When it comes to Phase Four of the MCU, no other character in the main MCU cast is doing as much heavy lifting as Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff. Not only did she kick the phase off with WandaVision, garnering the franchise’s first major acting nomination along the way, but she returned to the big screen in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness as the primary antagonist threatening the fabric of the multiverse. After four appearances in event crossover films where she was one among the ensemble, Wanda’s popularity has skyrocketed now that she’s taken center stage.
Of particular note in these projects is not just Wanda’s increased prominence, but also a reorientation around how she presents herself both as a character and when using her powers: namely, Wanda is finally embracing being an actual witch in a way she hasn’t since Avengers: Age of Ultron. Scarlet Witch may be her superpowered moniker, but there was a significant portion of her time in this series where that was a largely incidental part of her portrayal. With Multiverse of Madness arriving on Blu-Ray, let’s dive into Wanda’s history and examine why her darkest self may just be her best self.
Wanda the Teenage Witch
Although she and her brother Pietro technically popped up earlier in the post-credits scene of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Maximoff twins made their proper debut in Avengers: Age of Ultron. For the first two thirds of the film, Wanda is an antagonist, a misguided youth who uses her powers at Ultron’s behest to strike back at the Avengers for the loss of her parents. However, even before Ultron is created, Wanda’s first encounter with the heroes at Baron Strucker’s castle, she’s already using her powers in a creepy fashion. Her movement out of a room has the framerate altered so she appears to move faster than she should be capable of, and she casts the vision into Tony Stark’s mind where he sees the rest of the Avengers dead. Her sinister smile before the title card only adds to her haunting presence.
Now, to be clear, I am not saying that Wanda is necessarily better when she’s portrayed as a villain. Even within Age of Ultron, she switches sides and joins the Avengers. However, compare the way her powers and general disposition are shown in Age of Ultron versus how she’s used in Captain America: Civil War, Infinity War, and Endgame. Wanda’s casting dark visions into her opponents’ minds, the goth feel to her makeup and wardrobe, the “twitchy weirdo” aspect of Olsen’s performance, and the aura of menace and violence to her power use (even when she’s on the good team!). They all add up to a character who feels specifically like a witch, regardless of her current moral outlook. It’s a question of portrayal, not of philosophy.
But when she turns up as an Avenger in Civil War, Wanda’s movement and powers are more literal than esoteric. She doesn’t alter her speed, she can just fly. She doesn’t implant visions or cast spells, she just uses telekinesis. She had these powers before, but it seems that when she was made into a hero, the creative team moved away from the creepier aspects of her design and persona, to the point that she feels more Jean Grey than Wanda Maximoff at times. She even has cleaner makeup, a less chaotic and scatterbrained wardrobe, and most inexplicably, a cross in her room (?). While her power level in these movies commendable, such as her scaring Thanos so badly that he called in an airstrike on his own men just to get her off her back, her witch-factor was downplayed, likely to make her more palatable as a heroic figure. It wasn’t until Phase Four that Wanda would finally get her groove back.
The Wicked Witch of Westview
WandaVision’s hit song “Agatha All Along” was certainly fun, but make no mistake: Wanda is the real witch in that show. Not only is the whole story a lead-in to her officially accepting the title and costume of the Scarlet Witch, but it is also the first instance in MCU canon of her using chaos magic and her reality warping powers from the comics, with her creating a pocket reality inside of her hex around Westview. Psychically controlling an entire town and modifying its inner workings according to her wishes with nothing more than her mind is the kind of creepy, otherworldly stuff that makes Scarlet Witch feel unique among the MCU cast, even if it once again moves her back into villainous territory.
When Wanda turns full villain in Multiverse of Madness, she’s creating illusion hexes around massive swaths of land, contorting her body like a pretzel to move through a reflection, and casting dreamwalking spells while floating at the center of candlelit rooms. By the time she’s controlling her alternate 838 self to chase the heroes while shambling like a zombie covered in blood and oil, Wanda may be firmly on the dark side, but it also feels like her presentation naturally coming full circle with her younger self from Age of Ultron. On one level, it’s sad that Wanda has allowed her grief (and an evil book) to corrupt her into a supervillain, but her full acceptance of the Scarlet Witch identity, black-painted fingertips and all, is the most compelling her visual design and powers have been for ages.
Yes, she still throws her little red balls of energy, but she’s so much more than that in these latest projects. Even things as simple as glaring at her alternate self from within a photograph or erasing Black Bolt’s mouth from existence feel weird and specific to her character in a way that her Phase Three appearances can’t really match. If she does return after her supposed sacrifice in Multiverse (does anyone seriously believe she’s dead?), it would certainly be nice to see her return to the good side. But if she does, hopefully she retains the creepier, weirder, and witchier aspects she’s gained along the way. It would give her a different flavor to all the other heroes in this universe, and honor where she came from rather than sweeping it under the rug.
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