Everyone loves a hero-villain story – good triumphing over bad, or letting the better angels of our nature take the wheel (for once). More times than not, these stories are feel-good fantasies. Good does not kick evil’s ass in real life – it’s a lot more complicated like that. But it’s easy to fall into the trap that lets us believe there is a wrong and a right, and that everyone has to live by that central truth. And it seems even Marvel has fallen hard with their latest blockbuster hit, Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
From the trailer, the movie looked like an action-packed reckoning of Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Wanda Maximoff’s (Elizabeth Olsen) actions. The movie, however, told a much different story. Reducing Wanda to a two-dimensional character focused on sucking the power out of some poor girl (America Chavez, played by Xochitl Gomez) is the first of the movie’s many offenses. Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness also demonizes one of the only female characters left in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
In case you’re not caught up with all the history, here’s a quick little intro to Wanda’s life story. Wanda Maximoff first formally appeared in Avengers: Age of Ultron with her twin brother Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). They were subjected to genetic experimentation with the Mind Stone in Hydra’s possession, wich left Wanda with the power of telekinesis. While the twins initially worked with Ultron to fight against the Avengers, they switched sides towards the end of the film; in the battle against Ultron, Pietro was killed.
With Wanda’s next appearance, in Captain America: Civil War, Wanda and Vision’s romantic arc begins to develop. After all, who wouldn’t fall in love with someone making paprikash for them? During Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos and his little minions come after the Mind Stone – Vision’s life force since his introduction in Age of Ultron.
Here’s where Wanda’s storyline pivots for the worse. In order to prevent Thanos from getting the Mind Stone (it’s a whole thing), Wanda destroys it, killing Vision in the process. But there’s one little hitch: Thanos also uses the Time Stone, already in his possession, to reverse Wanda’s actions in order to kill Vision himself. The love of Wanda’s life was essentially murdered twice in a row. The Mind Stone was the last one Thanos needed before being able to enact his master plan, decades in the making: killing half of the universe’s population (also known as The Blip).
And now we’ve arrived at the events of Wandavision. Along with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Wandavision deals with the characters who were left behind in Avengers: Endgame. After being dust for five years after the Blip, Wanda wakes up and has to deal with all the residual baggage from the world’s destruction. Wandavision sees Wanda creating a hex on a town in Westview, New Jersey which allows her to live out an alternate reality with Vision, one later includes her two boys, Billy and Tommy. After a showdown with Agatha Harkness (Kathryn Hahn), who reveals Wanda’s witch origins (before the genetic experimentation) and her history with S.W.O.R.D. (the seemingly less silly S.H.I.E.L.D. acronym replacement), Wanda simply disappears from the face of the earth.
It’s in Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness that we learn she spent her absence being corrupted by the Darkhold. Such an abrupt shift upsets her character arc. Despite being constantly defined by the men in her life, Wanda supersedes all expectations in every appearance in the franchise. While Dr. Strange was all too ready to crown himself the “strongest Avenger” in alternate universe Earth-838, it’s Wanda’s strength that triumphs over and over again. After all, it was her power that occupied Thanos for ten seconds longer than Dr. Strange – not that I’m counting.
In this latest (and last?) appearance, however, Wanda’s story arc leaves much to be desired. Instead of exploring the effects of her grief over Vision’s death, we see a violent Wanda so absolute in her need for a universe with her sons that she was ready to kill a young girl to get it. We also see Wanda kill at least a dozen sorcerers in Kamar-Taj; hold Wong captive; travel to Chthon’s temple on Mount Wundagore; and dreamwalk into universes. Dreamwalking, we are told, is absolutely forbidden, as it is an ability granted by the Darkhold.
What we also don’t see in the Dr. Strange movie is Dr. Strange grappling with his role in leading Wanda to her dark state of mind. In the beginning, at this universe’s Christine’s wedding, Dr. Strange’s old coworker Dr. West questions him on the necessity of giving the Time Stone to Thanos. Dr. West seemed to ask what we were all wondering: Was this the only way to stop Thanos? Think about what people have lost in the process. In Wandavision, we saw Monica Rambeau reform in a hospital without her mother. For so many in the universe, the world changed completely during the five-year Blip. But Dr. Strange remains unrepentant about his decision.
I felt that Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness fell short of fleshing out Wanda’s complexity and the moral quandary in which her actions ensnared her. Dr. Strange against Wanda Maximoff is already a new concept after the unification of the Avengers in their war against Thanos. Since their characters were destined to be at odds, why not position their conflict as a moral issue, the way Marvel did with Captain America and Iron Man in Civil War? Multiverse of Madness ended up yet another movie that positions Wanda on the “wrong” side, along with notorious villains such as Captain America, Ant-Man, Black Widow, and Falcon. For some Marvel fans, it’s simply enough that Wanda displayed extreme violence and strength in the movie (which clearly stretched the boundaries of a PG-13 rating). But such a superficial understanding does Wanda a disservice.
Even ignoring her character arc up until this movie, Wanda’s switch to the “dark” side is flimsily explained in her connection to and use of the Darkhold. Her actual motivation for committing all these acts of violence? She just wants her kids. But the movie doesn’t explore this motivation seriously, instead remaining intent on framing Wanda as a one-sided villain. In Westview, we saw Wanda’s ideal family come to life: Billy, Tommy and Vision all together in the same house. While Vision might be permanently dead, Billy and Tommy are alive and well in other universes with their other mothers. Wanda’s grand plan in taking America’s powers are to harness them for herself and reunite with her sons in a universe where they still exist.
Wanda’s violence is not excusable, but it is understandable. When I was watching Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, I couldn’t help but interpret Wanda’s actions through the lens of her grief. She resembled a woman experiencing postpartum depression more than a villain who is merely acting out because she has the power to do so. And Marvel’s choice to villainize Wanda’s desperate desire to be a mother says far more about the on-screen trivialization of motherhood than it does about Wanda’s character. When studios produce movies that cheapen the very real sorrows of motherhood, they remove the humanity of mothers and instead posit a damaging portrayal of how mothers ought to be.
Marvel already has a problematic past when it comes representing women. After criticism from actors and fans alike, the studio has allegedly tried to make changes to its two-dimensional female characters; so far, though, it looks like the push has only yielded more comfortable costumes. But without Wanda or the Scarlet Witch (yes, they’re separate) in the MCU, what other female superhero role model is there? What other female superhero has children? The MCU’s lack of meaningful representation, leaning on tokens of queerness like America Chavez’s illusory rainbow pin (but refusing to clarify or explicitly show her sexuality), paired with Wanda’s death, gives us nothing to go on. Representation comes slowly, but Marvel’s rejection and subsequent erasure of a flawed, complex female character in Wanda lets us all down.