Film

This Woman’s Work

Jac Schaeffer, WandaVision, 2021, TV miniseries. The Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen).

IN SECOND GRADE, I told everyone my mom was a witch. It was the early 1980s, and my mother had long black hair, like Miss Switch—“teacher by day, witch by night”—on the cartoon. I informed the other kids about her candle ceremonies (with her menorah) and her familiar, a mysterious tuxedo cat named Batman. Increasingly fanciful, the stories of my mom’s witchcraft spun out in incantatory free association over recesses and lunchtimes, culminating with a tale of the time she turned a neighborhood bully into a pair of jeans. “And when the jeans ripped . . .” I said ominously, “They bled like skin!” Mr. Bartel, spotting a rapt group of terrified eight-year-olds encircling me like a coven, broke the spell, asking what we were talking about. “His mom is a . . .,“ one of the kids started, but I warned her with a finger to my lips. For the rest of the year everyone, especially the Christian Mr. Bartel, kept their distance. This lisping, fey gay child might have been lonely, but at least no one fucked with the witch’s son.

Fantasy narratives provide many psychotic pleasures, but my favorite is that of wish-fulfillment, perhaps best achieved via the manic-depressive genre of superhero fiction. Streaming the Marvel series WandaVision (2021) on Disney+ over these weeks of lingering quarantine, I was surprised to find tears welling during Episode 6, “All-New Halloween Spooktacular!,” when Wanda’s twin sons first appear in their costumes. Some wish I wasn’t even aware I’d made just came true. In contemporary Marvel Comics, Wanda’s sons are now adult superheroes, like their mother. Billy operates under the codename Wiccan, an homage to his witchy heritage, while tweaky Tommy goes by Speed. Both Wiccan and Speed are, as of this writing, in relationships with other male superheroes. Wiccan’s partner is Teddy, aka Hulkling, a green alien hunk with blond hair and piercings; the couple recently got gay-space-married in an intergalactic crossover series. Tommy is with David, an X-Man codenamed Prodigy. They met working a temp job at a superhero call-in center.1 On WandaVision, the twins are ten.

Luciano Vecchio’s cartoon of Billy and Tommy.

A fan of comics since adolescence, I knew the central character, Wanda Maximoff, by her pseudonym, the Scarlet Witch,2 an auburn-haired mutant usually paired with her star-crossed “synthezoid” husband, the parti-colored Vision.The two met as members of the Marvel Comics flagship superhero team, The Avengers, falling in love, getting married, and, surprisingly, giving birth to children, who were conjured by a spell. As Wanda once summarized it, “I used my power to warp probabilities and caused my womb to bring forth the otherwise impossible mingling of mutant and android, our twin sons, William and Thomas.”4

The day after the boys’ appearance on WandaVision, Luciano Vecchio published a loving cartoon of the boys in their costumes on his Instagram. The post got 16,151 likes, including mine. Vecchio is an Argentine comics artist known for his contemporary renderings of classic characters and his encyclopedic knowledge of LGBTQIA superheros. The creator of Sereno, a queer Latin American series, Vecchio has worked for Marvel Comics on titles including Iron Heart, the upcoming Champions, and the recently released King in Black: Wiccan and Hulkling, a sumptuous one-shot about the newlyweds’ honeymoon in the stars. I asked Vecchio what moved him to make his digital love letter. “There’s something healing seeing a known Queer character as a happy child,” he replied.

Page detail from King in Black: Wiccan and Hulkling #1 (Marvel, 2021).

Watching Wanda’s boys living that magic life in ’80s suburbia, I thought about my brother, who is gay, too, and how we consumed hours of Spielbergian cable movies on repeat, keenly aware that, even in fantasy land, we didn’t belong. We didn’t have super happy childhoods, but the me from now is happy to glimpse what it would have been like to be promised one. Maybe it isn’t our “selves” we wish to see reflected on screen, after all, but our desires. That meme “I feel seen” is an acknowledgement that someone else can picture what the “I” wishes. Of course, it is always unwise to depend on a major studio for your emotional well-being. “I wonder how it will develop and if they will remain in the end,” Vecchio cautioned, referring to the fact that Billy and Tommy, like most of us, have, up to now, been denied happy queer childhoods.

Before Wanda’s children were reincarnated as Gen Z supergays, they were demonic homunculi. What started as a Donna Harraway–esque “SF Worlding”—a witch in love with an artificial intelligence is inspired to impregnate herself—was not to be. Undermining the patriarchal order created a crisis for the (even more) male-dominated comics industry of the ’80s. The masculinist panic around Wanda’s storyline points to the unspoken question of whether or not Vision has a penis,5 but either way, it’s Wanda who has the phallus. In a grotesque correction, the twins are later revealed to be “fragments of the soul” of the diabolical Master Pandemonium. The twins meet a horrific end manifesting as squealing babies growing from the villain’s forearms. The other Avengers decide that the best course of action is to wipe Wanda’s memory, never mentioning William and Thomas again.

