WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier have come and gone now, ushering us into Phase 4 of the MCU. While The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was billed as a more traditional MCU entry, WandaVision was portrayed as something indicating the MCU’s willingness to be more creatively open. WandaVision was also the first MCU television production we got to see where it’s both, production wise and creatively, all under the same roof. While this means the shows and movies are becoming more intimately linked than ever before, leaving previous TV productions in a limbo state regarding their canonicity, it also means the greater application of the MCU homogeneity to the shows going forward. While WandaVision starts out seeming like it’s going to be completely new for the MCU it ends up following into some old patterns that hold the show back, and indicates the MCU is not as creatively open as some would like it to be, limiting the creative future of the MCU.
WandaVision is a good and solid show, and is probably my favorite MCU project to date (we’ll see how it compares to Loki and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the other two MCU projects I am most excited about). It gives space to two characters that barely had much screen time in the movies. And crafts a narrative where we believe these two are in love, even if we didn’t see their relationship really develop in their movie appearances. Because of the TV format it has the time to explore the grief and trauma of Wanda, something we hardly saw in relation to Pietro and Vision before.
The show starts out by doing this in new and creative ways that feels fresh to the MCU, with its dream like ode to the history of American sitcoms, but as the show goes on it starts to pull its punches and starts to feel more and more like a traditional MCU project. And one of the ways this is felt most strongly is through the shows treatment of its villains. Or better put, why does WandaVision even have villains?
The MCU has long faced criticism for its villains. From their lack of complexity to their brief of use, or weak motivation. Many of the films had at least two villains, one of which often acted as a mirror to the main hero. If there was a secondary villain, a lot of the time they ended up being some kind of corrupted bureaucrat or politician. This sort of set-up has generally been a hallmark of the MCU formula. And it’s a reliable storytelling method, which is probably why it is a part the formula. It provides a consistent experience that is easily enjoyed by audiences. But if there is one project that didn’t need a villain it was WandaVision, and the fact that Hayward and Agatha were shuffled into these boxes in order to line up with that familiar MCU feeling creates a weaker narrative experience than if Marvel Studios had truly taken a chance and broken free of their formula.
Hayward starts the show in a reasonable position. He comes off as a little gun-ho but seems to have a sincere concern regarding Wanda, who intentionally or unintentionally can cause a lot of harm. But over time his transformation into full out villain becomes comical.
By the end of the show Hayward’s goal seems to be to resurrect Vision without the Mind stone. His exact motives for this seem kind of muddled. The show implies he might be doing it because he wants to have a weapon against alien threats but it’s also implied he’s looking for some kind of recognition, so his actions could also be read as a career stepping stone. Either way it’s noted his actions are against the Sokovia Accords, therefore illegal. The show never spends much time examining why he seems to be going to such great lengths, and ends up in mustache twirling moment where Hayward just straight up tries shooting some children. Afterwards he’s quickly swept under the narrative rug.
The thing is Hayward didn’t need to be a villain, this story did not require him to be a bad guy. And the show pushing him into that box felt forced and felt like that creative decision was made because the MCU formula demanded it.
Agatha feels even more shoe horned into the villain box than Hayward. The show slowly reveals her role in the events taking place. Where it’s finally revealed she simply felt Wanda’s power in creating the hex and came to see what was happening. The worst she can be accused of is not helping those in need but the show tries to frame her as a greater villain than she actually is.
Once her identity is revealed, Agatha walks this line between belligerent therapist, who seems sincerely interested in helping Wanda work through her trauma, and an amoral power hungry villain. But even the framing of Agatha as just a power hungry villain is undercut by hints that’s she’s concerned about Wanda’s role in a doom and gloom prophecy. In the end Agatha suffers a fate worse than Hayward’s, having her personality suppressed and freewill stripped away.
The show could have maintained the character drama without framing either character as a villain. They could have maintained the friction between Hayward’s methods and Monica’s, without him descending into outright villainy. Why does he keep Monica, Darcy, and Jimmy around? Why does everyone else at S.W.O.R.D. seem totally okay with his series of illegal activities? The formula needed him to be a villain so he was one, even if his actions and motives never made much sense.
And there is no reason why Agatha needed to be anything more than abrasive anti-hero mentor to Wanda. It even feels like this is what the show wanted to do but kept having to pull her back into villain territory. The MCU formula usually has the first major outing of its heroes face off against a mirror of themselves and here, even though it should have been, was no exception. So instead of just focusing on helping Wanda through her trauma and getting a handle on her powers, coming to terms with the harm she’s caused Westview, we end up with a witch fight in the sky. Similar to fights we’ve seen over and over again in the MCU.
Why does this matter? Why does it matter if the MCU decides to cling to its formula that demands villains be in something where none are needed? It’s that homogeneity I mentioned earlier. Before, Marvel Studios took care of the movies and Marvel Television handled the shows that were meant to be a part of the MCU (except for the X-Men related shows, which stayed their own thing). Under Marvel Television, these shows had a lot more creative freedom and weren’t forced to conform themselves to the MCU formula of the movies. This allowed them to do things better than the movies (villains, embracing the awesomely absurd, exploring more complex themes in nuanced ways, etc.). But then Marvel Television folded into Marvel Studios, not only leaving the previous TV productions in canon limbo, but also seems to mean the MCU formula of the movies is being applied across the board to future TV productions.
And the MCU formula is enticing, I get it. It’s a way to provide a relatively consistent quality experience. When you walk into a MCU production you know you are walking into something good, and depending on your tastes maybe something awesome. But I don’t know if I would describe any MCU production following the formula gloriously mind-blowing.
The formula isn’t set in stone and Marvel Studios seems to be allowing some creative freedom within its formula’s boundaries but not too much it seems. WandaVision started out feeling like it was truly doing its own thing creatively but then it got pulled right back down into that old familiar MCU territory. And if the formula is going to be applied to all of the shows going forward that’s kind of disappointing.
I enjoy the MCU productions but I also love it when shows are allowed to go creatively bonkers. And TV shows are the perfect place for that. Shows are already a little more niche than the movies and they should be allowed to be more creatively niche too. But with that homogeneity it looks like we won’t be getting anything that truly breaks free of the formula. I’m not asking for all the shows to be done by David Lynch, but one or two wouldn’t be so bad.
I started this year really excited for the MCU projects because I saw a few things where I thought to myself this is going to be fun and different. But I’ve adjusted my expectations a little bit after seeing how much they seem to be sticking to the formula. Say what you will about DC’s habit of throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks but seeing The Suicide Squad trailer embracing the absurdity of a giant alien starfish got me grinning ear to ear more than anything else. When shows are allowed to go creatively bonkers we get things like the music battles from Legion or Danny the Street from Doom Patrol (which gender/sexuality wise has felt more celebratory inclusive than anything from the MCU formula).WandaVision didn’t need any villains but it’s adherence to the MCU formula demanded it. And for that I think it was held back. Others have also pointed out other ways in which the formula held the show back from its creative potential. WandaVision isn’t a bad show, it’s a very good show but one I would have trouble moving into great territory. For a show where its greatest potential was away from the formula, to be pulled down by it, indicates an unwillingness to break away from it for any project. And now that everything is under one roof I’m disappointed that it seems all of the live action projects will be this way. No crazy out there creative endeavors. Who knows maybe I’ll be eating my own words in a few months. Maybe Loki, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, or Eternals will show that Marvel Studios is willing to truly break free from their MCU formula. But until then I’ll be waiting to party hard with the giant alien starfish.