Tuesday, March 9, 2021

WandaVision could have been the greatest thing to ever happen to TV

Just like its titular protagonist, WandaVision had incalculable creative potential it didn't know what to do with

What did we just see?

What strange creation burst onto our screens?

It was an erudite metafictional work that played with the rules of television language and blended its formal limitations into meaningful parts of its content in ways that would have delighted Marshall McLuhan.

It was a deconstruction of television's role as the most effective vehicle by which Western culture codifies and reproduces its normative expectations of the bourgeois family.

It was a celebration of the ritual of sitting in front of television as a family-building experience.

It was the finally legally viable, much-theorized, long-awaited, first official link between the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the X-Men.

It was an allegory of Gnostic mysticism.

It was a deep exploration of the psychology of trauma, crafted by taking abstract notions of bereavement, idealization, nostalgia, fantasizing, denial and derealization, and making them tangible elements that could be legibly used as pieces of emotional narration.

It was a captivating display of Elizabeth Olsen's full acting range.

It was all geekdom could talk about for two months.

It was but an intermediate chapter in a larger, unending franchise it was designed to segue into.

It was a missed opportunity.

But what is the MCU, if not missed opportunities persevering?

Part 1

Which witch watchers are real witch watchers?

Since the release of WandaVision's first episode, its viewers aligned into two factions: one, composed of dedicated fans, deeply versed in comics lore, experienced in hunting Easter eggs, avid for all-explaining theories, and enthusiastically supportive of the Marvel narrative formula; and another, taken from the wider general population, less equipped to catch the references (and less inclined to look for them), not so invested in controversies over canon, and attracted to the show mostly by the curiosity that any experimental piece of storytelling was bound to generate. Both groups had their own reasons to love WandaVision, as well as their own reasons to become disillusioned with it.

The first group could barely contain their excitement. Were we going to see Mephisto on screen? Or maybe Chthon? Or Immortus? How about Wonder Man? Is this Nightmare's doing? Or the High Evolutionary's? Is the rabbit Nicholas Scratch? Will Monica Rambeau's engineer friend turn out to be Reed Richards? Could Dottie secretly be Moonglow? Or is she Morgan le Fay? Will Ultron make a comeback? Are we finally getting mutants? Who is the secret cameo? TELL ME!!!!!!!!!!

(My favorite theory was that intergalactic TV producer Mojo was the big villain. Oh, well.)

This group had no patience for the playful sitcom setting of the show's first episodes: they demanded answers. Some of them earned their moment of internet fame for complaining that they couldn't watch all nine episodes in one sitting, which sparked plenty of discussion on how Netflix has spoiled us and how Disney knows exactly how to manage hype for maximum effect (see: the weekly release schedule of The Mandalorian, which fans were OK with). Members of this group didn't come to WandaVision for the small personal moments, or the symbolism, or the homage to television history, or the visual artistry. The experience they were hungry for was the completion of a jigsaw puzzle: where WandaVision fit in the bigger narrative of the MCU, which other productions it was paving the way for, which storylines from the comics were going to be adapted, which favorite villains were due for an appearance.

These viewers got very upset with WandaVision's style.

The second faction may have included many Marvel fans as well, but these were more varied. Older viewers with a fondness for classic sitcoms, Disney+ subscribers raised on princess tales, Marvel newcomers who never had money for comic books, film buffs fascinated by non-conventional formats, students of communication science, grief counselors, anyone, really. This group didn't much care for the hidden MCU references; they watched WandaVision for the ways in which it rewrote the rulebook of audiovisual storytelling.

This second group didn't mind the sitcom scenes. That was the part they liked best.

The curious effect of this divide is that each faction enjoyed WandaVision for exactly the same elements that irritated the other faction. To hear their criticism, the show had both too much family drama and too little, too much flashy superheroing and too little.

Sometimes, that kind of disagreement can degenerate into an argument on who is qualified to comment. No one is immune to this kind of narcissism; I must confess a little piece of me dies every time someone talks of Mission: Impossible as if it had been invented by Tom Cruise. To me, that's not Mission: Impossible. To me, it's Jim Phelps and the self-destructing laser discs. But I also know there are fans for whom it's Dan Briggs and the self-destructing tapes. So I have to recognize I don't own the stories I love, and if Mission: Impossible means Tom Cruise and life-threatening stunts to you, have fun.

Comic book fans need to remember this. The process of adaptation implies bringing a story before a different type of audience, and no one has the right to ask to vet your credentials before you can give an opinion on a piece of art that you have experienced. Some comic collectors aren't particularly into cinema, and some moviegoers don't frequent comic bookstores; that's fine. But Marvel Studios has tried too hard to appeal to both extremes of a divide that need not exist. You shouldn't have to have read any Marvel comics before discussing a Marvel movie, but if you have, that only gives you some context, not any higher expert status. If you're a media studies professor, that gives you sharper analytic tools, but not exclusive authority.

As for me, I'm a television addict. WandaVision gave me and my tribe exactly what we wanted.

Part 2

American dream

The United States can be infuriatingly self-centered. It tends to take for granted that its culture is the sum of human culture, that its worries are the sum of human worries, that its fate is the sum of human fate. Such unquestioned assumptions can have a corrosive effect if you're growing up in the Third World and getting your ideas about life from a nonstop diet of American media.

Those of us born and raised outside the US know far more about it than the US cares to know about us. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a dearly beloved classic that insults India in appalling ways you don't get until you listen to actual Indians. Romancing the Stone has been praised as an exemplary case of scriptwriting, but its botched representation of Colombia should consign it to the trash bin.