“I really hope she is redeemed,” Vecchio sighed in a text before signing off. A superwoman in a superman’s world, Wanda has been the target of plot-driven harassment for nearly sixty years of publication history. Introduced in 1964 with her twin brother, Quicksilver, as a member of Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, the Scarlet Witch was a villain before the siblings answered an ad to join Captain America’s Avengers. Like all Marvel heroes, the Scarlet Witch is ambivalent: uneasy with her past status as a terrorist operating in a corporate-funded private security firm, navigating society in a mixed marriage with a nonliving being. And then there’s her powers, innate in that she was born with them, but also magic, meaning they tap into a chthonic source of chaos. Her unpredictable potency, emanating from a figure of pink-and-red femininity, triggers phallic anxiety, and she is relentlessly managed by all the male heroes around her, many of whom also vie for her sexual attention, frequently baffled by her attraction to the impotent, unmanly Vision.

In the 2004 comic’s series Avengers: Disassembled, Wanda uses her “hexes” to get revenge on the Avengers for suppressing the traumatic memory of her children. Vision, Hawkeye, and Ant-Man all die. In the end it is decided by Captain America, Iron Man, Doctor Strange, and Magneto (the terrorist separatist mutant who was, of course, her long lost father!) that Wanda should be turned over to Professor X, the telepath and mentor of the X-Men, who will control her powers and heal her mind. A later series explains that Wanda’s actions were motivated from afar by Doctor Doom.6 Even in her villainy, Wanda is denied agency.

What did we do during this year of living in our pods? Among other things, watch WandaVision, just like Wanda.

The writers, artists, and editors who orchestrated this hysterically misogynist exquisite corpse were men, though you knew that without me telling you. Of course it gets worse. In House of M, Wanda, unable to mourn the loss of her children, spirals further.7 Professor X fails to cure her, and proposes her execution to preserve the status quo, so Magneto steps in. He manipulates Wanda into remaking the world in his favor. Magneto and his kin are now the royal family ruling a superpowered apartheid state. When Wanda realizes that her father has played her, she punishes her mutant-supremacist dad, uttering a curse—“No More Mutants”—and so decimating an entire minority population.

This move fucked up a bunch of X-shit for decades: Some of my favorites lost their powers, a bunch of depowered mutant kids, unable to defend themselves, died at the hands of antimutant extremists. It was the mid-2000s, the War on Terror was full blast, and our fantasy world was ugly! While the editorial function of House of M was to prune a line of comics that had outgrown demand (the X-Men’s popularity had waned since its ‘90s heyday), the story amounted to an irredeemable character assassination. I am an X-Men fan, and we hold grudges. To us, the Scarlet Witch was the worst of self-hating collaborators, guilty of genocide against her own people and killing off our shared imaginary. Once I tweeted something about how I could never forgive her and was immediately, earnestly called out: “It’s not fair to blame her for things that male writers made her do!”

Page detail from The Vision and the Scarlet Witch vol. 2 #4 (Marvel, 1982).

The Scarlet Witch is intellectual property, which means that “she” is owned by Marvel, which is now owned by Disney, which is owned by Robert A. Iger, Christine M. McCarthy, Alan N. Braverman, Vanguard Group Inc., and BlackRock Inc., among other top shareholders. “She” has only done what (mostly) male writers and producers and toy company designers and video game executives have made her do. But thanks to fandom, accelerated by social media and incubated in the safe space of the fan’s imagination, intellectual property is never entirely owned by anyone. In thinking through the gap between Wanda and what they “made her do,” I realized that what I don’t like about the Scarlet Witch is that she is a dumping ground for the toxic misogyny leading us toward mass extinction. But, like, who isn’t?

Before WandaVision, I wasn’t impressed with the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s take on the character. It wasn’t until she moved to the small screen, where her role was reprised by Elizabeth Olsen, sister of legendary TV twins Mary Kate and Ashley, that she was given space to grow. WandaVision is the first of Marvel’s TV spinoffs on Disney+ featuring characters from their omnipresent (twenty-three films and counting) Marvel Cinematic Universe. Inventive in a way that the action genre movies are not, WandaVision uncannily mirrors its context: Released a year into lockdown, it tells the story of a grieving Wanda Maximoff, who unconsciously creates a hexagonal forcefield around her home and the surrounding town. Inside her bubble, she lives happily with her android husband and their two magically created sons; everyone around them participates in the fantasy, thanks to subconsciously employed mind control. The world inside her “Hex” is a series of homages to family sitcoms, tracing a trajectory from starchy black-and-whites like Dick Van Dyke and Bewitched to the colorful kitsch of The Brady Bunch, from the earnest realism of the 1980s (that one got me!) to the smash-cut self-consciousness of the ’90s. Using detailed art direction and camera angles and era-accurate acting styles, WandaVision is about TV, a nostalgia trip with poison-pill critiques embedded in mock commercials that interrupt the action. Anyone or anything entering Wanda’s hallucination is transformed into a part of the spectacle. Outside, the situation is monitored by hi-tech military watching on an old TV set that catches the broadcast. The viewer of course hopes that the soldiers and scientists will fail to disrupt the spell, and that Wanda, Vision, and the boys will remain undisturbed in their normative domesticity.

Page detail from Scarlet Witch vol. 2 #8 (Marvel, 2015).

