Note: this review contains spoilers for Season 1 of WandaVision
Created by Jac Schaeffer
Executive producers: Kevin Feige, Sarah Finn, Jac Schaeffer, Matt Shakman,
Jason Tamez, Victoria Alonso and Louis D’Esposito
Disney + Streaming Service
(Rated TV-PG, 2021-)
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Let’s get one thing out of the way very quickly: WandaVision is a weird show. Even by modern television standards, where hardly any project can get a greenlight from a studio unless it is “high concept” or experimental, WandaVision seems like the kind of series that would look mighty iffy even on paper. The story here could easily have been told in the usual straightforward manner — and, in some ways, this might have been the wiser decision to make — yet the show’s creators have chosen to spin their yarn in a unique way.
The show’s bare bones form a skeleton that looks something like this: Marvel’s Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olson), having lost the most important people in her life, uses her powers to take over a small town and force the townspeople to play as actors in her fantasy, which takes the shape of a simple life where her dead former lover, the sentient artificial lifeform Vision (Paul Bettany), is still alive and kicking. A little odd, but relatively straightforward. The real twist lies in the execution itself, in the way the show’s writers choose to tell this story — using a framework that has each episode playing as an homage to older television sitcoms.
As the series progresses, episodes move through the decades. We begin in the “aw shucks” past with episodes that pay tribute to classics such as I Love Lucy (1951–1957) and The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961–1966). Then we move through the eras of television sitcoms, riffing on The Brady Bunch (1969–1974), Full House (1987–1995), and Malcolm in the Middle (2000–2006). The final product is a kind of hodgepodge of ideas that probably isn’t going to work for everyone who watches it, which makes it all the stranger that this is the show chosen to spearhead the push toward Marvel’s new era of television. WandaVision hardly comes charging out of the proverbial gate as the first serious television series of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) (apparently, it is up for debate whether or not the previous shows that were only tangentially connected to the films, like Agents of SHIELD (2013–2020), are still considered part of MCU canon). Instead, the curators of the Marvel properties at Disney have elected for a much more subtle and clever approach.
Viewers who don’t mind taking a trip through television history and manage to slog through the first three episodes may find themselves invested in the compelling mystery that drives the series. Eventually, older faces from the MCU films begin to make appearances, all in an effort to free this town from Wanda’s control. And viewers who stick it out until the end will have witnessed a profound character study on the effects of grief and the power of catharsis.
A Study in Character Development. Though it’s certainly not necessary to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the MCU, as established in the twenty-some films that precede WandaVision, to watch and appreciate the show for what it is, viewers looking to get the most out of their experience should nonetheless come in armed with a working knowledge of the characters and their histories. If nothing else, it will help the mid-to-late season dialogue seem more like a contextualized refresher and less like scant rehearsals of vague exposition. More to the point, being familiar with Wanda’s history, especially, lends the show an appropriate amount of gravitas.
See, the problem with doing these major tentpole films with dozens of characters onscreen at once is that many of those characters lack development. Both Wanda and Vision are characters who have had to play in the sandbox with all the other better known — and, frankly, more important — MCU characters. WandaVision fully intends to solve that problem, by finally putting Wanda and, to a lesser degree, Vision in the spotlight. Wisely, the show leans into the vagueness of Wanda’s character definition, and thus maximizes its effectiveness. Perhaps it would have been too obvious and easy a thing simply to make this series a prequel, like the upcoming Black Widow film (May 2021). Instead, the show doubles down on her lack of development to mine the already-established canon for all its worth.
Wanda’s life has been one marked by the milestones of love and loss. First her parents, then her brother, and now her lover. Rather than gloss over these scenes of history, which were already used to generate pathos in their own films, WandaVision pulls all this trauma forward to present viewers with a decidedly different kind of Marvel superhero: one profoundly touched by trauma after trauma, who has finally come to the end of her emotional rope. She has the power to bend the world to her will, and she is tired of being done unto. Now she will be the one to do whatever she wills, and she will, quite literally, make the world accept her ultimatums so that she never has to feel the pangs of loss again.
