WandaVision makes us think about our pursuit for control and the heaviness of grief

Disclaimer: This essay was originally published on TAB UOL, in Portuguese.

Warning: This text contains spoilers from WandaVision and Avengers: End Game.

Released on January 15th, the series WandaVision takes place right after Avengers: End Game, the latest Avenger film that became famous not just for its high concentration of Marvel characters but because many people died — more exactly half of the universe. Wanda Maximoff or Scarlet Witch, however, wasn’t obliterated by the “blip” triggered by Thanos. But her brother Pietro (Quicksilver) and boyfriend Vision weren’t as lucky.

Avengers: End Game was already dark enough because fans were forced to watch (and accept) the death of protagonists such as Iron Man e Black Widow. The movie itself brings a “humanizing” feeling for superheroes by showing a depressive Thor and a Hawkeye that prefers to be anonymous and live a simple life in the countryside. Additionally, there was the very fact that Stan Lee had just died on the other side of the silver screen.

Still, superhero franchises are best known for their chaotic timelines in which protagonists may die, but come back in other alternative storylines and spin-offs that may or not may no show information from the future, but ultimately it works as a means to avoid that characters really “die” — if so, they are “recasted” through successors such as is the case of Captain America and Iron Man, for instance.

In this sense, Avengers: End Game made use of the ultimate solution for the denial of death: they traveled through time so they could revert reality when there was no hope left. WandaVision has the same approach, but it combines time travel with the creation of alternate realities. In the comics, Scarlet Witch is one of the most powerful mutants, something that is not quite well portrayed in her shy appearances in Avengers movies. But it seems that Marvel, now part of Disney, is working on that.

In the first episodes of WandaVision, we don’t have much information on what is happening, but we have 30 minutes of comfort watching Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany living as a suburban 1950s couple telling typical sitcom jokes. But there’s always “a glitch in the Matrix” that forces Wanda to start all over again, preferably in another decade, with new characters added — like her sons Billy and Tommy — , and Westview dwellers that are reduced into tropes constantly updated after the decade they are living in.

The fact that there’s always strange things happening in the alternate realities casted by Wanda (in this case, the presence of the agent Monica Rambeau, interpreted by Teyonah Parris) is actually confusing the mutant. After all, even though she doesn’t even know how to explain how she is doing all that, Wanda is still responsible for the reality that town has been subjugated — meaning that she is not dealing with ghosts or illusions, but actual people who are controlled by her magic. Invariably, S.W.O.R.D. agents try to infiltrate the perimeter dominated by Wanda, which they call “hex” due to its hexagonal shape and also in allusion to the word “hex” as in “spell.” This confuses Vision and generates constant fights between the couple.

Still, Wanda can always change reality by retrieving the past and changing the future, reorganizing people’s thoughts and making them follow the script of this increasingly heavier and unsustainable reality — and this is why Westview dwellers who live in the suburbs are rather “frozen” than acting in the stage.

Other analyses have already pointed that WandaVision is a series that is inspired by Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief (denial and isolation, anger, bargain, depression and acceptance), but maybe the narrative is not as objective like that. In any case, one cannot avoid the sorrow that the series communicates, even during moments of comic relief and nostalgia from past decades through references of famous series such as Malcolm in the Middle.

Besides addressing Wanda’s grief, who ends up “recasting” Vision and her brother Pietro, the series diagnoses the contemporary cultural humor: the fact that so many superhero franchises are successful these days, as well as the abundance of remakes, spin-offs and sequels, and the 80s and 90s comeback in fashion — all of this opens up a new period which some researchers call metamodern. By releasing such a series one year after the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, in which death tolls were registered alongside changes in habits and subversion of realities, Disney has only certified that what we are feeling is indeed grief, isolation and a difficulty to deal with reality.

But Wanda is no average human. She can alter reality, she can “recast” the dead though they are not really themselves. As we see throughout the episodes, there are too many “gaps” in characters such as Vision and Pietro: they are just reflections of Wanda’s memories, not really themselves as individuals.

A perfect transmediatic example, WandaVision not just emulates cinema and TV languages but it also navigates through the Marvel Universe before its rights were bought by Disney. That is the case for X-Men, which was once property of Fox and portrayed by different actors than those who also appear in the Avengers movies whenever the characters are featured in the storyline. That is the case of Quicksilver, for instance, but WandaVision makes sure to stress this discontinuity by showing scenes in which we see Pietro, interpreted by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, dying in an Avengers movie in comparison to the current version of Quicksilver by Evan Peters.

It is still too early to say if WandaVision is really talking about (in the sense of what message it wants to deliver to us), but considering past Marvel films and the comics Dinasty M, we experience through Scarlet Witch’s suffering the hypothesis of how would it be if we could bring the dead back to life. If superheroes were once blessed with almost unlimited power, in these new movies, we actually learn about their weaknesses and how some profoundly human dilemmas cannot be solved even with such incredible powers as Wanda’s.

When they say in the series that Wanda was so sad and lonely after the death of Vision and Pietro that she created a new reality where this didn’t happen, so she could live a simple and happy life, what we actually see is her denial of death and inability to grieve. The trauma creates a block in the mind, but in Wanda’s case, it creates a new reality where people who have nothing to do with her problems are also engulfed in the illusion.

In different moments, it becomes clear how Wanda is struggling against her controlling personality: she seems she wants to let it go, but since she is living inside a reality that she herself created, she can’t give herself the luxury of simply seizing the moment — and when this happens, something bad occurs, such as is the case when Vision tries to escape the perimeter. Wanda must always be convincing herself and the others again and again that everything is real, that Westview is a safe space, and that nobody is allowed to trespass the limits of her “snowglobe” of perfect memories, even when it’s not working that well.

According to Douglas Rushkoff in Team Human, “commercial work with a central figure, rising tension, and a satisfying resolution succeeds because it plays to our fears of uncertainty, boredom, and ambiguity — fears generated by the market values driving our society in the first place. Moreover, we live in a world where uncertainty is equated with anxiety instead of with life. We ache for closure. That’s why people today are more likely to buy tickets for an unambiguously conclusive blockbuster than for an anticlimatic, thought-provoking art film. It’s because we’ve been trained to fear and reject the possibility that reality is a participatory activity, open to our intervention.”

In a time with so much uncertainty and conflict such as ours, it makes sense that we search for simple and light stories which simply organize and follow a formula that comforts us — like in those videos where a piece fits perfectly well in the hole or when an object is cut in perfect symmetry. WandaVision, however, isn’t bringing much comfort to its audience, even when the series recur to simple sitcom formulas (which, in fact, only stresses that this pursuit for simplicity, organization and control is an illusion as fragile as Wanda’s hex).

We will see how the series will actually deal with Wanda’s grief and our pursuit for control in face of our inability to deal with losses, being them the death of loved peers or the end of a cycle.

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