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‘Doctor Strange 2’ Just the Latest Installment in a Long History of Sexist, Ableist Tropes in Exploring Wanda’s Power

scarlet witch has always had a complex history

The Wanda Maximoff discourse has me feeling like Wanda in House of M: fully gaslit, gatekept, and just overwhelmed by everything.

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Spoilers for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

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Since her introduction in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Avengers: Age of Ultron, the character of Wanda has been very different from her comic book counterpart for … reasons—mostly because of Marvel’s lack of X-Men movie rights. Her powers were not that defined, besides a form of telekinetic abilities and messing with people’s minds to an extent.

It wasn’t until WandaVision that we saw that the MCU began pulling in aspects from several of Wanda’s best known comic stories, especially a combo of The Vision and the Scarlet Witch, VisionQuest, and a dash of House of M and Avengers Disassembled, where Wanda is turned into an antagonistic force of destruction in the Marvel universe.

When discussing Wanda’s transformation, which has been received with mixed results, screenwriter Michael Waldron said, “Well, first off, it’s true to who the comics’ version of the character is and what she does in the comics.” Okay, but the thing is … people have been saying that those changes were messy from the beginning. Let’s go back.

In the comics, Wanda (and Pietro) were introduced as villains, but as reluctant member of the Brotherhood of Mutants, she became an Avenger within a year. In fact, she was the second-ever female Avenger after The Wasp. At this point in comics, women were very passive players. In fact, Wanda was a possible romantic interest to several Avengers for a bit, because of course she was, until officially ending up with Vision.

The person credited with really starting to give humanity and personhood to Wanda is comic book writer Steve Englehart. Englehart made Wanda more assertive as a character, moved Quicksilver and his hyper-protective personality back to the X-Men, made Magento the father of the Maximoff twins, and had Agatha Harkness teach Wanda magic.

Wanda and Vision eventually got married. In The Vision and the Scarlet Witch miniseries, Wanda and Vision buy a house in New Jersey in order to keep Vision from being manipulated by the government. They end up getting kidnapped by the residents of New Salem, who also recently killed Agatha Harkness.

Agatha Harkness being burned at the stake in Marvel Comics.
(Marvel Comics)

During a magical ceremony, the leader of New Salem is defeated, and excess magic is released. Using Agatha’s lesson, Wanda taps into the excess energy and channels it safely away. Agatha’s spirit tells her to use the magical power while she’s still connected to it, and Wanda uses it to make herself pregnant. She later gives birth to twins Tommy and Billy. Everything is good, and they move to L.A.

Then, everything changed when Englehart stopped writing The Avengers.

John Byrne is a huge name in comics and worked often with the GOAT Chris Claremont. They worked on X-Men together, Fantastic Four, and co-created Kitty Pryde/Shadowcat, Emma Frost, Sabretooth, Shadow King, Scott Lang, and many more. He returned to Marvel in 1989 and basically started the “Wanda suffers from brainwashing” trauma conga.

First, he wrote Vision Quest, which was the storyline that had Vision’s entire personality removed. The couple’s twins were no longer a result of Wanda’s own magic, but pieces of the soul of the demon Mephisto. Then, Wanda was brainwashed and un-brainwashed three times, with her becoming a villain each time that happened. Writers Roy and Dann Thomas took over Avengers West Coast, and it was said that Wanda’s increase in power was all due to manipulations by the villain Immortus.

Great. And each time this happened, Wanda’s mental state got worse and worse, which all led up to the 2004 story Avengers Disassembled, written by Brian Michael Bendis, with art by David Finch. Wasp makes a comment that triggers Wanda’s memory of her children (with no explanation of when she lost those memories again, but whatever).

She is hit with the trauma of their loss all over again and a feeling of betrayal over the Avengers not being able to save her children and for allowing her memories to be removed. Wanda kills Agatha and causes the Avengers to suffer their “worst day,” which leads to the apparent deaths of several characters and the destruction of Avengers Mansion.