And still, we on the outside can tell exactly which parts of The West Wing are realistic and which are impossible wish fulfillment. But that takes years of consuming and processing lots of other shows and movies and news pieces and novels. You don't get a full sense of Japanese society from watching only high school anime. And you don't get the US if all you've seen of it is the sanitized wholesomeness of sitcoms.

That's the stunted stage where Wanda Maximoff remains stuck. In her case, the laborious process by which every child develops their cultural competence was interrupted by violence. She had her brother's company as a valuable anchor, but her understanding of friendship and loyalty was warped by Hydra's indoctrination, and her understanding of romance was forged by I Dream of Jeannie. Of course, millions of Americans grew up with I Dream of Jeannie and didn't model their own lives after a suburban fantasy, but young Wanda had no other referents to learn from. Her country was at war. There was not a normal society to welcome her after the loss of her parents. All she could use to build her personality on was fiction—a heavily distorted form of it. It's unlikely that she ever watched The Americans, but when she tried to have a normal married life in the suburbs, she was putting on an act.

I can empathize with her situation. I wasn't born in Sokovia, but I was born in Colombia; I know a thing or two about growing up in a society where nothing works and the few times you see people treat each other with kindness occur between laugh tracks. To the average American, the sitcom says, Look at these clueless fools bumbling their way through life; aren't they hilarious? To the exhausted inhabitant of a poor country that is falling apart, it says, Look at these happy faces in their enormous houses; don't you wish that were you?

In comic books, ersatz versions of Eastern Europe (Sokovia, Latveria, along with Kasnia on the opposite aisle of the bookstore) have served as convenient settings to depict the unwashed Other in contrast to the Free World without getting in too much trouble with actual history. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the likes of Sokovia acquired a new usefulness as unstable hellholes where you could write war plot after war plot with no end in sight. It would be worthwhile to study what the generations raised on these hypermilitaristic stories think of daily life in Third World countries.

(I'm sure the results would be illuminating. I know what you think of Colombia.)

So we have here a double-edged distortion, a see-through funhouse mirror: what American cultural productions tell the rest of the world about the US, and what the US tells itself about the rest of the world.

WandaVision explores the character of Wanda as a war survivor, as a war criminal, as a bride, as a widow, as a daughter, as a mother, as a superheroine, as a supervillain, as a cosmic force and as an abuser, but before doing all that, it has to explore Wanda as a fan, as a consumer of pop culture. Do Sokovians produce their own movies? We'll never know. Wanda sure didn't watch any. Whatever lessons she absorbed about her potential in adult life came from a culture that had no interest in her.

Part 3

Riot girl

It's possible that movie studios never find the right way to tell the Dark Phoenix Saga. It's a peculiar kind of storyline that doesn't fit well with the core message of the X-Men, which is that people should only be feared for what they do, not what they are. The case of Jean Grey illustrates that it's dicey to label someone as a world-ending threat; once you cross that line, as the comic writers did when they chose to make her literally blow up a planet, it's pointless to apply empathy. You're either a character or a monster. If you can't be reasoned with, you have to be eliminated. This is the poisonous line of thinking that conspiracy theories love to feed on.

It's too easy to dehumanize the superhuman and derail the entire message of a story. The archetype-defining tale of female power that is Sailor Moon treated the world-ending warrior that is Sailor Saturn with more humanity than any Marvel production has treated the Phoenix-possessed Jean Grey. The key difference is the authorial choice to have the powerful woman not be in full control of herself. This approach resonates with the sexist history of psychiatry, which used to attribute every problem in a woman's life to a misplaced uterus. If she can't govern herself, the reasoning goes, it's someone's job to step in and do it for her.

This failure mode for social relations is the main conflict of Captain Marvel. That was a peculiar sort of hero's journey, mainly because it didn't follow the standard form of the hero's journey. It focused on the ways powerful women are feared and therefore manipulated to act against their own interests. In this modified heroine's journey, the victory condition is not to strive to acquire new power, but to know yourself and realize the power your already have.

As the ancient Gnostics would put it, salvation comes by knowledge.

Or as the Mahayana school of Buddhism put it, enlightenment comes by realizing that you are already enlightened.

(More on this below.)

WandaVision adds a twist to this story format (one that we also saw in Dark Phoenix): the manipulation of a powerful woman by another powerful woman. Toward the end of the series, the more experienced witch Agatha Harkness expresses her astonishment at Wanda's natural talent. Creating the fantasy world of Westview should be beyond the abilities of someone who hasn't heard the basics of magic theory. After some more probing, Agatha concludes that Wanda fits the profile of a foretold destroyer: the Scarlet Witch, who according to legend is invested with the chaotic power of raw creation. Now, creation in itself doesn't sound like a bad thing. Two-thirds of the world worship a creator, and some of the more traditional (and overused) portrayals of womanhood celebrate the symbolic attributes of fertility in its potential for creation and renewal. But Agatha is alluding to something more fundamental: the primordial horror of rewriting reality. Much like the Phoenix, the Scarlet Witch is a force of the universe.

We're familiar with that notion. In the real world, many ancient myths mention a protean being of eternal chaos that had to be defeated before an orderly world could be made. Crucially, this monster was often female. To those of us committed to full equality of rights, it feels strange to think that there's anything scary about female power. But it's not hard to explain how so many civilizations could have gotten that idea. Do you remember what I said above about Americans thinking that they set the standard for culture? Other forms of privilege work the same way. In this case, it's men thinking that we set the standard for authority.

