An Ode To Wanda Maximoff: The Real Winner and Loser of Marvel's 'Dr Strange in the Multiverse of Madness'

May 12, 2022 Sydney, Australia

Disclaimer: This review contains spoilers for each of Wanda Maximoff's MCU appearances. Read at your own risk. Images are not my own. 

Hear ye, hear ye! Wanda Maximoff aka 'The Scarlet Witch' has returned to the big screen, in Marvel's latest and most ambitious venture yet, Dr Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022). The film is a sequel to the Dr Strange origin film released in 2016, and is written by Michael Waldron and directed by Sam Raimi. Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a key figure in Marvel's delicately woven phase four, embarks on a multidimensional adventure with America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), opposite returning characters Dr Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) and Wong (Benedict Wong). However, any intellectual will tell you that this is a film that belongs to scene-stealer Elizabeth Olsen (who originated the role of Maximoff in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2015), who shares almost equal screen time with its lead actor. Yet unfortunately, it’s not entirely the serve us Wanda fans had hoped it would be.

Ever since the beginning, fans have followed Olsen’s character with keen interest. Wanda is undoubtedly Twitter’s resident chaotic it-girl, and is beloved simply for remaining her fabulously unpredictable and imperfect self. She entered the scene as a Sokovian teenage rebel (who wore an edgy dark red jacket, dramatic eyeliner and boots with ripped thigh-high stockings) radicalised against The Avengers by HYDRA scientist Wolfgang Von Strucker. Wanda and her twin brother Pietro, were willingly experimented on, giving them specialized abilities to prevent further war and to seek revenge on Tony Stark (Iron Man) — the Avenger developed the missile that destroyed their childhood home, leaving them orphaned years earlier. However, after finding out about HYDRA’s real plans to bring on human extinction, the twins decided to join the Avengers in their mission to stop Ultron. During this battle, Pietro was killed by Ultron while safeguarding Hawkeye and an innocent child from a hail of bullets. After losing her twin, Wanda relocated to the Avengers compound in the United States, putting aside her vengefulness towards Stark in favour of personal reform. 

As their newest recruit, the Avengers fought both with and against Wanda, but Wanda worked hard to earn her place at their side over the years. She harnessed her telekinesis, energy manipulation, and mind control for the better while simultaneously navigating the scrutiny of a public that feared her. However, Wanda’s tangible experiences of anger and loneliness were what continued to make her character so compelling — especially when compared to self-righteous, rule-following heroes like Steve Rogers and Thor Odinson. Having endured significant trauma, the young fighter grappled openly with the many unspoken rules of heroism and its lifelong dedication to sacrifice. Often this made her a risk, prompting the Avengers to sideline her from battle more than once. Yet she refused every benching, and ultimately had a crucial role to play in securing the group's victory. She’s a “ask for forgiveness, not permission” type, who brings the heat in every fight she’s part of. Because of this, her character was regarded as one to watch, with fans complaining of her relatively underused role during the early days of the MCU.

Wanda may possess ungodly powers, but one of her most treasured qualities is that she's one of few heroes who admits to having needs of her own. Other heroes harp on and on about the greater good, but Wanda shows us that personal sacrifices have to be negotiated time and time again, and that no one person should bear the brunt of it. She’s the first to point out the hypocrisy of any male Avenger who attempts to dictate what she can and cannot do, and will advocate for herself even if no one does. When Wanda is urged to sacrifice the life of her synthezoid boyfriend, Vision, to stop Thanos from using the Mind Stone to wipe out half the population, she says it's "too high a price". As a woman who has already lost so much, it makes sense that she’d resent having to offer up the one bit of peace she was able to secure for herself after losing her entire family. “It shouldn't be you, but it is you,” says Vision when Wanda is forced to do this (unfortunately, she is unsuccessful as Thanos resurrects Vision and takes his stone), summing up Wanda’s entire trajectory in the MCU. Even after defeating Thanos once and for all, ridding the world of its largest threat to date, the short end of the stick remains hers. While other fallen Avengers receive heartfelt tributes, Wanda’s huge sacrifice goes unmentioned. All that is left is to feel utter heartbreak over the happy ending which eludes her. 

