines the effectiveness of the relationship between Wanda and Monica, a Black woman, making it hard to ignore the misogynoir underlying their interactions. Monica is positioned as Wanda’s peer and punching bag, despite being in the midst of grieving a loved one herself. Wanda never wounds Monica’s body, but she is aggressive toward her as a S.W.O.R.D. agent, in a way that she wasn’t with her actual antagonist, Director Tyler Hayward (Josh Stamberg). It isn’t until their confrontation in “Breaking The Fourth Wall” that Wanda actually hears Monica, allowing her to break through her wall of denial and projection. “I can’t control this pain anymore and I don’t think I want to, because it’s my truth,” Monica says in an attempt to reason with her, which seems to resonate before Agatha interferes.

Where Monica is empathetic toward Wanda, Agatha is antagonistic, using her witchcraft to diminish Wanda’s agency. After forcing Wanda to relive and confront her past, Agatha proclaims her The Scarlet Witch: a dangerous, mythical being destined to destroy the world. Having already reckoned with the impact of her coping-via-sitcoms mechanism on the unwilling civilians of Westview and faced with the totality of her trauma, Wanda ultimately rejects Agatha’s patronizing, belittling assumptions of her integrity and strength. “This world you made will always be broken, just like you,” Agatha cackles, believing that Wanda’s fully relinquished her Chaos Magic in exchange for preserving her false life in The Hex. Trying then failing to cast her final spell, Agatha realizes her machinations have backfired horribly. “Thanks for the lesson,” Wanda says, her red tiara manifesting around her forehead as she takes her power back from Agatha, “but I don’t need you to tell me who I am.”

undefined
Photo: Disney Plus/Marvel Studios

It wasn’t just Wanda’s sweatsuit morphing into a modernized version of her iconic costume that sent up a chorus of cheers from viewers streaming the finale in the early hours of March 5. WandaVision fully humanizes Wanda Maximoff in a remarkable way that honors the complexities and tragedy of trauma. She outright defies the myth that survivors are only “stronger” because of their pain, or forever “broken” by it. With the MCU set to explore its own multiverse, its first limited series offers fans a less fatalistic reality to its grim source material. The show succeeds where stories like House Of M fall short: Rather than be resigned to a life of loss and doom, Wanda chooses to save herself from being consumed by her powers. She faces her truth, and takes responsibility for the pain she caused by committing herself to better understanding her powers.

Since her first appearance on the big screen, Wanda Maximoff has been portrayed as a deeply caring person trying her best to do the right thing, driven by her strong desire to love and be loved, even after relentless heartbreak and grief. The events of WandaVision affirm that she’s been powerful and strong on her own all along, but just like any human being, needs to be held and supported in times of vulnerability. The success of WandaVision proves that, as the MCU heads into this new era, it can only benefit from extending this type of nuanced, humanistic storytelling to its more marginalized characters as well.

Feminist culture critic and anti-rape activist taking on the Canadian government.