Superhero stories have been helping, very gradually, to normalize the portrayal of powerful women as role models instead of as ticking bombs. The problem for the MCU is that rewriting reality is kind of a done thing, now that Thanos has come and gone. The character of Wanda risks entering the Dragon Ball spiral of escalating power levels until there's nothing left to throw at our heroes that can seriously challenge them and still make for a compelling story. The Dark Phoenix Saga was reportedly conceived to prevent Jean Grey from slipping into that dead end. However, it's a plot that has been told in so many cartoons and movies that Jean Grey has become a tragic figure, doomed to become the Phoenix in every adaptation where she appears.

Not because of ancient prophecy, but because of established Marvel lore (and corporate acquisition, and popular demand), Wanda was always doomed to become the Scarlet Witch.

In the comics, the Scarlet Witch is called a Nexus being, a fulcrum point where all universes converge. Since we already know Wanda's next adventure in the movies will be a thing called the Multiverse of Madness, we can assume her Nexus status will come into play. But if the writers are not careful with how they handle ever rising threats, this superpowered character could turn into something that's even more dangerous to a fictional setting: a boring one.

Part 4

A syncretic creation myth

In the short story The Library of Babel by Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges, the universe is described as a hivelike lattice that stores printed volumes with all possible combinations of the alphabet, which necessarily means it contains all stories (including a copy of The Library of Babel). It also has all versions with typos and all forms of meaningless gibberish, with no combination less valid than another, because it’s always possible that “dhcmrlchtdj” happens to mean something in an undiscovered language.

So, the universe is a beehive. And its cells have every variation on every possible story, such that even nonsense has a meaning that doesn’t depend on your understanding.

Now you can see why I was pumped up by the reveal that Wanda's world, built from stories, had a hexagonal shape. Add a mysterious beekeeper to the show, and I'm sold.

The idea that we live in a world of fiction has been explored far more extensively in Asian media than over here. We are heirs of Aristotle, who taught that things are what they are. But in cultures influenced by Vedic literature, the doctrine called Maya holds that we live under a perceptual illusion, and the true nature of reality is kept hidden from us. In the West, Gnosticism preached something along those lines, but after it was defeated by Christianity, writers basically forgot that Plato had ever mentioned a cave. There's the occasional oddity, such as Pedro Calderón de la Barca's stage play Life Is a Dream, but for the most part, no one took Descartes' deceiving demon seriously and Western narratives very rarely explored this idea until The Matrix catapulted it into mass popularity. The Jumanji franchise has recently stepped into the conversation about characters from the real world thrown into a hellscape of pixels, but in Japan, isekai is a well-established genre with a vast tradition.

The Gnostic version of Jumanji (now there's a sentence you didn't expect to meet in your life) goes like this: human beings suffer because this world is broken. It's the defective work of the Demiurge, an imperfect being who, while overcome by passions, unwittingly made a world of falsehood in a clumsy attempt to imitate the ideal world. What we perceive as solid matter is an evil substance, at war with the pure realm of thought. In the Cerinthian tradition, the Demiurge itself is not evil; it doesn't even understand its own nature or power. Where all Gnostics agree is that this state of affairs cannot be fixed. The only solution to our suffering is to be released from the prison of falsehood so we can return to where we came from.

In WandaVision, the enmity between matter and thought is made literal in the dual character of Vision. Both versions of him proceed from the Mind Stone, but now they are split and opposed. As a final showdown in a superhero blockbuster, we certainly didn't expect a disembodied mind and a mindless body to debug the wording of a programming instruction via thought experiment from Ancient Greece, but that choice of tactic is such a Vision thing to do that we'd do well to pause and consider the ideas presented in the discussion.

Against the physical form of Vision stands the idea of Vision. But it's not a pure Platonic idea: it's one mediated by Wanda's psychic state. The idea of Vision can only exist through Wanda's thoughts, and he vanishes if he steps outside of her constructed mindscape. In a beautiful touch from the writers, this character is a literal embodiment of the common metaphor of responding to the death of a loved one by keeping their memory alive.

On the other hand, we have Vision's original material body, rearranged into something other than its prior self. This occurs, in fact, to any matter that enters Westview: it is altered in its external attributes, but not in its essential nature.

Matter and thought, both being the same thing. A zombie and a ghost, both being the same person. The command to destroy Vision is an urge toward self-annihilation; but the Vision has already been destroyed. What exists now is and is not Vision.

We need a way out of the trap of duality.

In the Indian philosophical system of Advaita Vedanta, the opposition between essential thought and essential matter is rejected as illusory, and the way to dissolve this error and realize the interconnectedness of reality is by reasoned introspection. That which is empirically real and that which is conceived as real are replaced by that which is real in an absolute sense. There never was an opposition.

So Vision reasons with himself, and that brings his liberation.

Part 5

Do your homework

Everyone who loves television (or narrative theory in general), even if they're not Marvel fans, should watch WandaVision. They should. Period. And it’s an enormous pity that such a fantastic production is all but inapproachable for those who haven’t watched a couple dozen movies beforehand. WandaVision can be immensely rewarding at times, but it depends on a lot of assumed knowledge. You need to have seen Age of Ultron to even know who the protagonist is, but she doesn’t get a proper dramatic arc until Civil War, whose plot you won’t follow if you haven’t seen Winter Soldier, which requires knowledge of The First Avenger. And still that won’t suffice. Her romance with Vision doesn’t emerge until Infinity War, which you won’t understand without first going through the whole lot of Homecoming, Ragnarok, Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther and Doctor Strange. Finally, Wanda’s story of traumatic loss is not complete without Endgame, but this one revisits scenes from The Avengers and The Dark World, so you also need to check those; and even then, Endgame makes no sense without Captain Marvel and Ant-Man and the Wasp.

