WandaVision: Season of the Witch

SPOILERS for WandaVision through Episode 7 ahead…

Have you ever noticed that the stories of the Marvel heroines, from Jessica Jones, to Captain Marvel, to Wanda Maximoff, are about overcoming gaslighting? I wonder if Black Widow’s solo story will follow suit, with the other assassins of the Red Room. Anyway…

WandaVision episode 7 absolved our heroine of wrongdoing with the catchiest earworm of revelations: it’s been “Agatha All Along.” While this was presented as a big reveal, was it really? There was a certain joy in the confirmation–sold entirely by Kathryn Hahn’s gleefully wicked performance. But even casual readers of Scarlet Witch comics knew that Agatha Harkness was the likely identity of “Aunty Agnes.” In the comics, Agatha was more ally and mentor than adversary, and the only time she really went against Wanda was when she removed Wanda’s memory of her “children”–who weren’t really her children at all. Ooh, now that sounds like a clue. Regardless, there are now witches in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In Spider-Man: Far From Home, one of the teachers is convinced that witches are behind the Elemental attacks

WandaVision has two apparent antagonists so far. This episode confirmed that Tyler Hayward, Director of S.W.O.R.D., was indeed trying to reactivate Vision as one of his sentient weapons, against Vision’s living will. Is it a mere nod that the ABC show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had a character, Brian Hayward, who ran a Hydra version of the super-soldier program called Centipede? Probably. The MCU keeps Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. continuity at arm’s length. But Hayward didn’t have any success with Vision until Wanda revived him, and his tactics make him seem like a blunt instrument, not a villainous mastermind. If Hayward was trying to use Vision, Agatha was trying to use Wanda–and she is more of a villainous mastermind. But to what end?

For the Children

Why is Westview a series of progressively more modern sitcoms? Why did Agnes seem to go in and out of character in front of Wanda, sometimes revealing complicity in the illusionary world? What is this whole elaborate show-world for? And why did Agatha choose to end Wanda’s show now (this is the first episode with a traditional MCU mid-credits scene)? There is a clue in the final line of her song: “And I killed Sparky too!” Why would she do that?

  • Agatha offered to quiet the infant twins, and they reappeared on the steps as young boys.
  • When Wanda and Vision decided the twins would be too young to take care of a pet until they were ten years old, they became ten years old.
  • When the twins discovered that Sparky had died, they were about to grow older again–until Wanda told them not to escape their pain by aging out of it.
  • When Billy told Agatha that she was “quiet on the inside,” she seemed to realize something about the twins. And they disappeared.

It does feel like the entire point of episodes 1 through 7 of WandaVision was to use Wanda to bring Billy and Tommy into the world, have them grow up and, er, ripen, and then… harvest them. In the dream/show-logic of WandaVision, it didn’t feel overly strange for the twins to age so rapidly. But even this feels incomplete. What are the twins? Why Wanda? And is Agatha a solitary predator, or working on someone’s behalf? These questions feel entangled with another concept raised by episode 7’s commercial: “Nexus.”

Nexus lets you choose your own reality

The Multiverse Is Confirmed

Spider-Man: Far From Home teases the multiverse, but it’s a fake-out

Or is it? Going only by the show, Wanda’s choice of “realities” seem to be her sitcom construct or the world outside of the Hex. But after the appearance of a Pietro with the face of Fox’s X-Men Universe Quicksilver, this is the second suggestion there are other realities. (And if Agatha is responsible for Evan Peters’ “recasting,” it implies she has knowledge of his reality. Maybe she’s from it.)

When Monica Rambeau charged through the Hex wall, she seemed to split into versions of herself and hear voices from her past. When her powers manifested with her Tesseract-colored eyes, she pulled herself together and broke through the wall.

No need to belabor it here, I think my arguments for the Marvel Multiverse still hold water as of Episode 7, even if Pietro isn’t the actual Fox Quicksilver. So why here? Why now? In the comics, Wanda Maximoff is known as a “nexus being,” someone who has versions of herself in every universe, each with a different power set. There is also a Marvel comic concept of a nexus of realities (such as the M’Kraan Crystal) which is a gateway to other universes. The show may be playing with both concepts.

If Agatha Harkness is a solo predator, her character may be conflated with the comic book character of Lore, an evil other-universe Wanda who went from universe to universe, devouring and absorbing the powers of her counterparts. Snackin’ on Yo-Magic and all. But this feels unsatisfying, because it doesn’t address the importance of the children.

In Scarlet Witch (1994) Wanda is attacked by a parallel universe witch called Lore

If Agatha Harkness is working on behalf of another, there are a few possibilities.