That is, until we realize that Wanda’s happiness depends on the suffering of the townspeople whose names she doesn’t even know, ensorcelled to do her bidding while she remains callously unaware of their misery. One wonders what would have happened if she had watched different TV shows as a kid—in one episode it is revealed that her childhood was spent consuming black market I Love Lucy DVDs. If only she had been raised by Marxist feminists!

After the final episode aired on March 5, writer, sociologist, and MacArthur Fellow Tressie McMillan Cottom tweeted, “Wanda is a slavemaster.” Someone sarcastically responded, “She just wanted her kids to go to a good school.” Well, that settles that! Wanda is not redeemed. She is not an icon of queer witch power but a superpowered Karen. All fair points, but to my mind, WandaVision is also an allegory for experiences of the work-from-home middle class during the pandemic, whose safety and security was maintained by the sacrifices of working people deemed at once essential and inconsequential. And what did we do during this year of living in our pods? Among other things, watch WandaVision, just like Wanda. The recursive cycle of the spectacle never ends.

This deep dive into a mass-media morass reminds me that there is a problem I can’t solve, a problem I have allowed myself, with this and other writing, to exacerbate. Superheroes provide a shared mythology, one media companies disseminate through our projectors and laptops, replacing storyteller campfires of yore with a cooler glow. Marvel’s interconnected epics, like the Iliad and the Mahabharata, are political texts, setting up conflicting narratives to probe ethical questions of power, responsibility, and identity. In this discourse, cancelations and the virtue signaling they inspire are weapons in what I hoped was a proxy war, a way to fight it out on Reddit and Disqus without incel fanboys and social justice warriors actually coming to blows. That is no longer the case. In a Washington Post article titled “The Trump cult has obliterated the line between citizenship and fandom, with deadly results,” Ann Hornaday registers the abundance of Captain America T-shirts during the January 6 insurrection of the US Capitol, going on to claim that, “With robust civics education in decline, citizenship became another diversion [. . .] a vector for hyper-affiliation worthy of pop stars and superhero franchises.” This problem is compounded during a pandemic that requires social distancing to survive, making mediated affiliations more real than contactless IRL ones. Of course, the cosplay of US politics is not new, it’s just mutating into more lethal variants. And rather than blame the nerds—which I would argue is basically everyone, defined as we are by external identity markers and attendant brand identities—what we need to figure out is an ethics of fandom. We need to take responsibility for what we wish for, understanding that, like the queer horizon invoked by Jose Muñoz, these targets are always out of grasp but must be rigorously reimagined if we are to work toward a time-to-come we wish to live in, together.

Jac Schaeffer, WandaVision, 2021, TV miniseries. Billy and Tommy Maximoff (Julian Hilliard, and Jett Klyne).

In the 2015 Scarlet Witch solo comic,8 Wanda is alone at last. No husband, her kids grown, she lives a single witch life in New York City. Her father is not actually Magneto (that was a trick!) and she tells her brother she needs a break from him, too. She sets off to find her mother, the original Scarlet Witch, a superheroine in her own right and the protector of an Eastern European Traveller community. Wanda’s companion is the ghost of her mentor, Agatha Harkness, a Salem witch with a dry sense of humor. In WandaVision, Agatha is the villain; in this book, she is Wanda’s closest friend, and together with the spirit of Wanda’s long-lost mother they work to heal the cosmic mother goddess who lives at the end of the Witch’s Road. A reparative tale, this poetic fourteen-issue series offered the redemption Wanda has been otherwise denied. All it took was removing all the men from her life. Even the imaginary ones.

As for those dream boys, WandaVision casts our heroine as a contemporary Medea, sacrificing them to repair reality. Like the priestess of Hecate in Euripides’s play, Wanda flies off into the sky. But then, a twist: After the credits roll, we zoom to a cottage marked with runic inscriptions set high on a remote timberland. Alone again, Wanda floats supernaturally in her sparkling ruby headdress, poring over a grimoire. Just like comic book fans scrolling through the Marvel Unlimited app on our tablets, she is searching the multiverse for plotlines. Queer futurity, always deferred, is promised yet again: Billy and Tommy’s voices echo through the ether: “Mom!” Wanda peers into a distance beyond the camera lens. In a flash, the screen goes dark.

NOTES

1. Young Avengers Vol 2. #6, 2013, by Kieron Gillen and Kate Brown.

2. First appearance in The X-Men #4, 1964, by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee.

3. First appearance The Avengers #57, 1968, by John Buscema and Roy Thomas.

4. West Coast Avengers #54, 1989, by John Byrne.

5. See Anna Peppard, (Behold?) The Vision’s Penis: The Presence of Absence in Mutant Romance Tales, themiddlespaces.com, August 2020.

6. Young Avengers: The Children’s Crusade by Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung, 2011. This series also reunited Wanda with her teenaged sons, reborn in other bodies through the “transmigration of souls.”

7. House of M, writer Brian Michael Bendis, art by Olivier Coipel, 2005, Marvel Comics.

8. Scarlet Witch, writer James Robinson, Marvel Comics 2015–17.

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