In a medium where long-lasting superhero characters have rollercoaster ups and downs over their careers, it’s a rare few that have had some downs quite like the Scarlet Witch. Even ascendant as part of the vanguard in the Marvel movieverse’s fourth phase, her latest appearance in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness disappointingly proves that just like in the comics, putting Wanda on the alter of madness is a trope her creatives just can’t seem to want to avoid.
The surprise “twist” of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness—in so much as one can really have a twist 20 minutes into a movie that runs for another two hours beyond that—is that Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff isn’t the avenging ally Stephen Strange thinks he’s getting when America Chavez multiversally lands on his proverbial doorstep. Instead, Wanda is very much the villain of the piece, corrupted by both the use of the dark magics of the Darkhold and by her own mental trauma, anguished by the loss of the sons she had conjured up for herself in the town of Westview, New Jersey—products themselves created by Wanda’s further grief over the loss of the man she loved, the synthezoid Vision.
Suffice to say, the reaction to her place as the MCU’s latest villain has been... mixed, to say the least. After WandaVision presented her grief as both destructive and yet somewhat understandable—in so much as one can understand a reality-warping sorceress dominating an entire town of people against their will so she can play ‘50s housewife—Multiverse of Madness catapults Wanda into a horrifying villainous status quo, a casual murderer and unrelenting, unstoppable force that is willing to do anything for the chance to get her children back. The madness of the movie’s title is less about the cross-reality roadtrip Doctor Strange and his allies take to try and stop her, but Wanda herself, driven to this unknown, terrible place, ever-framed as an unhinged and demented evil until the time comes for her to realize the scope of what she’s done in her madness, and be punished for it with self-sacrifice rather than rehabilitation.
Taking one of the most powerful, prominent, and most beloved female figures in the MCU around at this point and making her turn heel irks, especially in the wake of a (not entirely spotless) attempt at a more demure spin on Wanda’s grief in WandaVision. But it’s not just because she’s a fallen hero who’s given the tropey “female hero can’t handle power, goes mad in the process” storyline, but because it’s a trope that has defined and influenced the Scarlet Witch for years, well before she first got adapted into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “Well, first off, it’s true to who the comics’ version of the character is and what she does in the comics,” Multiverse of Madness and Loki writer Michael Waldron said of the decision to make Wanda the movie’s big bad in an interview with Rolling Stone this week. “It was always where Wanda was headed in the MCU, even as I inherited the movie. The question just became, when would it happen?”
That apparent inevitability Waldron believes—that Wanda Maximoff simply must become this corrupted, maddened evil—is a shadow that’s chased the character across decades of her comics history, and has now likewise been brought into the MCU. From the days of her enthrallment under Cthon and the Darkhold’s powers at Mount Wundagore (which Multiverse of Madness itself draws on) in the pages of Avengers #187, all the way up to the infamous “No More Mutants” of House of M—and that complex mutant legacy that lingered beyond, now only just recently beginning to heal in the pages of Trial of Magneto—time and time again Wanda’s story has turned to a dark power within her, or in her reach, that transforms her not just into something villainous, but a woman driven to insanity by her inability to control it. And, more often than not, this has come in tandem with forcing the character to confront the trauma of losing her children Billy and Tommy, and her husband the Vision.
We first really see this in “Darker than Scarlet,” in the pages of 1990's West Coast Avengers #56, when Wanda, corrupted into a villainous version of herself by her father Magneto, lashes out at her former allies in vegeance for the loss of her family—it’s telling that the issue opens with the captured Agatha Harkness, U.S. Agent, Wasp, and Wonder Man all reflecting on Wanda having gone insane with her grief, and even more so that this is the story where we first learn that Wanda’s hex powers don’t alter probability, but warp reality itself. Time and time again, the connection between the scope of Wanda’s superpower and her apparent lack of willpower to control it is made throughout the lowest points of her life in the comics, forced perpetually to re-confront the trauma of losing Billy and Tommy. It infamously happens decades later in 2004's Avengers Disassembled, with Agatha Harkness’ equally infamous way of keeping Wanda docile—erasing her memory of her children—breaks down, and Wanda seemingly, simply, cannot help but mentally unravel and turn to evil once more.
And then, of course, there’s the most famous of all, House of M just a year later, when Wanda rouses in response to the gathered X-Men and Avengers seeking to stop her destructive insanity, and warps all of reality to create an idealized world where she always had her children by her side. Although outwardly here Wanda is acting less on a villainous impulse than she is an overwhelming plot device, House of M still concludes with one of her most horrifying acts in the comics, the almost-extermination of the mutant race when she de-powers all but roughly 200 of the species—a darkness that has only really just begun to be addressed in the current Krakoan era of X-comics. And even then, Wanda (who, thanks to cinematic-ambition-induced retcons, is no longer a mutant these days) had up until Trial of Magneto been seen as a metaphysical boogeywoman for the resurgent mutantkind, the “Great Pretender” who tried to lay their species low.
Power and Wanda’s apparent capacity for evil have gone hand in hand across generations of stories for the character, reducing one of the most prominent female Avengers of the team’s entire existence time and time again to a deranged being to be confronted and controlled, out of fear that her powers will harm more than help. And now, with Multiverse of Madness, the MCU has turned to that same well with its own version of Wanda Maximoff. But did it really need to? Did it need to when WandaVision before it, in engaging with that idea itself, managed to present a Scarlet Witch that was, at the very least, more understandably sympathetic instead of the bloodthirsty villain we’re confronted with in Multiverse of Madness?
Time will tell just how the MCU looks upon the Scarlet Witch going forward—even if Multiverse of Madness ends her arc with a seeming sacrifice, death (apparent or otherwise) is rarely permanent in the world of superhero films. But whether the MCU tries to push Wanda on a rehabilitative path, a question will always linger for fans of her as a character: does it really always have to be this way?
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