Betraying the Scarlet Witch

(Spoiler alert: This post discusses key plot points of Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Wandavision, and other Marvel Cinematic Universe projects.)

The other day, I finally saw Dr. Strange in  the Multiverse of Madness.

I really wish I hadn’t.

To be clear, I thought it was a pretty good Marvel movie: high production values, great special effects and stunt work, snappy dialogue, top-notch actors. And Patrick Stewart! Just a brief appearance, but still, it was Patrick Stewart!, and any time you get Patrick Stewart slipped into a movie is good. The movie had some flaws as well: big plot holes; a self-important, self-aggrandizing, self-involved hero (Didn’t we just get rid of Tony Stark? Does the MCU really need another super-narcissist to take his place?); overly-long, overly-big fight sequences that contribute nothing to the plot (but do make for convenient bathroom breaks). I can live with those short-comings; indeed, they tend to be standard with most Marvel movies these days. What left a bad taste in my mouth as I left the theater was something more specific: the treatment of Wanda Maximoff, aka the Scarlet Witch.

As portrayed by Elizabeth Olsen, Wanda has always been the one consistently moral character in the MCU, worried not just about defeating the bad guy of the moment, but also of the impact of her actions on the regular people who inhabit the world. In one of her first outings with the Avengers in Captain America: Civil War, Wanda looses control of one of her hex spheres. The explosion kills innocent civilians. From the instant that happens, Wanda is horrified at what she has done, while the other heroes shrug it off. Things like happen when you are saving the world from Bad Guys. Let’s clean up the mess and go have a beer. Later in the movie, Tony Stark also develops a sense of remorse over the deaths, but only because the mother of one the victims confronts him and makes him feel bad about what happened. Wanda, however, did not need a grieving mother to show her that she has done something wrong. She knew it and regretted it from the moment it happened.

We saw this again at the conclusion of Wandavision. Wanda finally realizes that, in her grief over the death of her beloved Vision, she has let her powers run wild, taking over an entire town, treating innocent people as puppets, forcing them to live out her sit-com fantasies. From the moment she sees what she has done, Wanda is overcome with remorse – no, with horror – at what she has done. “I’m sorry,” she says, over and over again, even while knowing that there is no apology that can make amends for what she has done.

And then, suddenly, in Dr. Strange she is the Bad Guy. All she cares about is finding a reality where the imagined life she glimpsed in Wandavision can be hers. She feels bad and will do whatever it takes to not feel bad: kill an innocent kid to steal her powers, slaughter heroes that oppose her, destroy entire universes. Innocent bystanders die all around her and she does not care. And none of this makes any sense given everything we know about Wanda.

It’s not that I necessarily object to Wanda becoming a villain. Indeed, the story of how a hero can loose their way, give in to to selfish desires and descend into villainy could be a compelling story. It is, after all, the story at the heart of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. But that transformation needs to somehow fit with the hero’s established character. We can believe in Macbeth’s descent into villainy because his ambition is established early on. Every step he takes towards becoming a monster follows from his character and from what he has already done. That is not the case with Wanda. She ends Wandavision seeking a way to repent of her deeds. And at the beginning of Dr. Strange, she is already a full-blown villain (one can almost hear the “Bwa-ha-ha” as she reveals her true self to Stephen Strange in her very first scene of this movie.) There is no transformation, no wrestling with grief and temptation, no fall from grace. There is no attempt to keep the character consistent with what has gone before, no effort to provide a character arc that leads to this end. All we get is an arbitrary decision “the Scarlet Witch is now a villain.”

And, to make things worse, there is no inherent reason for Wanda to be the villain. Marvel could easily have come up with some generic inter-dimensional demon bent on multiverse conquest that would have worked just as well. The only reason to use Wanda is for the shock value of “Wanda is the Villain!”

What a waste of a character that writers, directors, producers, and especially Elizabeth Olsen have spent years building up, a character that we, the audience, deeply care about.

What a waste of an opportunity to develop the tragedy of Wanda Maximoff.

What a waste of two hours.

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