*takes deep breath*

And I still haven’t gotten to the huge deal that is the casting of Evan Peters as Wanda’s pretend brother, which will mean nothing to you unless you’ve seen Days of Future Past (plus a short conversation in Apocalypse), but to understand Days of Future Past, you need to have seen First Class and The Last Stand (plus the post-credits scene of The Wolverine), but the plot of The Last Stand is a direct continuation of the first two X-Men films; and to even begin to make sense of why I’m bringing up a completely separate franchise into the conversation, you need to be acquainted with the legal entanglements that spread Marvel characters across different film studios, as well as with Disney’s shopping spree of intellectual properties.

(I probably wouldn't even have been interested in the X-Men movies if the national broadcasting networks of my country hadn't decided to buy the 90s animated show.)

I thank all the gods that these movies don’t also expect me to cross-check the piles of books where these characters first appeared. I'm told I'm better off this way, because Wanda's timeline in the comics is a hopeless mess of retcons, but my point remains: WandaVision is definitely not for the casual viewer. I'm sure there are hundreds of little jokes I missed because I never watched the old sitcoms that inspired its first episodes. I enjoyed the show all the same, but I have to admit how many years of movie plot it relies on. The mass of previous knowledge that Marvel productions are starting to demand of the audience is reaching concerning proportions. Those most devoted among the fans will be happy to complete all the required reading in preparation for each new film, but something worth analyzing is happening to pop culture.

In centuries past, it used to be the case that you couldn't hope to be thought of as a cultured person unless you knew your Homer and your Herodotus and your Cicero and your Seneca and whichever other authors became influential enough to make it into the canon. It was even possible to read everything worth reading in one lifetime. But of course, human beings kept writing, and creating new classics, and revising the canon, and making the task of getting your artistic education more and more complicated. You can't fully enjoy the Divine Comedy if you don't know who Virgil was. Don Quixote is best appreciated in comparison to the medieval tales it parodies. The typical inhabitant of the West knows that the Bible has influenced literature, but most people not raised in English have no idea of the gigantic legacy of the King James Version.

With the passage of time, the amount of media consumption that you need to have accumulated in order to be capable of more media consumption threatens to, well, consume all the time you have available. It's not just that the box office is saturated with sequels and remakes; it's that our current culture is a self-sustaining web of references and responses and winks to the audience and knowing allusions that creates an entry barrier for the uninitiated. Even the most original of 2020's big productions, Tenet, is emotionally unreadable without some familiarity with the established conventions of the spy thriller genre and the variations on the femme fatale trope that have been developed and reworked over decades of cinema (and to follow the worldbuilding, you must have the laws of thermodynamics fresh in your head).

Since Marvel Studios has sucked all the oxygen from pop culture to the point that it has basically become the pop culture, it can afford to not care that it's creating a hyper-niche of insider knowledge. For many fans, this will be a point of pride. But WandaVision doesn't behave as a piece of cheap entertainment for the masses. Its production draws from a staggering level of expertise and demands a comparable wealth of media literacy that alienated its own followers.

No one's asking Marvel to make art film. No one seriously thinks Marvel plans, or aspires, or needs to make art film. Scorsese has a solid point in that regard. But this time they made the tiniest motion in that direction, and it immediately enraged the binge watchers and the plot decoders. WandaVision proved that Marvel is capable of a more ambitious, more thoughtful type of story. But the studio has to have realized that it can't commit all the way it if wants to keep punching bad guys in spandex.

So, something like WandaVision will probably not be attempted again. Marvel knows what the fans want, and that is its curse.

Part 6

In Sokovia, television watches you

One-and-a-half decades of ridiculous revenue have given Marvel Studios an acute sense of what we expect and what we are likely to find enjoyable. At every step, WandaVision holds the reins of the relationship with its viewers. It knows it can get away with a moderately risky bet on metatextual allusions with vintage aesthetics and laugh tracks, because most of us will eat it up gladly. With an (almost) inconditionally loyal fanbase, why not try the hardest sell of all: a story about stories?

It is, of course, not a new concept. The trend toward obsessive self-referencing has been snowballing for a while now. The film version of Bewitched is a magic comedy about the production of magic comedies. Inception is a heist thriller about the production of heist thrillers. The Cabin in the Woods is a voyeuristic gorefest about the production of voyeuristic gorefests. The Last Jedi is an epic myth about the production of epic myths. And so on.

WandaVision is their proud descendant, but it’s more. It aspires to a greater sophistication, to not only revisit and dissect the clichés of television shows, but to reflect on the medium as a whole. By this point, the producers know how we overanalyze and dissect and theorize and obsess over every frame of every episode, and they have learned to anticipate our reactions, to account for our jumping to conclusions, to participate in the game with us. WandaVision is fully aware of the manner in which it is watched, and turns that relationship into part of its own narration.

Producers and viewers have grown too smart for each other. We know their tricks, and they know we know them, and we know they know us, and with each iteration it gets harder and harder to make something surprising, or just interesting for that matter, under such unrelenting scrutiny.

This web of mutual expectations resulted in WandaVision including a ton of red herrings that weren't related to any part of the plot; their function was to tantalize the portion of the viewers who were more familiar with the comic books. Speculation mushroomed across the internet with wild theories that proved to be all wrong. That they were wrong was not the point. That Marvel got you to spread the word was the point. Your obsession keeps the machine running.

