The Marvel Cinematic Universe is back, and this time it’s on the small-screen in WandaVision, the first live-action Marvel series made for Disney+. After the death of her romantic partner Vision (Paul Bettany) at the hands of Thanos (Josh Brolin) in Avengers: Infinity War, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) mysteriously finds herself inside a sitcom. In the first few episodes, Wanda and her now-living husband Vision watch as the town of Westfield, New Jersey transforms through the comedic tropes of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. They attempt to lead normal, inconspicuous lives with their new neighbours and Vision’s coworkers, all while hiding their super-abilities. Wanda, however, must confront invading elements that don’t “fit” the town of Westview’s historic settings. By mid-season, the series opens up to begin exploring the broader implications of Wanda’s sitcom world for the Marvel universe, bringing in characters old and new to help make sense of Westview’s strange phenomena.
One of WandaVision’s greatest strengths is its elaboration on Wanda’s powers. Before 2021, Wanda never got the time to shine in MCU films the way she deserved. According to the comics canon, she should be one of the most powerful heroes currently in the MCU, but so far the films showed her playing a supporting role with limited powers and opportunities to use them. WandaVision does an excellent job giving plenty of screen-time to showcase Wanda’s powers while also (re)introducing other women that impact major stakes in the narrative. Wanda’s vivacious neighbor Agnes, played by a scene-stealing Kathryn Hahn, is a particular treat to watch. The show additionally aims to depict the ways abilities as extreme as Wanda’s can cause harm and destruction. Feminist fans hoping for a satisfying examination of those very dangers may find themselves confused and uncertain, however, about how the series wishes to portray the responsibilities and repercussions of power. It isn’t always clear who should be held responsible and how.
The series’ other strength comes in its playful use of structure, particularly in the first few episodes, but some of the dark secrets undergirding Westview, once revealed, affect the enjoyment of that tone later on. The show pays homage to traditional sitcom tropes while also pointing out some of the dated aspects that need updating, and it does this in a fresh, satisfying, and colourful way. Particularly when viewing the show week-by-week, the changing styles allow for anticipation around how Westview will change through each decade. The show, however, eventually moves past its fun gimmick and never fully interrogates the major implications of agency and freedom in the town and how they should have an impact on the tone and style.
Despite the fun of the series, it would be remiss not to address some of the disappointing racial and ethnic implications WandaVision has for the MCU’s cultural representation. Although this is no fault of the writers of the series itself, many folks online have noted that Joss Whedon’s original casting of Elizabeth Olsen is a white-washing of the Jewish-Romani Wanda Maximoff from the comics. If you don’t mind spoilers, Gavia Baker-Whitelaw has written an excellent piece unpacking Wanda and Pietro’s racial and ethnic histories in the comics and how the MCU has erased them. WandaVision unfortunately borrows the Romani stereotype of the “fortune teller” yet refuses to canonically confirm Wanda’s ethnicity, an issue Jessica Reidy, a Romani witch herself, takes up in a detailed essay. WandaVision also erases Wanda’s Jewish identity by putting a cross in her room during one scene. As much as one might want to praise the inventiveness of WandaVision or its exploration of women’s grief and power, to do so without noting the continual erasure of Wanda’s ethnicity would be to passively excuse another instance of white-washing, this one targeting the Romani community who have such little positive representation in U.S. media. WandaVision is ultimately another example of a broader systemic representation issue in Hollywood, and one that is not new to the MCU.
Despite the show’s shortcomings, many MCU fans will consider WandaVision essential viewing because it acts as an important segue to future projects, and although the show may not answer all its questions, both plot-wise and thematically, it offers a new perspective and stylistic experimentation for Marvel. Due to its issues with race and ethnicity, it’s important to watch it with a culturally-critical investment, because understanding the racial and ethnic implications of media matters, as does continuing to advocate for better representation on-screen. As we move into Phase 4 of the MCU, we do so as Hollywood finds itself much more knowledgeable of feminism and anti-racist politics, and we can hope that this new chapter for Marvel will do better with each new story.
WandaVision is available to stream in full now exclusively on Disney+
by Bishop V Navarro
Bishop V. Navarro (they/she) is a poet, writer, and media studies scholar from Tampa, Florida. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida and currently pursues a PhD in Communication at USF. Her scholarly work examines boundary vulnerability in horror and science fiction media. You can find her on Twitter, Letterboxd, Instagram, and Tumblr @vnavarrowriter