If this sounds a little frightening, especially for Marvel, which markets itself so heavily toward younger audiences, that’s because it is. Wanda becomes, in the context of her own show, a kind of anti-hero who abuses her superhuman powers for the most human of reasons.
A Villain for the Villain. Series creator Jac Schaeffer, in an interview with The New York Times, makes clear that Wanda’s story of loss, grief, and false realities was always in the cards.1 This is most likely due to the fact that the story of WandaVision finds its origin in the comics. Though the specifics differ, the broad strokes remain the same. Vision is destroyed, and Wanda turns inward to grieve, constructing for herself a fantasy in which her own children were nothing more than projections.
One particular character who plays a key role in both the comics and the television series is Agatha Harkness (portrayed in WandaVision by Kathryn Hahn). In the comics, Agatha is presented as a darker kind of Gandalf figure, shepherding the likes of Wanda, with often inscrutable but ultimately benevolent motivations, all the while maintaining a perplexing, sinister aura. In other words, Agatha is usually presented as the stereotypical witch, an old crone you would expect to cackle maniacally at inappropriate times. In WandaVision, however, the MCU variant is decidedly more villainous.
For a series in which the main character is more-or-less revealed to be the bad guy, bringing in a separate villain and making that character work narratively is quite the hat trick. And this is one area wherein the slow-burn approach to storytelling really works, allowing the show to methodically place little clues throughout the season building up Agatha’s big reveal. For WandaVision, Agatha has been repositioned as a master manipulator, the only resident of the town who is not caught under Wanda’s spell, yet who chooses to play along so that she can come to understand Wanda’s power.
Agatha’s own history is one marked by loss, being herself a victim of the Salem Witch Trials. In an important way, Agatha’s history allows the writers to position her as both a character foil for Wanda and the catalyst for Wanda’s acceptance of her own pain.2 This skillful approach to narrative is one that has given us some of the most memorable on-screen villains in the last twenty years. Like Heath Ledger’s legendary portrayal of the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), challenging the values of Christian Bale’s Batman, Agatha is much more than a mere obstacle to be overcome, but the very means by which the writers expose a flaw in the protagonist. Thus, through her confrontation with Agatha, Wanda’s illusions must finally shatter against reality.
The Power of Release. Through Agatha, Wanda begins to come to terms with her own pain. As characters such as Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) and Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) try to reach Wanda through empathic connection, the true catalyst for healing turns out to be Agatha, someone who understands loneliness on a profound level.
The reveal of Agatha’s deception and her own connection to the power that Wanda wields coincides with the moment Wanda finally allows herself to feel. The episode titled “Previously On,” wherein we get our first glimpse of Agatha’s backstory, also features the closest thing we could hope for short of a full-blown therapy session between Agatha and Wanda.3 As Agatha interrogates Wanda, we walk with the two of them through Wanda’s memories, in search of the source of both her pain and her tremendous power. This episode opens with Agatha’s origins in the seventeenth century, and the majority of the episode traces Wanda’s history back to her own childhood. This trip down memory lane culminates with Agatha’s realization that Wanda is actually the Scarlet Witch, a mythical figure of untold power, a wielder of something called “chaos magic.”4 And at the very heart of this power is, as Agatha says, “spontaneous creation.”
There is a kind of irony that rests at the heart of WandaVision. When Wanda seeks to suppress her pain with her powers, she ultimately creates a false reality and forces the rest of the world to participate in it. Yet in trying to numb her emotions, she loses control of her powers and accepts the consequences with a kind of willful passivity. However, when she finally experiences her moment of catharsis, allowing herself to feel the pain that has for so long defined her, she gains a newfound control over her powers as well. Make no mistake, Agatha’s analysis of Wanda is accurate. But what Agatha demands is a quicker, easier route to release, accelerating the journey that Wanda must walk alone. Agatha cares less about Wanda than about the power Wanda wields, and this ultimately becomes her undoing. In their final confrontation in the final episode, Wanda finally embraces her grief and her identity as the Scarlet Witch and says to Agatha, “I don’t need you to tell me who I am.”5
Ultimately, though it takes Agatha wresting the town of Westview from her control, Wanda finally experiences release. The catharsis she undergoes in “Previously On” primes her for her final acceptance of reality and the way things are in “The Series Finale.” In release, Wanda is no longer enslaved by her emotions and therefore powerless to control her magic; rather, she finds herself in a new position of control over her terrible power.
