Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany in 'WandaVision' (2021) (IMDB)

WandaVision’s Grief Is America’s Grief

To cope with her grief WandaVision‘s Wanda reverts to a comforting but false alternate reality set in idealized 1950s America. Sound familiar?

Jac Schaeffer
2021 (US)

Jac Schaeffer’s television mini-series, WandaVision (Disney, 2020) isn’t like other TV shows or films in the Marvel franchise. It’s a study of grief, and Marvel doesn’t usually examine its characters’ internal lives. WandaVision also experiments with the medium of TV itself, thanks to streaming. Indeed, the serial streaming format allows WandaVision more time to explore characters’ internal lives without alienating Marvel’s core fanbase, who rely on high-octane action and are generally ambivalent to explorations of theme and character.

The introspective and action-packed meta-show pays homage to its franchise’s traditional story arch at the end. Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), her husband, Vision (Paul Bettany), and their two children (Julian Hilliard and Jett Klyne) stand in an “Avengers Assembled”-type formation when confronting S.W.O.R.D., the government agency commissioned to neutralize “the hex”. The hex is the spell that Wanda cast over Westview, New Jersey, to make its citizens behave like they’re in a sitcom. (“Nary a big nor a blanket,” says Debra Jo Rupp’s Mrs. Hart at a dinner party, hypnotized.)

The illusion of the sitcom helps Wanda maintain her delusion that her husband, Vision, is still alive. He “died” in the Russo Brother’s 2019 film, Avengers: Endgame, when the Marvel Universe’s main villain, Thanos, plucked the infinity stone from his head. Vision was a Synthezoid, or humanoid robot, kept alive by the stone.

In WandaVision, however, Wanda uses her powers to conjure an imaginary, but autonomous Vision when she cast the spell over Westview. The survival of this imagined Vision, and the survival of their two sons, who were also created as part of the sit-com illusion, is dependent on the real-life residents of Westview remaining complicit under Wanda’s spell. Agnes (Kathyrn Hahn), Wanda and Vision’s nosy neighbor, cheerfully asks Wanda, “How’s your bridge game, hon?” But when Vision briefly releases her from the spell, she pleads with her to help her escape Westview. If too many of Westview’s citizens rebel against the spell, the illusion will fall apart, and Wanda’s conjured family will vanish. 

As with Marvel’s 23 films, a formulaic “save the day” moment invariably arrives here, as well. But in WandaVision, it serves to remind the audience they’re watching a blockbuster superhero mini-series, not an indie drama. However, when Elizabeth Olsen delivers the line, “Boys, take care of the military. Mommy will be right back,” it doesn’t sound as corny as superhero moments often do.

The show pays enough measure to introspection that, by the end, viewers readily absorb the nostalgic story instead of rolling their eyes. Even the staunchest critic will watch on the edge of their seat as Wanda and Agnes, who reveals herself to be the witch Agatha Harkness, fight in the sky. This scene has more going on than just CGI spells and explosions. Wanda is fighting for her children, for her husband, and to fend off the crushing weight of grief. That’s more powerful than any spell.

WandaVision still does what any part of a massive franchise should do: satisfy its fanbase. Easter eggs throughout foreshadow its connection to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the first post-credit scene of Episode 9 (yes, there are two post-credits), Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), an agent of S.W.O.R.D., graced with supernatural powers, meets with a Skrull: one of the shape-shifting aliens introduced in Boden and Fleck’s 2019 film, Captain Marvel. When Monica asks what comes next for her, the alien points to the sky. Will Monica reunite with Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) in space as promised? And who is the “friend of her mother’s” that the Skrull refers to? Only Marvel fans will appreciate these references. And, of course, there’s plenty more in the show to incentivize them to stick with the franchise.

Aside from its merits as a comic book mini-series, WandaVision also assesses the state of television itself. The sitcom illusion that Wanda cast over the town appears differently in each episode. In the third episode, the open-riser stairs and colorful wall tile of Wanda’s home resemble the set of the Brady Bunch (ABC, 1969–74). In the final episode, Wanda gives confessional interviews that imitate Modern Family (ABC, 2009–20). Each episode of WandaVision pays homage to a different decade of sitcoms.

Disney also released WandaVision’s episodes weekly: another ode to the sitcoms it imitates, in an age when most streaming services usually allow on-demand binging. The distinctive style of American sitcoms over the decades encapsulates the evolution of television, but also serves a purpose in WandaVision’s plot.

Wanda’s choice of the American sitcom as the theme for her alternate reality reveals the inner workings of her psyche. In Episode 8, “Previously On”, we learn that as a child in Sokovia, a fictional Eastern European nation, Wanda Maximoff watched contraband American TV with her family, who would later die in a bombing. Years later, in a time of profound grief in the wake of Vision’s death, she reverts to this comfort mechanism when creating the alternate reality in which an imagined Vision could live again. That’s why the hex resembles, for the most part, the Brady Bunch.

Wanda’s choice of the sitcom also comments on the American psyche. Shows like Leave it to Beaver (MCA TV, 1957–63), seen through the lens of 2021, diagnose a culture obsessed with complacency and manufactured happiness as a way of escaping seemingly inescapable burdens. Wanda’s grief, which she created the hex to avoid, represents the American grief that ’50s nostalgia conceals today; things aren’t so perfect in America, after all.

At the end of the show, Wanda releases Westview from her spell, effectively “killing” her conjured family. Monica Rambeau says to her, referring to the thousands released from mind control, “They’ll never know what you sacrificed for them.” Wanda replies, “It won’t change how they see me.” And that’s true. Wanda did lose her (imagined) family by releasing the citizens of Westview from mind control. But Wanda never would have had to “sacrifice” her family if she hadn’t tampered with Westview’s reality to begin with.

It’s all about how you see it. That’s the wonder of vision.

Works Cited

Abad-Santos, Alex. “WandaVision’s Finale Was the Beginning of Marvel’s next Set of Adventures”. Vox. 5 March 2021

Elvy, Craig. “Monica’s History With Captain Marvel Before WandaVision Explained”. ScreenRant, 12 February 2021.

Genzlinger, Neil. “Golly, Beav, We’re Historic”. The New York Times. 25 June 2010.  

Holmes, Linda. “’WandaVision’ Wraps a Season That Was Never What It Seemed”. NPR. 5 March 2021.

Li, Shirley. “TV Had Never Seen Anything Like ‘WandaVision’ Before”. The Atlantic. 6 March 2021.

“Marvel’s Blockbuster Machine.” Harvard Business Review, 13 Feb. 2020, hbr.org/2019/07/marvels-blockbuster-machine. 

Raymond, Nicholas. “The MCU Finally Gets Vision‘s Name Right In WandaVision”. ScreenRant. 27 January 2021.

Scorsese, Martin. “Martin Scorsese: I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain”. The New York Times. 5 November 2019.