There is now a generation that has grown up watching the MCU the way Wanda grew up watching sitcoms. Is WandaVision a warning? Is Marvel telling viewers to avoid going the way of Don Quixote and trying to live their lives as superpowered defenders of the universe clad in plot armor? There's no way Marvel produced an extended meditation on the psychological effect of pop culture without at some point reflecting on the psychological effect of their own creations as part of the pop culture. Decades from now, someone is going to write a metafictional analysis of what it did to us to live through the age when superheroes were everywhere. Maybe Marvel is anticipating that response and using WandaVision to tell us how they prefer to be remembered. It's not like Marvel hasn't already had issues with comic book readers mistaking their stories for guidelines and hurting people's lives in the process (*cough* Punisher *cough*).

By all means, watch superhero movies. They are part of the noble tradition of science fiction, which has earned its full memberhip in the ancient art of storytelling.

And watch WandaVision. Let it blow your mind. But don't lose your head.

Part 7

Avengers: Metagame

WandaVision may be about a mutant witch and a dead robot who somehow have children, but it's also a defiant answer to those who complain that Marvel is feeding us empty calories. For many fans, WandaVision may be their first exposure to metafictional techniques that have been known and studied for decades but now linger as rarely remembered curiosities and deserve to be brought back into the mainstream consciousness.

After Daffy Duck had a fight with his animator in the short Duck Amuck, I don't remember seeing a more powerful metafictional moment on screen than Vision shouting in frustration through the end credits of the sitcom he's trapped in. This acknowledgment of extradiegetic elements to drag them inside the story was a common trick in classic cartoons, such as an opera singer pulling a hair that was supposedly stuck on the projector in Magical Maestro or a fugitive running past the edge of the film in Dumb-Hounded.

(Animation director Tex Avery was the absolute master of demolishing the fourth wall, and his oeuvre will sate the hunger of WandaVision fans who've been left eager for more. Content warning for racial stereotypes.)

The Road Runner show took this blurring of the medium in an inward direction, with its repeated gag of Wile E. Coyote painting an extension of the road onto a wall and the Road Runner seamlessly stepping into that painted road because he, too, is a painted creation.

We may sing the praises of WandaVision for employing these techniques, but it obviously didn't invent them. What does make WandaVision unique is the incredibly complex way the metafiction relates to its theme relates to its format relates to its main cast relates to its worldbuilding relates to our cultural moment. We won't be able to watch sitcoms the same way again.

Worse, we won't be able to watch Duck Amuck the same way again. From any fictional character's standpoint, the tiniest rewrites have to look like moments of cosmic horror, glimpses of a force beyond all comprehension, the cruel whims of a sadistic torturer. We all remember that time Cow and Chicken discovered that the reason why they could only see their parents' legs was because that was all that existed of them. Now imagine Samantha in Bewitched having to accept a different man in her house who claims to be the husband she remembers. Imagine Lisa Simpson recalling her meeting with Bill Clinton more years ago than she's old. Imagine Malcolm's family struggling to not notice the troubled son who speaks manic monologues into the air. Imagine Daffy Duck watching sunflower petals sprout from his face.

People who live inside the TV lead oppressively absurd lives, and it's all your fault.

Just like cyberpunk should have ended with The Matrix, it's hard to say anything new in horror after The Cabin in the Woods. At long last, the monster is you. Yes, you. Ask your SimCity avatars if you don't believe me.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch went for this angle, but its attempt to cast the viewer as the creative monster was limited by the choices put on the screen menus by the actual author of the episode. WandaVision uses the same terrified gaze and turns it toward itself: the editable world is controlled from within, with Wanda as executive producer, set designer, head writer, casting director, continuity supervisor and star of the show. No self-insert fanfic, no performative Instagram feed, no postmodern autofiction novel will ever top Wanda's total reinvention of her life.

(Yes, I know WandaVision is made by Marvel Studios. I'm talking about the WandaVision show that exists inside the WandaVision show, and it's wonderful, albeit slightly unnerving, that I have to add this disclaimer.)

Part 8

Lucid dreaming as therapy

The logic of sitcoms is that time never advances, which is why Lisa Simpson has sat in second grade for 32 years. There’s an appeal to this. Wanda has been losing loved ones and fighting world-ending threats her whole life; anyone in her position would jump at the chance to escape into make-believe. A perpetual present where time is no longer a concern seems the perfect subconscious release for a traumatized woman who lost the war to save the universe because her enemy had control over time. Wanda's foray as auteur of her own show is a convenient excuse to not have to move beyond the denial stage of grief.

Let's forget for a moment the capturing of a whole town. There's a version of this where Wanda's magical outburst could have extended only up to the walls of her house, letting her retreat into her fantasy without affecting anyone else. Would you have blamed her? Who among us didn't, as a child, wish to live inside the TV? I, for one, always knew I wanted to be friends with Captain Planet. Wanda's idea of protagonism is just somewhat more elaborate: a self-imposed Truman Show set in the fake Good Place by way of holodeck malfunction.

However, life does not work like a story. It does not have a showrunner with an arc in mind for you. Intriguing factoids are not clues leading to upcoming revelations; interpersonal conflict is not exciting; pivotal events do not carry inherent symbolism; accidents are not poetic justice. You can't rewind and edit the parts that disagree with you, and we're all grateful that you can't write off annoying characters if they lack charismatic appeal. Stories do need to resemble life to some degree to be understandable, but they have their own rules that have nothing to do with life. I'm not a fan of horror by any means, but I know that people who enjoy horror enjoy it precisely because they know it's not the way life works, so it lets them experience intense mental states without getting into actual danger. This ability to separate fact from fiction is crucial to humans. Much of the real world plainly makes no sense, and part of functioning capably as a mature person involves learning to allow life to make no sense. If there are protagonists at all, they only have power to push events for a few years and then retire to the history books. You're statistically unlikely to be one.