The Illusion Must Shatter. In the first chapter of Romans, Paul explains to his readers how, as a result of man’s fall into sin, mankind “became futile in their reasonings, and their senseless hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and they exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man” (Rom. 1:21–22 NASB). Paul understood that people revel in illusion — it is, in many ways, our default setting. We create and recreate fantasy after fantasy, which so often takes one form or another of that dark triumvirate of money, sex, and power. We are all functional or recovering addicts of one sort or another, with vices and compulsions that stem from things that either happened to us or that were never given to us in childhood. Men are sleepers, dozing at the wheel of existence, cruising through life in a state of semi-consciousness, aware of the wrongs of the world, but too often unaware of the gravity of sin and walking the knife’s edge between sadness and despair — which is itself a spiritual condition: “It is the sin that believes in nothing, enjoys nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die.”6
When viewed through this lens, part of the undeniable power of the gospel is its ability to slap us awake, to sober us up. It keeps Christians awake, aware of our sin and its wages, and hopeful for a resurrection because of sin’s terrible cost having been paid on our behalf. Wanda could not escape her pain; instead, she chose to numb it through illusion. It took a reckoning with her own darkness to shake her awake. For a dying world, the gospel is that reckoning. It is the great reality check, the hard surface against which all of our illusions must shatter — the cold, hard truth that a Man died because of me, and he died for me.
And in our recognition of this truth, in our surrender to this message, lies our catharsis, our release of spirit that frees us from the obligations of living based on works and the illusion of self-righteousness (Rom. 8:2). As Wanda rejects Agatha, we reject the dark tempter, for we do not need him to tell us who we are. Paul’s prayer for his readers in Ephesus was that God would grant them the strength to comprehend and know the fullness of Christ’s love for them (Eph. 3:14–19). I think Paul would desire the same for you and me.
Our illusions shattered against the foot of the cross, however briefly, the moment we believed (Eph. 1:13–14). Perhaps the Christian life is one lived in a state of constant re-shattering. Or, perhaps, the truth is that the Christian is free from ever having to fantasize again. Because our illusions must shatter against Christ — and no longer do we live, but it is Christ who lives in us.
Cole Burgett is a seminary student, a graduate of Moody Bible Institute, and an author for the website Christ and Pop Culture.
- Dave Itzkoff, “How the ‘WandaVision’ Creator Brought Her Vision (and Wanda’s) to Life,” New York Times, March 8, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/08/arts/television/wandavision-creator-Jac-Schaeffer.html.
- Dave Itzkoff, “Kathryn Hahn Talks about Her Insidious, Perfidious Role on ‘WandaVision,’” New York Times, March 7, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/07/arts/television/kathryn-hahn-wandavision.html.
- WandaVision, Episode 8, “Previously On,” directed by Matt Shakman, written by Laura Donney, aired February 26, 2021, on Disney+, https://www.disneyplus.com/series/wandavision/4SrN28ZjDLwH.
- For an explanation of chaos magic in Marvel’s comic book context, see Evan Romano, “Chaos Magic Is Key to Scarlet Witch’s Power in WandaVision,” Men’s Health, February 26, 2021, https://www.menshealth.com/entertainment/a35645944/wandavision-chaos-magic/.
- WandaVision, Episode 9, “The Series Finale,” directed by Matt Shakman, written by Jac Schaffer, aired March 5, 2021, on Disney+, https://www.disneyplus.com/series/wandavision/4SrN28ZjDLwH.
- Dorothy L. Sayers, Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World: A Selection of Essays (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969), 152.