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Friday, April 19, 2024

Wanda Maximoff Deserves Better From the MCU

Wanda Maximoff has endured a rough couple of years. Following appearances in various Avengers movies, the character finally got the spotlight in Disney+’s first original Marvel series, WandaVision, and again in this month’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. After years as the fifth, sixth, or seventh superhero on the call sheet, she’s getting her due. There’s just one problem: As she has ascended into center-of-the-movie-poster status, she has also devolved, from a character realizing the responsibility inherent in her powers to someone out of control, spinning ideas from her comic-book incarnations into something far worse than anything ever seen on the page.

For some, Wanda’s onscreen journey from 2014’s Avengers: Age of Ultron to Multiverse of Madness is a fitting one. She was, after all, initially introduced as an operative for the terrorist organization Hydra. So, perhaps, the argument goes, it makes sense for her to take an “evil” turn. But such rationalizations ignore the fact that the Marvel mythology is built on redemption, on people overcoming grave circumstances to become heroes. If Bucky Barnes can survive Hydra manipulation to fight alongside the Avengers and remain a hero, why not Wanda? Why would she, one of the most powerful witches in the universe, morph into a character susceptible to manipulation by everyone and everything, from Hydra to Agatha Harkness to the Darkhold? People will say it’s because she is wracked with grief over the death of her partner, Vision, but such justifications are troubling because they rob one of the mightiest characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe of her strength.

Many have pointed out that Wanda’s MCU journey parallels that of another high-profile Marvel heroine, and another story that has made it to the big screen (more than once, in fact): Jean Grey of the X-Men franchise. “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” as the story line has retroactively become known, saw Grey—one of the original members of the fan-favorite team—gain the abilities of a god, only to lose touch with her humanity and transform into a villain that needs to be dealt with by her fellow X-Men. It’s not Wanda’s story exactly, but the message is worryingly the same: Powerful women just can’t be trusted; you never know what they’re going to do.

The onscreen journey of Wanda Maximoff wasn’t directly inspired by Dark Phoenix, however; it actually is drawn directly from the character’s own comic book history, and in particular the work of writers John Byrne and Brian Michael Bendis. Byrne’s late-1980s, early-’90s run on West Coast Avengers (retitled Avengers West Coast midway through) is the basis for much of what the MCU Wanda has endured in the past couple of years. In the space of two years, Byrne dismantled Vision, undoing Wanda’s marriage in the process, revealed that her children were merely magical constructs that ceased to exist due to the machinations of a demonic villain, and had her possessed or influenced by two separate entities in order to turn her evil for different plot purposes.

This was, Byrne has since claimed, all part of a larger story he was planning that never got told because he quit the series over conflicts with editors and executives at Marvel, but the wounds were already inflicted. Wanda’s world was undone and the character left damaged as a result.

How damaged? Well, for that, we turn to Bendis’ 2004 Avengers writing debut, “Chaos.” (It’s also known as “Avengers Disassembled,” which was the official name of the publishing event the story spearheaded.) In this story, Wanda’s suppressed memories of her children are brought to the surface, causing her to lose her mind and try to kill all of the Avengers. She’s defeated by the team and is put into a magical coma by none other than Doctor Strange, then taken away by her then-father, X-Men villain Magneto. (Wanda’s parentage is a long-running, overly complex, repeatedly rewritten story line in comics; don’t ask.)

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She’s not seen again until the following year’s House of M crossover event, again masterminded by Bendis, in which she has been manipulated into rewriting reality into a mutant-dominated world before, eventually, “regular” reality reasserts itself—with the lasting difference that the mutant gene has been extremely restricted, transforming mutantkind into an endangered species. So, you know, that ended well.

While Byrne’s contributions to Wanda Maximoff’s history are the ones more faithfully adapted for the MCU (WandaVision even introduced a new, emotionless Vision not unlike the reboot of the hero he introduced during that West Coast Avengers run), it’s arguably Bendis’ story that has a greater impact thematically, showing her as a distraught woman willing to kill superheroes in her grief.

The MCU Wanda has it worse, ultimately. Not only does she directly choose to murder other heroes—as opposed to the indirect killing of “Chaos”—as the result of the Darkhold’s influence, but her single-minded obsession with reuniting with her children has, it’s suggested, led to destruction across the multiverse on a scale unknown. Wanda’s hands are dirty to a degree that even her implied sacrifice at the end of the movie can’t make better. Her actions also largely erase the growth seen in WandaVision, which showed her struggle with the mind-manipulating pain she caused in the town of Westview and ultimately confront her trauma. Instead of showing any of that onscreen, Multiverse’s filmmakers chose to keep the worst parts of Wanda’s comic book story and then double down.

It’s a shame. Multiple creators spent years redeeming the comic book Wanda in everything from Avengers: The Children’s Crusade to The Trial of the Scarlet Witch. Now, almost two decades after House of M, they’ve almost cleaned up the mess. It’s possible Marvel Studios has plans to do the same. But it seems so unnecessary, when they could have just let her be the hero she’s already proven herself to be.

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