The refusal to come to terms with our insignificance is so incompatible with daily life in society that it's been recognized as clinically anomalous since the time Don Quixote was published. These days, we have a more specialized vocabulary to identify a range of psychological delusions. In Truman syndrome, for example, the patient is convinced that they're being filmed 24/7, that they're expected to perform an interesting life for countless unseen viewers, and that some hired producer is guiding the plot. In histrionic personality disorder, social behavior is exaggerated to appear more intense, more memorable, more picture-perfect. Derealization-depersonalization disorder makes the patient experience their own actions as if they were happening to somebody else and they were watching themselves from a third-person omniscient point of view. If you believe you're in a story, you need help. In Westview, everyone is screaming for help inside their hearts.

As serious as these conditions are, the perception of the world as artificial has seeped into common parlance. All through 2020, the Year of Suck, the world's favorite coping mechanism was to blame the "writers" of our show for the unbelievability of the increasingly horrific events we read in the news. What this joke shares with delusion disorders is the need to make sense of randomness. This frustration must be even heavier if you have reason to believe you can control the randomness. The constant thread through Wanda's life has been the chasm between her superhuman power and her inability to control the bad events that keep happening around her. When you have witnessed the violent deaths of your parents and your brother and your boyfriend (twice!), you may reach a very fragile mental state. You may develop a strong need to hold on to the belief that behind the absurdity of the world there must exist some ultimate meaning.

In the psychological conditions I described, that meaning is imagined to exist behind a fourth wall. Who is more delusional: Malcolm, who speaks to an audience no one else can see, or Dora the Explorer, who sincerely thinks she can hear you reply?

Unfortunately, WandaVision didn't handle well the resolution of Wanda's fantasy. She refused at first the unmistakable evidence that her neighbors were in pain, and by the time she let her worldbuilding spell expire, there are no signs that she grew as a person or learned to cope with her losses or felt any responsibility toward the town she took over.

There must be a T-shirt somewhere that says "I survived the Westview anomaly and all I got were these cool new superpowers."

Part 9

What did we learn today?

WandaVision's moral argument drops the ball badly. Perhaps in an overcorrection away from the "fear the powerful woman" trope, it makes every implausible effort to save Wanda from her deserved status as the villain of the show. The script wants to frame her relinquishing of control as a concession she makes to the town instead of her obvious obligation to innocents she enslaved. Monica even says the nonsensical line, "They’ll never know what you sacrificed for them," and I want the neighbors to yell back, "Thanks for nothing!" All of Wanda's losses happened before Westview, and she can recreate her memory of Vision at any time. She didn't make a sacrifice for her neighbors; she was forced to admit that they were victims. In the Unintended but Still Questionable Acts of Mind Control for Purposes of Boyfriend Resurrection department, WandaVision fares worse than Wonder Woman 1984.

To make Wanda look less bad, the show makes strange comparisons that require the rest of the villains to make choices that are just silly. S.W.O.R.D. director Tyler Hayward stops behaving like a competent adult after the Hex grows in size, and Agatha is reduced to explaining the plot to the audience and presenting a rather vague threat to our protagonist.

Indeed, what makes Agatha bad? Next to Wanda, she comes off as pretty tame. Let's see: she killed a puppy, and... captured fake Pietro, who might already have been one of Wanda's victims anyway, and... read the wrong books? Her magic absorbs attacks and drains her enemies, but that appears to be an intrinsic property, not a choice, so we should only judge her for what she plans to do with the skill, not for having it.

What she plans to do is take Wanda's powers. OK, that sounds kind of bad. But if the chaos magic of the Scarlet Witch is inherently dangerous, does it matter who has it? The script flatly avoids the question of whether anyone should have such immense power (and you know you're in trouble when Batman v. Superman handles a theme more honestly than your story), opting for the regressive stance that power should be kept in the hands of the one who was born with it (and it explicitly goes out of its way to point out that Wanda was born with it). Agatha may call Wanda "undeserving" to flatter herself, but the truth is that no one is worthy of having world-ending magic. The show doesn't present a strong case for why Wanda should get to keep that power other than the need to treat her as the heroine.

However, I must be fair here and judge Wanda by the same standard I just applied to Agatha. As overpowered as Wanda is, she doesn't plan to end the world. (And to be extra fair, we don't know for a fact that Agatha plans to end the world.) The conflict would have been more interesting if Agatha's concern for the world had been sincere instead of a fig leaf for her envy. After all, the obvious solution to "Wanda has a magical nuke she doesn't know how to control" is "Well, teach her, duh." But, unlike in the comics, this version of Agatha is not here to teach Wanda. She's here to kill puppies and cackle menacingly, and she's out of puppies to kill. If WandaVision wanted to use a villain who was truly worried about people having too much magic, it shouldn't have used Agatha; it should have used Mordo.

So let me talk about Sailor Moon for a minute.

In the live-action show Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon, the plot of the original manga is followed more or less faithfully, with enough variations to make it worth checking out. To be sure, it's cornier than the state of Iowa, but the beautiful thing about Sailor Moon productions is that they're made without one drop of cynicism. The live-action version adds plenty of original twists, the best of which is Usagi's reaction to the death of her boyfriend and reincarnated consort Endymion. Whenever she gets too upset, the spirit of her previous life takes over and she becomes an uncaring force of destruction. At the end of the series, fully possessed by grief, she transforms Earth into a lifeless wasteland because, as she explains, she doesn't need a world that doesn't have Endymion.

