You would be forgiven for thinking WandaVision was a complex narrative full of redirects, misleads and hidden clues in every frame. An entire ecosystem of takes, theories, and explainers sprang up around the series over the course of its eight week run. I found myself caught up in it, firmly convinced the arrival of Evan Peters’ Quicksilver was a sign of multiverse shenanigans, fueled by speculation of Wanda’s forthcoming appearance in Dr. Strange 2, subtitled In the Multiverse of Madness.
But WandaVision, starring Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany, is about something much more straightforward and simpler. Something more familiar and grounded: in grief and loss and the despair of losing the relationships by which we define ourselves.
Behind all its flash and the loving homages to classic sitcoms is something baser and more gripping that, whether we realize it or not, is surely a reason the series resonated for so many. Far deeper than any off the rails theories that the demon Mephisto was manipulating reality or the X-Men would suddenly appear.
Small lines and moments have touched people deeply, chiefly tender moments between Wanda and Vision.
Wanda calls her manifestation of her lost love her “sadness and her hope.” Indeed, Vision, both the one she manifested out of her pain and the original android, is a character that embodies both of these things inherently. He is born out of the paranoia of a scientist and the violence of a killer robot and yet he is a blank slate, dedicating himself to helping humanity and seeing the best of us despite knowing the worst. As Wanda’s loving husband, he approaches the world in purely altruistic ways.
In the series’ penultimate episode, Wanda travels back through her life, visiting key moments that have defined her and her pain. As she mourns the loss of her brother after the events of the film Avengers: Age of Ultron, she seeks comfort in familiar television. Vision, the real Vision, joins her and reaches out as a friend earnestly seeking to console. He does not know grief, cannot know it. But he has observed it, ruminated on it.
In seeking the words that he thinks could possibly help, he lands upon seven that cut at the heart of our particular moment.
The power of his line “What is grief, if not love persevering?” is a testament to the pain our world has felt over the last year of this pandemic, whether we are willing or able to admit it or not. We grieve for the hundreds of thousands dead, for the ways of life we have lost. The bodies that went buried without their families and funeral rites, of the sick suffering in isolation. We love this world in our own ways and we are losing it every day before our eyes in ways large and small–loss upon loss that is incalculable and unimaginable. Wanda feels as if her whole world has been stolen from her over and over. In a world where so many of us have not been able to see our loved ones, to enjoy simple pleasures, where we have lost so many and watched so many more suffer, we too are surrounded and drowning in grief.
There has been a predictable backlash to this earnest and uncynical moment and to Vision’s emotional line. For some it was so powerful that they took to social media to celebrate it, inspiring a predictable tut-tutting and finger wagging about its lack of sophistication from movie buffs and cinemaphiles.
But that is not the point of the moment, nor the series, which became a cipher for those obsessed with YouTube Easter egg culture and those who long for the death of super hero media alike. The series became either a puzzlebox to be solved or an embodiment of all the failures of even the most ambitious superhero project to transcend its corporate masters.
Superhero stories, as those of us who have loved them their whole lives know, are both stupid and sublime and when the high concept strangeness meets the very human, that is the key to what makes them endure. Their simple straight forwardness is elemental, their larger than life conflicts reflecting deep inner turmoil and human experience magnified and operatic in scope. When the synthezoid man talks to the young woman with sparkly fingers and states plainly, without guile, without a hint of cynicism or pluck, “what is grief, if not love persevering?” the simple nature of its humanity is electric amid the bombast and magic surrounding it. It does not seek to be deep or incisive, it seeks only to be human and express the familiar emotion. Vision is the perfect vehicle for the observation and his earnestness breaks through Wanda’s walls of anger and despair.
There are times for subtlety and depth and there are times we need someone to state plainly what we experience and validate that pain. In America, the opportunity to even grieve has been stripped from us, the incalculable loss of human lives relegated to the cost of freedom, or a culling of the weak.
I am, for better or worse, a religious man. I have degrees in English and in Theology. This is to say, I believe wholeheartedly in the power of stories to process our human experience and to experience catharsis that might be absent in our own lives.
WandaVision’s radically straight forward exploration of grief, decked out in the high budget flash of a Marvel Cinematic Universe vehicle, is its unexpected strength. What it offers is a glimpse into a single character’s inner emotional turmoil at a time when global grief seems never ending. The superhero trappings allow for both an incredibly personal story combined with physical conflict that facilitates character growth. As the best superhero stories do, the actual physical conflict represents a battle raging within the character, in this case Wanda against her own doubts as personified by Agatha Harkness and her perception of herself as a monster as represented by SWORD.
Some criticism was levied at the series finale that its action-focused final episode cheapened the grief or that the superhero trappings were an albatross around the show’s neck. In fact, I believe that these superhero trappings are exactly what made WandaVision a success.
By utilizing familiar motifs and expectations of a genre and focusing in on a character who has had only a supporting role over several movies, the series had the opportunity to inject into our cultural consciousness a story incredibly relevant to the moment. In a world lacking the space or language to grieve, WandaVision offered a communal catharsis through the vehicle of a massive pop culture juggernaut. Its superheroics are part and parcel to the success of the series. A damning praise is “It is good, for a superhero project,” seems to be a creeping critical conensus.
Could, perhaps, it be that it is good precisely because of its superheroics? That the reality altering scope of it, the collateral damage of Wanda’s grief as a product of her superpowers, amplifies our own emotions and provides us a story to explore that pain together? Wanda’s feelings are deeply human, but the ramifications are amplified, her very world transformed not just metaphorically but literally.
In the finale, WandaVision takes several minutes for Vision and his evil doppelganger to have a philosophical discussion about the Ship of Theseus–a riddle about whether the ship that has been gradually replaced board-by-board is in fact still the same ship. This conversation is indeed about Vision’s arc, but it also reflects the larger questions at the heart of the series.
Grief tears us apart. forcing us to rebuild our lives moment to moment. We are not who we were before.
But who can we become? Who can Wanda become as she finds her new pieces in the wreckage of her old? Facilitated by the mockery and attacks by both Agatha and SWORD, Wanda is forced to propel herself above and beyond the pain and rebuild the missing pieces with something new, something different. She begins the series as a broken Wanda Maximoff and ends as a triumphant Scarlet Witch. The pain and sadness is not absent, but it is no longer the defining part of her, instead it is what moves her forward.
She discovers her power within the wreckage and nothing will ever be the same.
What a hopeful message for what we could be.
WandaVision, from Marvel Studios is available to stream on Disney+
this blurb is for seo purposes because I didn’t say Disney or Marvel anywhere in the article.