SPOILERS for the Marvel Studios universe up through WandaVision Episode 5, and speculation beyond.
The Joy of a Slow Watch
I’ve been starved for new live-action Marvel Studios programming taking place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the parallel quantum universe without the coronavirus pandemic, I would have already seen Black Widow, Eternals, and Shang-Chi by now. Instead, I get 30 minutes every Friday of WandaVision.
And I love it.
In an era where so much is available online, and entire seasons are released to be binge-watched, I love having to wait. Each episode, questions are answered but deeper questions are uncovered. And I have a week to speculate on the answers. This might be the most enjoyable thing about being in a slow-release fandom, and the reason why many of us loathe spoilers. We are forced to engage with open questions in a story with only our own imaginations and that of our friends. We become active participants in the storytelling process, not just passive consumers. Being a fan of a shared universe becomes an intellectual exercise, where there is a potential thrill both in having guessed right and in being surprised.
The end of WandaVision episode 5 took it to a new level.
When Recasting Opens Doors
Wanda “recasting” Pietro Maximoff from Fox’s X-Men franchise brings together comic book lore, the mythos of two separate Marvel cinematic continuities, and the meta issues of what we’ll be able to see when corporate barriers of ownership fall away. The interconnected possibility of Marvel Comics at last finds potential purchase in big-budget movies.
Briefly, the corporate issues in the Marvel Cinematic Universe were around character licensing rights. Until Spider-Man: Homecoming, we could never see Spider-Man interact with the Avengers because Sony owned the cinematic rights to that set of characters. We could see the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver in the MCU and alongside the X-Men because they were characters who belonged in both Avengers and X-Men character sets. But the MCU could never make mention of them being Magneto’s children, because Magneto was an X-Men character. And Fox could never have them fighting alongside the Avengers.
WandaVision had already paid homage to Bewitched, a show that recast Darrin Stephens from Dick York to Dick Sargent without an in-story explanation. So there’s a reference gag, but Dr. Darcy Lewis hangs a lantern on the recasting in the show-within-a-show reality. This wasn’t an arbitrary recasting. Earlier in episode 5, Wanda explained that even she could not bring back the dead, and her brother Pietro had died in the fight against Ultron. Instead of Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Pietro, she pulled Evan Peters’s Pietro–the one from Fox’s X-Men universe–into her pocket reality. We, the audience, are supposed to know this. And there is only one conclusion: The X-Men movies “exist” somehow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
To underscore the connections, when Wanda confronts the S.W.O.R.D. soldiers and turns their own guns on them, it’s a deliberate callback to Magneto’s confrontations with police. You almost expect her to sneer “You homo sapiens and your guns.”
WandaVision plays with the idea of a microcosm universe, its boundaries with a larger universe, and what happens when things cross those boundaries. Against the real-world backdrop of Disney consolidating ownership of Marvel properties, Episode 5 feels like a first look at the expanded world. But why explicitly acknowledge the Fox movies?
Reboots and RetCons
The J. J. Abrams Star Trek movies recast the original Enterprise crew and even retold Wrath of Khan, but didn’t sever its narrative continuity completely. Time travel, a branching parallel reality, and Leonard Nimoy as “old Spock” were all attempts to have it both ways: loyalists to the past continuity as well as new viewers were given reasons to jump on board.
For me, it was a tactic with unsatisfying results. It didn’t feel enough like the old Star Trek, but neither did it feel like something exciting and new. The merging of the iterations didn’t add enough to the story to justify the narrative complexity.
If that is what’s happening with the Marvel movie franchises, we’ll have to see how well it’s executed. Long-time comic book readers are used to “retroactive continuity” tricks used to make decades of comic book stories seem smoothly continuous. There’s a reluctance to “invalidate” any story in the canon from “having actually happened.” Still, at best, they’re grudgingly accepted as a genre feature. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been remarkably (not not perfectly) coherent and consistent so far. To mess with that is to mess with one of the most compelling features of the MCU, something that stands in contrast to the efforts of the DC Comics adaptations. Whether acknowledging the Fox-verse (and Sony-verse in the Spider-Man movies) becomes something that benefits or harms the MCU will be revealed going into 2022.
MCU Phase Four: The Multiverse
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been teasing parallel or offshoot universes since Avengers: Endgame. Bruce Banner’s conversation with the Ancient One raised the danger of the creation of new timelines, should someone travel to the past and alter the flow of causality. That was why it was so important that, after Thanos was defeated, Captain America made a final set of time jumps, to replace the Infinity Stones to the places in history from which they were taken, so the events could unfold as we had seen them unfold.
Spider-Man: Far From Home raised the possibility that Thanos’s “snap” had broken the barriers to parallel universes, and the elemental creatures were invaders from another reality. This turned out to be a hoax by the villain Mysterio, but Marvel Studios was priming the audience.
Captain America’s final Endgame mission failed before it began. The timeline indeed bifurcated, by the Ancient One’s rules. When the Endgame Avengers traveled back to just after the events of the first Avengers movie, the plan went awry and Loki escaped with the Tesseract (Space Stone). There is now a quantum universe where Thor did not take Loki to be imprisoned in Asgard. Loki didn’t languish in prison until Malekith’s attack, nor perhaps did he team up with Thor to defeat Malekith and claim the Reality Stone. And the Tesseract was never on display in Odin’s vault to be stolen again by Loki, who then never traded it to Thanos for Thor’s life.
Loki will have his own Disney+ show in May 2021, picking up from his escape with the Tesseract. The teaser trailer shows that he will be arrested by the Time Variance Authority for branching the time stream. With Loki involved, he’ll probably leave the multiverse more chaotic than he found it. Could Wanda’s ability to pull from different cinematic universes be a result of the Swiss cheese Loki is making of the walls between realities?
Spider-Man’s next MCU film in December 2021 has a swirl of rumors that characters from Sony’s two other Spider-Man iterations will appear, including Toby Maguire’s and Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Men. Is this Wanda’s doing? Loki’s? Is there an impending collision of universes, similar to Jonathan Hickman’s New Avengers comic book run?
The next Doctor Strange movie in March 2022, The Multiverse of Madness, appears to tackle this concept head-on. Wanda will be in the movie too, and the script was rewritten by the same sceenwriter who wrote Loki. There’s already a lot of connective tissue, just from the news available.
Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is also scheduled for 2022, and the rumors say it will feature the time-traveling Avengers villain Kang the Conqueror. The Marvel Cinematic Universe will be playing with the time streams well into next year, possibly concluding with the release of the first MCU Fantastic Four movie. (Does anyone else think Monica Rambeau’s astrophysicist contact could be Reed Richards?)
The Fantastic Four is a family of explorers of other dimensions and realities. It’s possible that the multiverse will be treated as a feature of the MCU, rather than a problem to be solved. If that’s the case, what’s next? The only limit now is Disney’s ownership rights, and that’s a large multiverse indeed.
Post-Credits Scene after the final episode of WandaVision
[Nick Fury walks into a secret safehouse.]
[From the shadows]: You think this is the only superhero universe?
[The Scarlet Witch steps out of the shadows, her eyes glowing red]
Scarlet Witch: Mister Fury, you’ve become part of a multiverse. You just don’t know it yet. I’m here to talk to you about the House of M.