(Don't you worry. As always happens in Sailor Moon, everything is fixed as soon as Usagi remembers she has an everything-fixing gemstone.)

I bring this up because this unstoppable apocalypse of sorrow is the picture Agatha wants to paint of Wanda, but the plot doesn't support that interpretation. When Wanda learns of the pain that the Hex is causing, she agrees that her neighbors must be freed. Wanda is not a dangerous person. She has dangerous tools, which is entirely another ethical question, and WandaVision is not consistently aware of the difference. All the harm she caused was involuntary. From a consequentialist perspective, that doesn't matter; she still owes each inhabitant of Westview an apology (and a check to pay for therapy). But if we add considerations of moral agency, she's not a standard villain, but an antivillain, a character whose good intentions lead to the wrong choice.

Science fiction writer Ben Bova defends the use of antivillains with the argument that no one actually wants to be bad, so the classical villain who not only does evil but essentially is evil is not an accurate representation of how human beings work.

Socrates would have agreed.

In the dialogues Protagoras and Euthydemus, Socrates introduced the position that today's philosophers call moral intellectualism, which holds that all we need in order to make the right choice is to learn which choice is right. This is so because everyone naturally wants to be good (take that, Calvinists). According to moral intellectualism, as soon as we know what's good, we will automatically do good things.

However, this reasoning smells... incomplete. Aristotle identified what was missing: if you explain wrongdoing as the product of ignorance, you remove the burden of responsibility. Wanda's circumstances provide an explanation, but in no way an absolution, for her actions. Too often in the real world, emotional abusers wield the excuse of having had an involuntary outburst to evade responsibility for hurting others. This is the scenario Aristotle warned about. If we don't give real people a pass for being jerks while upset, we should expect better from our idealized heroes.

Part 10

Social distancing

Not only are the inhabitants of Westview trapped in a TV setting: Marvel Studios is trapped in TV, because we’re all trapped in our homes and can't go to the movies. Of course, the show was conceived and produced before the coronavirus quarantine, but circumstances in the real world have given this story additional symbolic impact. (That's the fun of literary criticism: EVERYTHING gives context.) As a cosmic being, Wanda is much bigger than the world she’s created for herself, in the same manner that the MCU is bigger than Disney+, and the central question throughout the series is whether she (and the MCU, and the rest of us) can, or will, get out.

For over a year now, we've been compelled to treat our homes as the sum total of our world. Maybe we can leave the house to take a walk. Forget about leaving the neighborhood. Because we need to make sense of randomness, and our way of doing it is to compare life to stories, our ongoing confinement has frequently been compared in the press to the plot of the novel The Plague by French existentialist Albert Camus.

I find that comparison unnecessarily gloomy. But if we insist on dragging French existentialism into a dicussion about what it's like to watch WandaVision during a global pandemic, let me recommend a more topical title.

In Jean-Paul Sartre's stage play No Exit, hell is described as an ordinary room with regular people. The protagonists can barely stand each other's company, and they say all the time that they want to leave, but when one of them finally finds a way out, he just can't go. He has unfinished business with his fellow damned souls. He wants them to validate his existence, to grant him the role of a man so he can be one.

Existentialist philosophy has much to say about the problem of mistakenly believing we are the roles our situation assigns to us. When a goverment bureaucrat denies you what is obviously fair because some regulation demands otherwise, they're not acting as a human being. They're acting as their social role. Sam the Sheepdog doesn't punch Ralph the Wolf because he personally dislikes him; in fact, they share a pleasant teatime outside of office hours. But when they go back to the workplace, whoever occupies the position "Sheepdog" has the function of punching whoever occupies the position "Wolf." The setting, and not their personal preferences, dictates which actions are and aren't possible.

That's the psychological torment of living in Westview and being forced to play a role instead of having your life, but that's also the everyday experience of any stratified society where the roles must be followed regardless of their usefulness. During the Trump era, the position "Patient" stood in a specific relationship with respect to the position "Associate Director for Communication at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention," which in turn stood in a specific relationship with respect to the position "Head of State." When the latter of those roles has the function of telling the second one what to tell the first one, and that first one has the function of relying on the other two for basic survival, you readily notice that human well-being hinges on something that transcends how obediently the roles are played.

The very usage of the word "role" demonstrates yet another way in which narrative thinking distorts our ability to describe the world. It makes us judge each other by what categories they fit in, instead of what they actually do. In fan culture, the position "Comic Book Collector" has claimed certain functions with respect to the position "Casual Viewer" that are not stipulated in any law of society. In the most vicious corners of the internet, made-up roles like "Fake Fan" and "Newbie" are abusively assigned to people perceived to fall outside of the stratified order. Well, this Newbie says that Wanda is not the heroine of WandaVision. Her actions indisputably condemn her. She's only given the role of heroine by the writers of the show, and we're expected not to notice when she fails to play it.

(Fun trivia: the original French title of No Exit is Huis Clos, which literally means "closed door," but is also a technical term referring to legal procedures carried out in private. In English, the equivalent expression is the Latin phrase in camera, which literally means "in a room," but which acquires an interesting resonance when one considers that all the violations of privacy in the hell that is Westview happen on camera.)

Now that the plague runs free around the world and we've become deadly to each other, one can reluctantly agree with Sartre when he says that hell is other people. In Westview, that other people who make up hell live inside your head.

