Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
I had misgivings about WandaVision. In fact, I had misgivings about the Marvel Cinematic Universe moving to sitcom-length viewing on Disney+ at all—whether the stories would still “work” in that format, and whether they would still feel like the MCU. But that was before 2020 descended upon us and the theaters shut down and our regular influx of Marvel movies slowed to nothing. As CaPC writer Matt Poppe put it in his episode 4 WandaVision recap, for those of us who are fans, “it’s been a long minute” since we’ve had any new MCU material. So when WandaVision finally debuted later than intended on January 15, I felt a mix of uncertainty and excitement. The first MCU story in over a year! But would it live up to expectations?
As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. WandaVision delivers everything the MCU has always done well because the MCU doesn’t actually rely on one particular story form. Thus the sitcom-variant styling of the show only adds to an examination of a longrunning, favorite theme, and the serial story of a super-powered “witch” and her dead android husband can take its place alongside twenty-three blockbuster films.
I’ve been writing about the MCU for a long time now, and it never ceases to amaze me that after thirteen years, multiple directors and screenwriters (and producers and composers and all the people and pieces that have to come together to make movies work)—from Iron Man in 2008 to WandaVision in 2021, there’s still cohesion to these stories. They fit together. And fit not just with characters in the same universe, but with true consistency that transcends the sort of directorial choices that might otherwise make the stories feel disparate. I know there are many things that the producers (and primarily Marvel president Kevin Feige) do to assure and maintain this consistency within the metanarrative—and the metanarrative is important—but I return again and again to thematic consistency, as well.
Finding purpose and calling outside oneself—in submission and in community—is the only way to truly know oneself in an MCU storyOnce a story reaches a certain size, it can always be retrofitted, especially once you introduce things like time travel, multiverses, and magic. But a story like WandaVision shouldn’t feel as though it seamlessly fits within the universe of Iron Man, Black Panther, and Guardians of the Galaxy—yet it somehow does. It does in the same way that the Star Wars universe can infinitely expand and in the way that the Romans could conquer the Greeks and adopt their gods into a pantheon of their own. Thematic consistency, which tells us (in the case of the MCU) not just where the stories have already been, but where they are going, as well. It tells us what to expect out of future heroes, it’s permissive of side-stories, and it allows a show about a mind-controlling, reality-bending Scarlet Witch projecting a sitcom of her controlled grief-avoidance reality-prison to the outside world to fit seamlessly into a universe of stories where Captain America fought Hydra during World War II.
What is the thematic consistency that binds together all the stories of the MCU? I think it can best be summed up as a big theme of “lost and found.” Aloneness, orphanhood, lost children, abandonment—the heroes of the MCU grapple with the anger and grief associated with this state, and they often come into their powers as a result of handling their “lostness” and all the complications that come with it (in healthy and unhealthy ways). To be lost and/or alone is often a catalyst; to be found or to enter into a community or state of relationship with others is an actualization.
The MCU is a found-family. It is made up of found-families, such as the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy, but it is itself a found-family of stories that are better together than alone—better understood, better fulfilled, better realized as a whole entity rather than individual narratives of the heroes. Who everyone is in relation to the others enriches and enlivens them all, making their individual stories so much better. Can you watch just one MCU film and appreciate it, or even follow the narrative and understand what’s happening without too much confusion? Yes, for the most part, this is true of almost every movie in the MCU franchise (excepting, probably, Avengers: Endgame). And it’s also proving true of their first true move onto the small screen, WandaVision. But are these stories better when taken in the context of the whole? There’s no doubt that they are.
As disparate as the storylines can be in the MCU (as long as they come together in key places to advance the metanarrative, of course) the thematic tie that binds them is that these stories are scattered with lost and orphaned people—most of whom go on to become the titular heroes. The sort of people whom society discards, these stories scoop up, making space for them in their grief, anger, confusion, and fear as they develop strange and fantastical abilities. In this, the MCU steps into a grand storytelling tradition. Sad stories of orphans and misfits litter the oral tradition and the pages of the literary past, predating notions of self-actualization that dominate modern storytelling narratives.
When it comes to the “lost and found” trope of orphaned people, rather than telling stories of “just be yourself,” the MCU’s narrative more often favors, “you belong here.” This important fulfillment couches “foundness” with self-expression, ties grief and longing to the powers these characters possess, and allows them to only find true peace and rest through service to and for others. Finding purpose and calling outside oneself—in submission and in community—is the only way to truly know oneself in an MCU story, and it’s the only way to grapple with all-consuming grief.
Wanda Maximoff is a lost child, and she’s carried her grief with her since her introduction into the MCU. It didn’t begin with the death of Vision at the hand of Thanos or even the death of her brother in the madness of the destruction of Ultron. Wanda and Pietro—twins—lost everything except each other as children when a Stark missile flew into their building and killed their parents. They submitted themselves to Hydra experimentation to seek revenge and gained superpowers. Wanda, therefore, has her powers of mind control and manipulation of the physical world because she couldn’t manage her childhood grief, and she was all alone in a cruel world.
And Wanda is not the only one in the MCU to develop powers out of abandonment, aloneness, or grief avoidance. Tony Stark is a genius billionaire orphan whose aloneness and lack of healthy coping skills has no small influence on his Iron Man alter ego over the years. Thor has to be exiled from his home and family to come into his true powers—and eventually the loss of his entire family spurs him to seek more powers still. Steve Rogers was an orphan who became Captain America and is subsequently ripped from his entire generation (and the love of his life) to become the hero he must be. Peter Quill can’t become Star Lord or go to space until his mother dies of cancer. Black Widow is legendarily alone. Bruce Banner physically cannot form close romantic relationships. T’Challa loses his father to assassination and only then takes on the full mantle of Black Panther. Gamora is orphaned by Thanos to then be trained to fight by him. Captain Marvel’s aloneness and personal losses are punctuated by her amnesia. Peter Parker is an orphan twice over.
It’s a long list (and I haven’t even listed everyone!), but I present these snippets on these heroes mostly just to show the way in which this theme repeats itself—has repeated itself in the stories of these characters. The MCU does not tell happy stories, it tells sad ones. And they’ve always done a good job of telling stories that feel connected even while being functionally disparate. So when I watch WandaVision, and my screen is black and white and square (all over—sorry), and Wanda and Vision (an android who should be dead) are overacting 1960s-style sitcom shenanigans, I can chuckle and appreciate the call-back to Bewitched while still feeling immersed in the MCU. And when WandaVision dials up the subtle horror and plumbs the psychology of grief suppression, that doesn’t feel like anything new to me, because the MCU has been telling this story for a long time—since 2008, to be exact.
How many ways can one franchise examine one big theme? I would argue that with a story universe the size of the MCU, the possibilities are virtually endless. And—let me just grab my popcorn and gather the family—I’ll be there for whatever it is they offer. The next episode of WandaVision? Yes, please, and thank you. WandaVision, for all its strangeness, feels like it belongs in the MCU. It’s not just that the show uses familiar characters or that it references events of previous stories, rather Wanda and Vision’s story fits thematically with the twenty-three movies that came before it. Wanda was a lost child who found her family with the Avengers. She’s lost everything again, but I feel confident that whatever is wrong in the WandaVision universe will be set right when she, somehow, finds solace in the community of her peers again.