The comic book story that seems most immediately relevant is that the Marvel Comics devil, Mephisto, used Wanda to birth two pieces of his fragmented soul into the world so he could absorb them and become whole. There are certainly many callbacks to the Mephisto story in WandaVision: “The devil is in the details / That’s not the only place he is!”; “Unleash hell, demon-spawn!”, the Mephisto-faced Halloween decoration; “Señor Scratchy” (like Old Scratch, a moniker for the devil); Agnes’s never-present husband “Ralph”; and that fly crawling on Agatha’s curtains. And Agatha Harkness has a creepy, orange-lit Darkhold-looking grimoire in her basement. There’s enough groundwork for Mephisto, but that feels unsatisfying to me too. It comes out of a place that isn’t rooted in Wanda’s personal mythology, and WandaVision is, fundamentally, a personal story about her. I’d rather the payoff of this story comes from Wanda’s MCU history than her comic history.

If there were a devil-figure, I’d much rather it be the Red Skull, whose association with the Soul Stone provides a source for two souls to be born into the world. But I’ve already written about that.

Scarlet Witch and the Infinity Coven

A more interesting notion is that Agatha Harkness, like any witch in good standing, is working with a coven. When we first see the world outside of the Hex, Director Hayward asks if Wanda has a “funny nickname,” and Agent Woo insists she doesn’t. The words “Scarlet Witch” have never been uttered in the MCU, to my knowledge.

Red has been part of the show’s visual language around Wanda ever since it transitioned from black-and-white. Her wardrobe, her power effects, the flowers outside her home, and the smoke in which her troublesome stork appears and vanishes. This became even more pronounced once we saw purple–wardrobe, powers, flowers–associated with Agatha.

Dottie is back, and her roses are yellow

It’s enough to make one pay more attention to the use of color elsewhere. Remember where the “all for the children” thing started? At Dottie’s meeting. Agatha called Dottie “the key to everything in this town.” In a show like WandaVision, that’s not a throwaway line. Dottie disappeared until episode 7, and now she’s back, with a yard full of yellow roses–that bloom under penalty of death, according to Agatha.

Emma Caulfield doesn’t want us to forget about Dottie

And now Monica Rambeau has glowing blue eyes. It feels like there is a coven of superpowered women associated with colors. Powers and colors sound awfully familiar, don’t they? I’d theorized that, since the Infinity Stones were Celestial technology, and the Celestials in the comics had seeded the potential for superpower in the human race, exposure to the Stones might be unlocking that potential. “Unlocking the goddess within,” so to speak. Like they did with Wanda. And Captain Marvel. We mustn’t forget, the WandaVision show was being broadcast through radiation from the Big Bang, when the Infinity Stones came into existence. There is a link. Even the wizards of Doctor Strange’s order are associated with an Infinity Stone.

The Infinity Stones and their colors

The witches don’t seem limited in their power by their color. Wanda was empowered by the Mind Stone, and while her powers started as psionic, her Hex seems more of a Reality Stone effect. Agatha appears to be using Wanda’s old mind-control powers, though that may have come from “snacking on Yo-Magic.” The twins seem to have localized Time Stone powers, but then, so did Wanda and Agatha when they decided to “take it from the top” and redo a scene.

How do the children figure into an Infinity-powered coven? They may be trying to manifest souls from the Soul Stone. Or they may be sacrifices that the Soul Stone seems to demand. Or they may be recruits for the coven. It does seem significant that Agatha’s creepy book in the basement leaks the orange light of the Soul Stone.

Agatha Harkness’s book has a Soulful glow

How does an Infinity Coven tie into a multiverse? I don’t know! Maybe that’s how they manipulate reality; by shuffling things around. Maybe there’s power to be tapped across realities. Maybe their coven is spread across universes, but they’ve figured out ways to cross over to collaborate.

We have two more episodes to get answers. And to see if Vision can survive without Wanda. And to see if Wanda will be able to beat her gaslighting and face her grief.

WandaVision’s Big Bad: Of Easter Eggs, Foreshadowing, and Red Herrings

SPOILERS for WandaVision, through Episode 6, HBO’s Game of Thrones final season, and Season 1 of FX’s Legion, below. And speculation on the real Big Bad.

WandaVision is one of those shows that knows its audience. The show doesn’t take pains to explain the history of the Marvel Universe–we either know it already or will use our Disney+ subscription to catch up. It serves up slow-burning mystery, and it knows that its viewership includes detectives bringing to bear decades of comic book and movie scholarship. It selects an engaged audience.

So in addition to telling a story that fits solidly in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it gives us a categorization game: Easter Egg, Foreshadowing, or Red Herring?

  • Easter Eggs are gifts for the lore scholars. They aren’t predictive of the plot, but they give the keepers of occult knowledge a game to play, and reassures them that the show writers also have their bona fides.
  • Foreshadowing is a set of details with predictive value for the show’s plot. When the audience re-watches, they’re rewarded by proof of the plan.
  • Red Herrings masquerade as Easter eggs or foreshadowing, but are deliberately misleading. The show writers are messing with us.

