If the superhero genre was once the realm of moral absolutes, ‘WandaVision’ is a departure

Written by Leah Dolan

Keeping you in the know, Culture Queue is an ongoing series of recommendations for timely books to read, films to watch and podcasts and music to listen to. The following story contains spoilers for “WandaVision.”

What would you do for love? And to what lengths would you go to erase grief?

These are the questions at the heart of “WandaVision,” which follows Marvel crusaders Wanda Maximoff and Vision through the golden age of television and beyond. But if the superhero genre was once a thinly veiled guise for presenting moral absolutes, then the Disney+ show — up until its finale released March 5 — has in many ways been a departure.

Over the course of nine highly stylized episodes — each modeled off of a different, era-defining American sitcom, from 1960’s “Bewitched” to the recently concluded “Modern Family” — it becomes clear there isn’t much Wanda wouldn’t do for her recently deceased husband, including resurrection and mass mind control.

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Each of WandaVision’s episodes is modeled off of a different, era-defining American sitcom, from 1960’s “Bewitched” to the recently concluded “Modern Family.” Credit: Marvel Studios/Disney+

Once Wanda brings Vision back from the dead, they start a new life together in the sleepy fictional town of Westview. To ensure Vision is none the wiser of their situation (and his own death) Wanda uses telekinesis to forcibly cast the entire population of Westview as compliant extras ready to act out her contrived, domestic narrative — with little regard for their intense pain. Everyone else is merely a supporting character in her and Vision’s love story.

Wanda’s intense grief skews her moral compass and causes her to knowingly inflict harm on hundreds of innocent civilians. “Wanda has experienced more loss than anybody else in the Marvel universe,” director Matt Shakman told Entertainment Weekly, “In some ways, (Wanda is) as close as Marvel gets to exploring mental illness, really — like, how do you hold together your reality when you’re constantly experiencing so much trauma?”
She is a complex, flawed and selfish hero — a rarity inside the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where the squeaky-clean ethical codes of characters like Captain America have even spawned academic books praising his embodiment of Aristotelian virtues.

At first, “WandaVision” resists moralistic propaganda in favor of exploring Wanda’s compelling tale of bereavement, desperation and denial. She is more human than superhuman — acting in ugly self-interest at the costly expense of others.

Eventually, we see Wanda reluctantly have a change of heart — an epiphany that comes only when one of Westview’s brainwashed extras briefly breaks character.

Thus, the Marvel Cinematic Universe ultimately falls back on its familiar, black-and-white moral structure. Despite the suffering she caused, Wanda’s final act is considered sanctimonious (she is told by another character that the people of Westview will “never know what you sacrificed for them”) and her gleaming superhero status is redeemed once more.

Add to Queue: Exploring morality

Watch: “The Good Place” (2016-2020)

This afterlife comedy follows a woman who believes she’s been sent to heaven in error. Determined not to lose her spot in the highly selective utopia, she tries to become a better person. As well as pondering moral philosophy, the NBC series subverts sitcom stereotypes by replacing character consistency with drastic development.

Read: “Acts of Desperation” by Megan Nolan (2021)

Newly released in the UK this month, an obsessive female partner becomes consumed with making a doomed relationship feel as secure as possible. Neither party is right or wrong in their actions. Far from moralizing, Nolan gives readers a messy, authentic and complicated portrayal of an unhealthy relationship.

Watch: “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004)

Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet opt-out of reality so as to avoid intense heartbreak. Screenwriter and director Michel Gondry imagines a future where an induced memory loss procedure is made available to those grieving or otherwise hurting. But is the operation consensual when the patient can’t remember consenting?

Watch: “Westworld” (2016-2018)

A theme park filled with subservient robots, and therefore devoid of moral consequences, is built for super-rich guests to act out fantasies of the American frontier. The HBO series presents a host of ethical quandaries, including questions surrounding free will and human depravity.

Listen: “Moral Maze”

From gambling to “groupthink,” this BBC Radio 4 podcast debates the moral issues behind one top news story every week.

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