Avengers Mansion blowing up in Marvel Comics.
(Marvel Comics)

Wanda falls into a coma, and Doctor Strange performs his greatest magical ability, the retcon, and explains that Wanda’s actual mutant power is to reshape reality. In House of M, under the manipulation of her brother Pietro, who is trying to prevent her from being killed, Wanda is convinced to create an alternate version of Earth where everyone’s greatest wish comes true.

Due to Logan’s memories remaining intact, he manages to awaken other heroes from this spell and defeats Wanda. After Pietro is murdered by Magneto, the heartbroken Wanda causes “M-Day” when she says, “No more mutants,” removing the powers of most mutants on Earth—an action that follows her to this day. In 2017, Englehart wrote a response that was shared on the Women in Refrigerators website, on what he thought of the changes made to several of his female characters after he left:

“Here are the characters I wrote who suffered their fate after I left them:

Arisia (dead)
Katma Tui (dead)
Hawkwoman (depowered)
Electrocute (dead)
Nova (Frankie Raye)
Jet of the New Guardians (died in battle after contracting HIV)
Hellcat (dead)
Mockingbird (dead)
Mantis (dead, I think)
Scarlet Witch (children ‘die’/vanish/are lost because they are figments of her imagination)
Here are the characters I handed fate to:
Ms. Marvel II (became a monster in Fantastic Four)
And I’d point out that Ms. Marvel liked the change because it gave her power; the Thing disliked it because he couldn’t imagine how anyone could like it.
The answer to your question is pretty simple: Ever since the original Captain Marvel/Superman, most comics characters have been arrested male adolescents, because most comics readers are male adolescents. And male adolescents fear strong women.

I like all sorts of characters, including strong women (and weak women, and weak men, and gays, and androids, and big green monsters, and every possible permutation thereof). So I’m as upset as anyone else at how people kill my strong women as soon as I let them go; it has been really blatant. None of those in that first list above would have suffered those fates if I’d been writing them. I particularly miss Arisia, Katma Tui, Mantis, and the Scarlet Witch’s twins.

I had hoped to be an agent of change over the years–to bring a healthier approach to women to the field–but obviously I’ve had little success.”

All of this background information is to say that, yes, while Wanda having a rotating villain-hero-anti-hero-victim storyline is in the comics, it has been called out as sexist and ableist writing for a long time. As Lia Williamson wrote last year when discussing the House of M storyline:

Wanda Maximoff’s parentage has changed a bit over the years, but in 2005 it was quite solid: her father was Magneto and her mother was Magda Eisenhardt, two Holocaust survivors. To then have a Jewish-Romani woman who is the descendant of Holocaust survivors responsible for this fictional universe’s equivalent of superhero genocide? It’s a bad look. To blame her mental illness specifically on top of that? It’s an even worse look.

Wanda’s breakdown is meant to be the worst moment of her life, an expression of the immense grief she’s experiencing in that moment. As a mentally ill woman, I am not who I am when I have a meltdown — those are my lowest moments. While I’m responsible for my actions and the people I may hurt in those moments, it’s not a reflection of who I am in my everyday life. House of M should not be seen as a reflection of Wanda in the same way.

Since she was first introduced as “weird” in the MCU, the fear I had was that rather than learn from the feminist backlash and criticism of House of M, that they would just lean into it. And that’s what Doctor Strange 2 did. They fast-tracked the downfall of a very complex character, without really learning anything. Still possessed by some force that increases her power. Depicted as “crazy” and “unhinged.” Defined only by loss and not by all the things she could create with her power.

From the moment Strange told Wanda to be “reasonable,” I was like, “We’re in for one wild time.” House of M may be one of Wanda Maximoff’s more definitive storylines due to its impact on the Marvel world, but it did so at the expense of her character, only to try to walk it back. Wanda could be a great villain, but just being super powerful isn’t the only thing that makes a villain great.

(featured image: Marvel Comics)

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Princess Weekes
Princess (she/her-bisexual) is a Brooklyn born Megan Fox truther, who loves Sailor Moon, mythology, and diversity within sci-fi/fantasy. Still lives in Brooklyn with her over 500 Pokémon that she has Eevee trained into a mighty army. Team Zutara forever.

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