There’s a lot to analyze in Episode 6, but two questions loom large in my mind. Is Evan Peters’s Quicksilver a sign of the multiverse, or a red herring? And how is Wanda doing all this?

“She Recast Pietro.”

Quicksilver in Episode 6 seems neither the Fox X-Men Quicksilver nor the dead MCU Quicksilver. His dialogue suggests he’s a constructed sounding board for Wanda to talk to herself, to justify the ethics of what she’s doing in Westview, and to help her introspect about how she’s doing it. But he also tells her things she’s not ready or willing to admit. He’s one of the four Westview residents (including Vision, Agnes, and Wanda herself) who have some awareness that Westview is not real. Is it Wanda creating what she needs to keep up the show, or is someone else urging her to keep up the fiction?

With disappointment, I’m starting to concede that Evan Peters, and his presence in the Fox X-Men movies, is a red herring. I fear Ian McKellen won’t be making any appearances after the credits. There are good arguments for a Multiverse in Phase Four that touches non-Disney studio movies, but ultimately, it’s a story element that overshadows the story being told.

It’s disappointing because casting Aaron Taylor-Johnson could have accomplished the same thing. While the recasting serves as a reference gag for Bewitched, that specific recasting smacks of the show’s creators just messing with us, and to have it go nowhere is a letdown.

There may be a modicum of redemption if the end of WandaVision does hint at mutants in the MCU, possibly through S.W.O.R.D. (which, with the Cataract project looks a lot like Weapon X). But it’s a joke that feels a little mean spirited.

Cataract: the Weapon X files

“I don’t know how I did it. I…I only remember feeling completely alone. Empty. I just…Endless nothingness.”

The mid-season episodes declared that Wanda was to blame for the terrifying state of Westview, but I can’t imagine Marvel Studios choosing to build sympathy for Wanda Maximoff only to turn her into a Daenerys Targaryen villain in the final stretch. There’s something behind Wanda’s newfound Reality and Time warping powers (not to mention her ability to introduce two new Souls into the world), and the ways she is using them. The clue may lie in WadaVision’s most disturbing in-show commercial yet: Yo-Magic.

I’m snacking on Yo-Magic!

Just as Wanda was “empty,” the boy on the island is hungry, and a sinister-looking shark tells him that he used to feel that way–until he started snacking on Yo-Magic! The shark’s doing great, but the boy, unable to access Yo-Magic for himself, starves and dies.

All the WandaVision commercials have referenced some past trauma or manipulation, from Stark Industries’ unexploded bomb, to Baron Strucker and Hydra “unleashing the goddess within,” to the incident in Lagos where Wanda inadvertently caused death and mayhem. Yo-Magic doesn’t reference anything we’ve already seen, so it seems like a revelation. It’s something that happened in the hidden backstory of WandaVision.

The shark gave me vibes of the Shadow King in FX’s Legion, a parasitic villain who lived in David Haller’s mind and used the boy’s powers for his own ends. Something is feeding on Wanda’s power, and it also seems to be connected to her twins, since their birth seemed to be the point of this reality. “For the children.”

David “Legion” Haller and his Shadow King parasite

You can’t have the main villain just show up in the penultimate episode, so i’ve been looking askance at Agnes, knowing about Agatha Harkness from the comics. Until Pietro took over Agnes’s role, and left her “lost.” I also know from the comics, that the twins were born of an attempt by Marvel’s devil, Mephisto, to stitch his own soul together. One of the Halloween decorations looked like Mephisto, Quicksilver told the twins to “unleash hell, demon-spawn!” and…

…I’m starting to feel led down a path here. Introducing the Devil into this storyline of trauma at human hands seems as off-arc as introducing Fox’s X-Men. Unless I’ve missed diabolical details in the first several episodes, the Mephisto theory comes only from comic books published in the 1980s. These are more “occult” details than Evan Peters’s casting. If the X-Men are a red herring (or, more charitably, an Easter egg), Mephisto is too.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I’m going to go out on a limb. Wanda is displaying expanded Infinity Stone powers beyond the Mind Stone Hydra used to “unleash the goddess within.” Hydra and Strucker loom in her past. Two souls have been brought into the world–just as two souls were lost to claim the Soul Stone in Infinity War and Endgame. And there was a sinister, Hydra-associated guy who watched it happen. Someone who had tried and failed to assemble the six stones himself. Captain America’s old foe, the Red Skull.

The Red Skull is now a floaty ghost guarding an Infinity Stone

The Red Skull feels like an odd choice for a WandaVision Big Bad, but he has the established MCU connections to the central mysteries: Wanda’s powers, and Wanda’s children (their souls). He’s tied to Wanda’s origins through Hydra, and his newly-cosmic scope and knowledge of Infinity Stone lore open him up to future story directions. And maybe most fundamentally, he’s a weird, unexplained element in the cinematic universe that begs for explanation and exploration.

Addenda

Marvel Phase Four: The Multiverse!

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.