In WandaVision (2021), we see this wish for happiness temporarily granted when the character's outburst of grief unexpectedly manifests as a powerful hex, taking a whole town of people hostage. In Westview, Wanda creates an idyllic suburbia for herself and a newly reimagined Vision, and its people are all cast as quirky characters in her own personal sitcom. The pair live out a quiet life of comfort as husband and wife (and later as parents when Wanda suddenly gives birth to twin boys). Without the threat of war dictating her every move, Wanda is a delightfully effervescent addition to the community, who participates in the local talent show and goes trick-or-treating on Halloween. Such an existence is in total contrast to her life as an Avenger, where nary a (signature Elizabeth Olsen) nose scrunch was in sight, and one can’t help but wonder if this is the kind of the life she could have lived had hers not been marred by trauma. In fact, such trauma is the reason for Wanda’s sitcom obsession, shows like The Dick Van Dike Show and The Brady Bunch serving as her haven in times of hardship. 

As the series progresses, we come to learn that Wanda's inability to confront her grief is inflicting pain on the trapped people of Westview, and eventually she is forced to choose between their lives and the lives of her family, which are attached to the spell. Over a stunning conclusion, Wanda lifts the hex, releasing the agonised residents of Westview and farewelling her family for good. Some of the show's most haunting and spectacular performances occur during Wanda's bittersweet goodbyes to her family (I am yet to recover). Despite this, these farewells seem conclusive, Wanda's sacrifice indicating her acceptance and desire for redemption. This coupled with Wanda's discovery of her abilities as the fabled 'Scarlet Witch' (whose chaos magic even surpasses the power of the sorcerer supreme) heralded the dawn of an exciting future for her character.

Enter Dr Strange in the Multiverse of Madness where the character suddenly emerges unmistakably as a villain, in a total heel-turn from the end of WandaVision. In Multiverse of Madness, her character — now a hair-raising blood-covered killer that limps and contorts — is puppeteered around by Waldron and Raimi to establish the film's sense of danger and urgency. She exacts gruesome ends on innocent people and decimates powerful heroes within seconds, her justification being that they’re standing in the way of her children. Yes, those children, the ones she spontaneously created and later sacrificed at the end of WandaVision. Wanda, corrupted by the power of the darkhold, believes there is a multiversal dimension where her children still exist, and she’s willing to disappear forever so long as she can get there. Chavez, a sixteen-year-old orphan who can travel across the multiverse, has the power to do this and Wanda wants it for herself. 

Her terrifying pursuit of Chavez, imbued in the established conventions of the horror genre and informed by Raimi’s direction, is relatively new territory for Marvel and is portrayed to absolute perfection by Olsen. She plays the most self-assured version of her character to date and the subtle differences between her performances as the corrupted Scarlet Witch versus the domesticated alternate Wanda, demonstrate what an asset Olsen (who improves her character with each appearance) is to the ever-expanding franchise. Many critics would even agree that she is the best part of this Dr Strange sequel, and the reason it has any real emotional substance. But these exhilarating scenes are soured by the knowledge that when we saw Wanda last, she had only just obtained the darkhold, and was cautiously using it to help her decode the mystery behind her newly discovered destiny as the most powerful witch in the world. Sure, as Harbinger of chaos, we are informed that this destiny — “to destroy the world” — is unlikely to be a good one, but we are still left with the reasonable belief that Wanda like usual, will fight for the right to define herself.