Part 11

Stay tuned

As long as we can't leave our homes, theaters will have to wait. But Marvel can't. The post-credits tease of the WandaVision finale promises the return of Monica Rambeau in future productions, and lest anyone miss the message, this scene is set in a movie theater, reassuring the audience that this visit to TV land was temporary and we'll all be swarming back into cinemas soon enough. I don't see how Marvel expects us to do that, what with things the way they are, but at the end of the day, Marvel is a corporation. Compared to Disney+ subscriptions, the box office is where you make the big money, and Marvel has already suffered through a whole year without releasing any films. So you can expect 2021 and possibly 2022 to deliver a fire hose of new content. As the MCU is fond of saying, the Scarlet Witch will return.

More than the moral confusion, this is what ultimately breaks the charm of WandaVision. It was never going to be allowed to be its own thing, as much as it deserved the chance. That corporate choice makes perfect sense as a corporate choice, but it leaves a disappointing taste. The faction of fans who live for the fights and the explosions will have The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, while those of us who saw ourselves reflected in Wanda's emotional struggle will head elsewhere (or rewatch WandaVision as a yearly ritual).

This leads back to what I was saying earlier about Marvel's sense of where it fits in the culture and what kind of stories it's interested in telling. While all this is happening, Paramount+ is planning a rainbow of Star Trek productions targeted at all kinds of audiences. This can work because the Star Trek setting is explicitly built on openness and diversity. It has plenty of room for drama and comedy and mystery and adventure and romance and whatever else the producers wish to add. The MCU doesn't feel like it can accommodate so much. Marvel has found its One Weird Trick, which has so far proved spectacularly profitable and endlessly reusable, and I wonder when fans will get tired of always getting more of the same.

WandaVision uses established narrative devices that date back decades, but it's very much not more of the same. In its first episodes, it was something glorious. It was cheerful and bittersweet and intriguing and moving and silly and profound and funny and smart and awesome. It started losing all that when it gradually drew us out of the fantasy and made it just another part of the MCU. By the end, it was flashy and energetic and epic, but it was no longer one of a kind. Now we have a much stronger Scarlet Witch who will surely have bigger adventures from now on, but in the process, we lost something precious.

Then again, my favorite Marvel movie is Doctor Strange, so what do I know.

For those of us who fell in love with the weirdness of this experiment, there's some hope in the upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and probably also in Spider-Man: No Way Home, where the Scarlet Witch is supposed to have an influence or even show up. (I'm using this tentative language because the marketing strategy for No Way Home has been designed as Schrödinger's Press Release to counteract Tom Holland's adorkable habit of spoiling his movies, so we can't yet make any claims about who's going to be in this one.)

We can hope. We'll say hello again.

Part 12

There's no pleasing everyone

I've been harboring the not very original suspicion that utopia and dystopia are the same genre. If you look at any utopian narrative, you'll find that some sector of society is unhappy with the system. Conversely, in any dystopia, there'll be some sector of society for whom the system works nicely. It's impossible to create a social structure that will satisfy 100% of the population. Social life is made of disagreement, so any regime that aims to serve everyone will look broken to someone. Utopia and dystopia are the same.

In Westview, Wanda draws from the idealized dramatizations of the American middle class to create a perfect world where she can have it all. As fake Pietro remarked, everyone has a home and a job, and when compared to what the real Westview looked like, you've got to admit Wanda did one hell of a redecoration—the operative word being "hell." People who really lived through the eras represented in sitcoms can tell you all about the maddening slowness of progress in civil rights and the continued erosion of workers' purchasing power relative to productivity. Truly, America Was Never All That Great.

Nostalgia for an imagined idyllic country is one symptom of a larger problem: the refusal to accept change. This is made obvious both inside the screen of WandaVision and out here among the people who discuss comic book adaptations. In the age of the Sonic redraw and the Snyder Cut, fans have developed a hypertrophied sense of entitlement that needs to be toned down. The obsession with comic-accurate adaptations stems from a misplaced overvaluation of the way stories used to be told.

And here's where I have to utter a little blasphemy: there's no such thing as "comic-accurate." It's simply not possible. The nature of adaptation requires countless creative decisions that complement and reinterpret the source material. The only things that can be comic-accurate are the original comics—and even they are continuously subjected to new readings. Everything else is another creation, and the movies are under zero obligation to follow what the comics did. More importantly, the comic does not have a privileged position as the definitive version of a story. Sailor Moon Crystal worked hard to be 100% comic-accurate, and the result was a mechanical plot without a soul. WandaVision is not House of M, and that's fine. Fans need to learn from Vision and accept that the reconstructed shape of a story can be as true as the parts that rest in a museum, accumulating rot.

When Agatha takes Wanda on a tour through her formative memories, we see her watching an episode of Malcolm in the Middle where the father tries to build a canopy outside the house and it falls on his head. Vision asks whether the aesthetic impact of the scene lies on the grievous injury. Wanda, more aware of the conventions of slapstick comedy, points out that the nature of the setting doesn't allow for grievous injury. The same notion reverberates through her experiences in Westview and might be valuable for the rest of us (especially entitled fans who get angry when their favorite theories are disproved): even if what you have constructed falls to pieces, it won't kill you.

Life is not that kind of show.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 9/10 It created its own category, where it reigns alone. Nothing compares. Nothing ever will.

Bonuses: +1 for a relatable handling of difficult emotional topics, +2 for inventiveness, and +2 for the amazing work of period faithfulness, down to the way of moving the camera and framing the shots.

Penalties: −2 for consistently choosing the least exciting explanation for each mystery, −3 for failing to give Wanda consequences for the harm she caused, and −3 because it introduced a fascinating concept only to abandon it for the demands of the franchise.

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10 Its need to connect to an established continuity put too many roadblocks before the brilliant places it could have gone.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.