I had a conversation many years ago that dramatically changed how I experience movies, and specifically, movies that feature massive action spectacles. A co-worker and I were discussing The Matrix Reloaded (that’s how long ago it was) and I was crowing about the movie’s special effects and action scenes. To which my co-worker replied that when he saw Neo flying through the city to save the falling Trinity, all he could think about were the innocent people in those buildings and cars that were getting demolished by Neo’s shockwave.
Ever since then, when I watch a silver screen spectacle — be it a superhero smackdown, an alien invasion, or some other catastrophic event — part of my brain inevitably finds itself detaching from the spectacle and instead, worrying about the fate of those hapless citizens who are caught in the midst of the chaos through no fault of their own.
Now, to be fair, not all such movies completely ignore those poor folks’ plight. Both the original Avengers as well as Avengers: Age of Ultron feature scenes in which the heroes go to great lengths to save civilians in peril or steer the chaos away from the general populace. And for all its faults, I thought Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice did a good job of depicting just how terrifying it would actually be to see super-powered beings duke it out in your city, their powers reducing skyscrapers to dust and rubble.
But let’s be honest: the spectacle does trump the human plight pretty easily, particularly in superhero movies with their focus on near-godlike beings battling each other. And given how saturated our popular culture has become with such movies — which is a topic for a whole ‘nother post — perhaps it’s worth considering the extent to which they gloss over the cost borne by those who don’t wear capes or weren’t fortunate enough to be blessed with superhuman abilities.
Which brings us to WandaVision’s season finale. And yes, there are WandaVision spoilers ahead. Consider yourself warned.
As WandaVision unfolds, we discover that the picture-perfect town of Westview, New Jersey, with its gorgeous homes and cheerful neighbors, is actually an illusion created by Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) to deal with the grief of losing her husband, and informed by her memories of watching American TV shows as a child in war-torn Sokovia. But despite Wanda’s best efforts, the illusion proves difficult to maintain, especially as the mysteriously resurrected Vision (Paul Bettany) begins to question both her behavior and his existence.
Trapped in Wanda’s illusion are the residents of the real Westview, who are now essentially held hostage and forced to live out the storylines that Wanda has for them — storylines inspired by TV shows like The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Brady Bunch, and Malcolm in the Middle. Occasionally, however, Wanda’s hold on them is broken and we catch a glimpse of their nightmarish situation.
In the season’s seventh episode, titled “Breaking the Fourth Wall,” we learn that Wanda’s illusion is being manipulated by her nosy neighbor Agnes, who is, in fact, a powerful witch named Agatha Harkness (played to perfection by Kathryn Hahn in the series’ breakout role). Agatha’s mischief is all part of her plan to learn more about Wanda’s incredible powers and then take them for herself. Not surprisingly, the two end up in a climactic magical battle, with Wanda ultimately defeating and trapping Agatha in her “Agnes” persona and fully claiming her status as the Scarlet Witch, a powerful magical entity.
Following Agatha’s defeat, Wanda finally dissolves the illusion surrounding Westview for good, which means bidding farewell to her husband and two sons, since they’re part of the illusion. These scenes are masterfully done, and serve as a poignant capstone to WandaVision’s exploration of grief and trauma. As evidenced by the memes and the response to Vision’s line about grief and love, WandaVision and its handling of such topics has clearly resonated with many people. But the more I reflect on the series and especially its final scenes, the more I find it lacking in one important aspect.
WandaVision ends with Wanda living in a cozy, little cabin situated in the middle of a picturesque wilderness, where she can study her newfound Scarlet Witch identity in peace and quiet. But what of the people of Westview, those who were locked in Wanda’s fantasies? As enjoyable as the finale might be, I think there should’ve been one more episode where we see Westview’s citizens get to process their grief and trauma from being enslaved and held hostage in someone else’s nightmare.
Here’s what we get instead: after dissolving the illusion, Wanda walks through the newly disenchanted Westview as her former neighbors stare at her with an understandable mix of fear, shock, and disgust. She then has a brief conversation with Monica Rambeau, a government agent who was sent to investigate the Westview phenomenon and was herself caught up in Wanda’s illusions for a little while.
Monica tries to assuage Wanda’s guilt, but the scene feels like too little, too late, especially when Wanda flies off to her scenic wilderness hideaway as soon as the chat’s over. In the end, it feels a little hollow and unsatisfying, as if we’re supposed to think that Wanda getting to process her grief through a fake family — and gain an awesome new superhero identity — was totally worth putting hundreds of innocent people through untold emotional and psychological turmoil.
Some may point to those scenes where Wanda tells Vision that she has no idea what’s happening, or how it’s happening, as a way to let her off the hook. However, WandaVision sets up Wanda as something of an unreliable narrator, especially when we see her increasingly desperate attempts maintain the illusion and prevent others, including her own husband, from uncovering it. Still others may point out that when Wanda discovers the effects of her illusion, she does lift it so that Westview’s citizens can escape — only to put it back in place the minute she sees that Vision and their two sons are being adversely effected. Finally, although Agatha was certainly at work behind the scenes — including killing poor little Sparky — the series makes it clear that Wanda set everything up and maintained it, i.e., Wanda was not merely Agatha’s puppet.
And speaking of Agatha/Agnes, what of her fate? True, she was a (delightful) villain, but what, exactly, do you think Westview’s citizens will do to her having a) seen her battle Wanda in the skies over their town and b) seen Wanda trap her there? That doesn’t seem very heroic. Perhaps Wanda somehow tinkered with their minds so that they’ll fully accept Agatha/Agnes as one of their own. But that would be problematic for the same reasons it was problematic to create the illusory Westview in the first place.
WandaVision kicks off the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s “Phase Four,” and sets up next year’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Therefore, it’s entirely possible that Wanda will be held to account for her actions at some future point. At the very least, WandaVision does end with Wanda in a very fraught situation. Prior to WandaVision, she’d already proven herself to be one of the MCU’s strongest characters, given how close she came to dispatching Thanos all by herself in Avengers: Endgame.
However, she also stands as one of the MCU’s most feared and dangerous superheroes. In Captain America: Civil War, her accidental killing of several aid workers — which happens when she loses control of her powers — helps usher in the Sokovia Accords, which will place the Avengers under UN oversight. Presumably, it’ll soon become widespread knowledge that Wanda was also the primary cause of Westview, New Jersey’s strange phenomenon and its traumatized populace — and one can only imagine the sort of regulations, not to mention anti-superhero sentiment, that will be the result of that.
For all of its surprisingly affecting depictions of grief and trauma — not to mention its delightful homages and parodies of classic television series — WandaVision has left its heroine in a precarious position. Yes, she may have some emotional closure, a cool new costume, and unimaginable mystical powers. But not only is she even more alienated and isolated than before, she now has the weight of an entire town’s torture and sanity on her conscience, too.
That’s not nothing, and indeed, seems like something that the MCU ought to address more fully and satisfactorily in this newly launched phase.