The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) may be a CGI frenzy of action, excitement and witty one-liners, but underneath the glow of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes is a sad old bunch. Its latest series, WandaVision, is indicative of that: it focused on how Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff processed her grief after Avengers: Endgame. But the franchise has long been informed by stories founded in the loss of a place, a person or a time its superheroes hold dear.
In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Steve Rogers mourns the 40s era from which he was ripped, as well as the people he left behind. In Black Panther, T’Challa grieves for his father as he steps up to lead Wakanda against a would-be usurper. Thor goes through Avengers: Infinity War carrying the pain of the destruction of his home world, Asgard, the killing of his brother, Loki, and the knowledge that every member of his family is dead. The entire plot of Avengers: Endgame, to bring back half of the universe, is motivated by survivor’s guilt and the anguish felt by those left behind.
Grief is a common plot device in the superhero genre because of how easily it can inform a character’s vigilantism. It allows them to exorcise their demons in arse-kicking ways. Sure, it is a bit morbid, but it is a decent excuse for why these heroes embark on their good deeds in the face of adversity. Audiences can empathise with the need to channel a feeling of hopelessness into something worthwhile.
Tony Stark’s character development over three solo and four Avengers films was informed by this sense of loss. His lone-wolf, playboy lifestyle masked the bitter pain stemming from his orphanhood and unresolved problems with his father. After a near-death experience, his hero’s journey begins and the more he learns about his dear dad, as he commits an increasing number of courageous acts, the less he keeps the people around him at a distance. But, as we saw with Iron Man’s attempt at murderous revenge in Captain America: Civil War, superhero grief does not always manifest itself in morally justifiable ways.
Frank Castle’s actions in The Punisher are motivated by the cold-blooded murder of his wife and children. The antihero can’t get his family back, but he can fight the feeling of helplessness by making sure their killers, and people like them, never cause the same sort of harm again. It is why we overlook The Punisher’s vicious vigilante actions against New York’s less than finest – his grief targets only the bad guys.
But what if the victims of a superhero’s grief are innocent bystanders? That is the conundrum faced in WandaVision, which is the first production in which the MCU has explored the issue meaningfully with a female character from the films. She checks all the boxes for the trope. Not only was she orphaned young, but also her losses have piled up since. Her brother, Pietro, was killed in action and she was forced to kill her lover, Vision, only for time to rewind and force her to watch Thanos do it again seconds later. (Superhero problems aren’t always relatable …)
Wanda also has her alienation to deal with – a former bad guy, no natural allies, not from the US. Loneliness causes her to transform an existing town and all its inhabitants into an idealised suburban existence – inspired by her favourite sitcoms – and keep it separate from the rest of the world so she can live happily ever after with a version of Vision and two children she magicked into being.
So, Wanda has found solace, but only by becoming the villain. It is torture and it cannot be sustained – she is the hero, after all. With each episode, the facade slips further, as outsiders attempt to get Wanda to confront her pain.
While the villain of the piece forces her to relive her worst moments, a more sympathetic – and effective – route out is offered by Monica Rambeau, who is also still grieving (for her mother). She tries to save Wanda from herself through empathy; her perspective is what guides the viewers to forgive the harm the Avenger has caused.
It is certainly a more developed connection than, say, their mothers having the same name (Zack Snyder, take note), but it also highlights the real message of the series (and the MCU): that grief has a profound effect on us. While it can manifest itself in toxic and healthy ways, it need not control us. We have to remember that it is fuelled by love as much as it is by sorrow. As Vision says: “What is grief, if not love persevering?”
There will always be losses to motivate superheroes, but WandaVision is a reminder of how the most powerful people experience human emotions just as hard as we do. It is when they choose to persevere in the face of grief, to commemorate love rather than pain, that it becomes the ultimate heroic act. How fitting that it should be a show centred on women that reminds us of that.