Instead, we meet Wanda when she’s past the point of return, left to question whether our fan favourite went down against the power of the darkhold with a fight or how she even discovered Chavez in the first place. While those questions have answers we can probably imagine for ourselves, we aren’t given any opportunity to do so as the film’s narrative forges full speed ahead. Wanda’s possession of the darkhold and its possession of her, function as a scapegoat for her newfound malevolence. Taken from witch Agatha Harkness at the end of WandaVision, the darkhold is an ancient book of limitless dark magic that consumes its reader. At best, the book appears to stain their fingertips with ghastly black ink, at worst, it destroys their entire conscience and universes with it. “The darkhold only showed me the truth. Everything I lost can be mine again,” explains Wanda to Dr Strange when her intentions are prematurely revealed in the film’s first act. But instead of convincing the audience that such a turn for the worst was inevitable, the most pivotal and exciting part of her transformation from anti-hero to villain happens off-screen before the film even begins — in my opinion, the project’s most damning and unforgivable transgression (aside from making the multiverse a total bore).

Consequently, it appears that Michael Waldron has confused Wanda’s long-standing need for happiness with a need for motherhood (only ever explored and then forfeited in one of her many MCU appearances). It’s a tried-and-true plot device but it’s also incredibly underwhelming. Not just that but it’s uncomfortably reminiscent of the phenomenon wherein male audiences struggle to validate or defend female characters' selfishness or rebellion unless it’s tethered to a familiar and digestible matriarchal purity. Without which, our cultural appetite for these women diminishes significantly, and yet we’d struggle to imagine a film where Iron Man or Hawkeye is threatening to destroy multiverses to father their children. This is because male protagonists have the luxury of representing themselves, their portrayals often eliciting complex discourses on humanity at large. Female characters, on the other hand, are tasked with the burden of representing their entire gender and what could a powerful woman want more than a child?

Men have a monopoly on displays of ambition, ego, or brute strength — and therefore, in the superhero arena, on having any kind of fun. Such traits in women that are considered commonplace or impressive in male protagonists are seen as a dangerous departure from the uniquely feminised warmth and empathy that grants women a place onscreen. This dichotomy calls upon the infamous ‘Madonna-Whore complex’, where women are either pure and chaste (good) or seductive and forthcoming (bad). Consider, when Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff (aka Black Widow) tells The Hulk that she too is a monster comparable to him (a ginormous green beast that crushes cities during explosions of rage) not because she’s an assassin but because she’s unable to bear children. Not to worry though, because even if Romanoff’s forced sterilisation is shameful, at least she’s arousing to look at.

Multiverse of Madness
attempts to reckon with double standards, with Wanda bringing this very dilemma to Dr Strange’s attention. “You break the rules and become the hero. I do it and I become the enemy. That doesn't seem fair,” she says. But what feels the most unfair about this film is that in using The Scarlet Witch as a plot device that furthers Dr Strange’s own journey, Wanda ends up right back where she started (if not with more guilt and pain to endure than at the conclusion of WandaVision). Seen as a monster in the eyes of her children, she seemingly sacrifices her life (because she’s sacrificed literally everything else) to destroy the darkhold in every universe. By the film’s end, we’ve not taken her character through any new territory emotionally. Yes, her absolutely insane power is demonstrated like never before, as is her capacity for evil but at what cost? The opportunity to build upon the interiority gifted to her character by WandaVision showrunner Jac Shaeffer feels enormously wasted. With 2hrs and 6 mins of possibilities at their disposal, Michael Waldron chose the most reductive one. 

Fortunately for Elizabeth Olsen, the #TeamWitch fan base are well-equipped to deal with such a blow to her characterisation. They’re a devout collective compromised of individuals who consider themselves defence attorneys and full-time apologists. So, who better to live out an ill-timed villain era than a character like Wanda, who is widely forgiven by fans for their indiscretions, and who has routinely toed the line between good and bad? But unfortunately, this poorly explained change in characterisation sticks out like a sore thumb and fails to benefit what is a mostly lacklustre script with little payoff. #GiveWandaHerHappyEndingYouCowards

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