The Deep Sadness of Marvel’s WandaVision

So far, the Disney+ show is telling a story not about an epic struggle to save humanity, but about one woman’s efforts to save herself from her grief.

Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany smiling in a scene from 'WandaVision'

This story contains mild spoilers for the first three episodes of WandaVision.

After 23 films, even a casual Marvel fan knows what it means to be an Avenger: fighting for those who can’t, against any threat, be it corporate greed or the surveillance state or a purple alien. Yet, in the series WandaVision, which premiered yesterday on Disney+, one of these storied Avengers rejects her duty in the second episode. When a mysterious man in a beekeeper outfit clambers out of a sewer and gazes menacingly at Wanda (played by Elizabeth Olsen) and her husband, Vision (Paul Bettany), she doesn’t raise her hands, flick her wrists, and wiggle her fingers to produce her signature red energy. “No,” she says quietly, dismissing the threat. The scene then rewinds to the moments before she and Vision went outside. She changes their dialogue so that they stay indoors. Back to their regularly scheduled programming.

Except nothing about WandaVision is regular, even in Marvel terms. It tells the story of a telepathic, telekinetic, and reality-bending superhero and her android lover—who, by the way, died in 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War. The two are living as TV characters in an idyllic small town for mysterious reasons that probably have to do with her abilities. It’s a superhero series remixed as a sitcom, by way of The Twilight Zone. Each episode jumps forward by a decade, letting the duo riff on the tropes of each era. Wanda and Vision appear to exist as the stars of a Truman Show–style show within a show, performing the life of a happy couple who happen to be able to levitate objects with a thought. (It’s all a little confusing and very meta. Just go with it.)

For a project that’s been touted as a “big swing” for the franchise, the characters haven’t actually taken any big swings so far. Vision and Wanda are a literal (super)power couple, but neither is working on saving the world. The three episodes screened for critics contain no major set pieces, and no clear villains. Red flags pop up consistently—an incident at a dinner party, a colorful toy helicopter in a black-and-white bush, a woman named Agnes (an excellent Kathryn Hahn) who’s a tad too interested in their lives. But Wanda pays them little mind, brushing them off and forcing her environment into an appearance of normalcy.

It’s unclear how much control she has in shaping this reality, but her need for stability prevents her from acknowledging that anything’s amiss. She likes playing house with Vision, hitting relationship milestones they never got the chance to reach in the films. She magically creates wedding rings, flaunts their bond at a local talent show, and births twins by the third episode. Without a Big Bad in sight, Wanda is the warden of the world they’ve found themselves in, and whether she knows it or not, the show’s antagonist is her grief.

Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda holding a recipe in a sitcom-like scene

That’s a deeply satisfying twist for a character who, in the comics, typically drives maximalist story lines. Wanda’s abilities and intricate family history invite farfetched plots with calamitous consequences, often those that involve rewriting realities. Given Vision’s death, Olsen’s on-screen version of the character could have easily been used to fuel a more dramatic and action-heavy story of vengeance. But WandaVision, at least for now, is instead opting for a close examination of Wanda’s psyche as she copes with her loss. It’s a choice that brings to mind the work of the comic-book writer Tom King, whose celebrated graphic novel about Vision transplanted Wanda’s spouse into suburbia to observe his inner struggle with control, normalcy, and the fact that he isn’t, well, human.

Transplanting Wanda into a sitcom world serves her story the same way, interrogating her state of mind rather than testing her powers. Everything is so meticulously designed to look fake, from the spotless sets to the hanging backdrops to the wire-controlled special effects. The dialogue is over the top; the laugh track—and, in the first episode, a live studio audience—is intrusive. Each of the self-contained sitcom story lines forces Wanda to keep a straight face, smiling as if nothing has hurt her. The obviously strange nature of the situation makes Wanda’s plight both more painful and more intense. She’s ignoring it all to see what she wants to see—a feat that doesn’t require any magic, just the kind of extraordinary will, denial, and mental compartmentalizing a person musters in mourning. Fantasizing about a life one didn’t get to lead—a marriage, a pregnancy, a cute suburban community to call home—can hold that anguish at bay.

Wanda and Vision smiling at each other over a stove in 'WandaVision'

The show is inevitably going to fold into the larger Marvel story. Off-screen (or rather, off-off-screen), the series also carries the Marvel Cinematic Universe into “Phase Four”—the franchise’s post–Endgame saga of stories that’s expected to introduce the multiverse and feature far-flung characters from throughout the galaxy and beyond. Due to the pandemic, WandaVision is the first project to feature characters from the MCU films released in almost two years, and fans who’ve been itching for something mind-blowing to make up for the wait will delight in the Easter eggs and connections to the films. The character of Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), who appeared as a little girl in Captain Marvel, arrives in Episode 2. A voice on the radio calling to Wanda sounds suspiciously like that of the actor Randall Park, who played the FBI agent Jimmy Woo in Ant-Man and the Wasp and is confirmed to be in the show’s cast. Any comic-book fan probably has a theory or two about the identity of Wanda and Vision’s children. And the show-within-a-show format teases the existence of a world outside of Wanda’s, indicating something more ambitious to come.

But so far, WandaVision is telling a story not about an epic struggle to save humanity, but about one woman’s efforts to save herself from her sadness. She’s not the first superhero to be affected acutely by emotional pain; everyone knows that quote about great power and great responsibility. Yet for an MCU project, the choice to focus on Wanda’s inner life is revolutionary. In the films, characters don’t get much time to grieve. The Avengers had one scene in Endgame to mourn the death of a teammate, followed by a cameo-filled (but dialogue-free) funeral to say goodbye to another. Superheroes also rarely sit still in the face of loss: Significant deaths usually motivate them into action. All of Endgame is about characters who refuse to accept the deaths from the preceding film, going so far as to travel through time to revive their friends.

The typical superhero story challenges the limits of a character’s physical abilities, but Wanda’s plight tests her emotional strength. Her powers, after all, seem to have already helped her revive Vision, but her wishful thinking fuels the daydream they’re in. This show suggests that dwelling on what could have been to avoid a reality that hurts is the kind of human instinct that can ensnare even a superhero. “Who’s doing this to you, Wanda?” a disembodied voice asks her in Episode 2, interrupting a radio playing ’60s tunes. Wanda doesn’t respond, and only looks unsettled by the question. Perhaps she doesn’t know the answer. Or perhaps, deep down, she knows she’s the one doing this to herself.