Grief, Dreams, Gender, and Critical Praise
The Marvel Cinematic Universe smash hit WandaVision might have something insightful to say about grief, hope, and harmful ways of coping — but critics haven’t been responsive to such stories in the past. Why is that?
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is a staple of our popular culture. Despite the endless stream of online trolls who dare to discuss it in any non-contemptuous context, the franchise that started as a remarkably well-done, witty superhero film in 2008, back when superhero films were only “surprisingly common” and not the actual bread and butter of theatrical releases, is now one of the common reference points for cultural discussion. Many critiques have been made of the MCU’s impact on the distribution of different types of cinema, and its role as part of the Disney media juggernaut — as Disney’s dominating grip on its own intellectual property has expanded to conquer, first, a subset of Marvel superheroes not already licensed to other properties, to every company that ever owned something connected to Marvel — and, of course, Star Wars along the way.
This piece is not about that. The MCU may be imperialist and it is almost certainly a tool of Disney’s media “monopoly” (based on my admittedly Economics 101-level knowledge of that term, and the ongoing fracturing of endless streaming services from other providers, I feel like the better term would be “concerningly trend-setting and influential). What I’m most interested in is the critique famously raised by Martin Scorsese and responded to with characteristic nuance (which is to say, very little) by defenders of the genre (including, at the time, me) as well as those who agreed with the director of GoodFellas: that the MCU is more akin to “theme parks” than cinema, “with the actors doing the best they can” — not “trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” I’m not interested in getting into whether Scorsese is right or wrong at this stage, either — what I’m interested in is the critical response as a whole to, specifically, the pandemic-interrupted MCU’s long-awaited latest entry, the mock-sitcom-turned-paranormal-thriller WandaVision — and its dissonance in connection with how many critics also responded to Scorsese’s comments. As the strange man on Twitter says, the way WandaVision is being handled “smacks of gender” and I want to turn this discursive twenty-eighth of February into the twenty-eighth of CONTROVERSY.
What I’m interested in is the critical consensus on WandaVision, why it’s different, how people are reading WandaVision, and how similar texts to WandaVision which may have approached the themes of loss, grief, coping, and abuse/unjustified coping strategies have been ignored as a result of, ultimately, harmful gender stereotypes — and how the show’s die-hard fans may have less actual respect for those themes than those of us who are critical of it (or, in my case, enjoy it but wish, in a paraphrase of the words of Pedro Pascal’s Wonder Woman 1984 villain Max Lord, that although it is good, it could be better).
Criticism, Superheroes, and the Scorsese Factor
Full disclosure: I have my opinions on the MCU, Scorsese, and everything else discussed here, but I notice a pattern which is dissonant regardless of where one stands. To be more specific about my biases: I have seen all but one MCU film (The Incredible Hulk), and the majority of the television content set in its universe. I do not love the MCU (or, for that matter, the superhero genre) for often-idiosyncratic fan reasons, but nevertheless, I talk about it like I’m a fan. I’m not going to deny that when it comes down to it, I could be accused of being a “Marvel zombie” — I have, many times, by incredibly friendly Twitter folks who take issue with, as an example, me stating that I enjoyed Thor: Ragnarok or Ant-Man and the Wasp a lot more than I enjoyed The Irishman and that any critiques of the identity politics of the MCU need to reckon with how big a deal Black Panther was and how big a deal Terrible Nerds made Captain Marvel. But I also agree with Martin Scorsese and many other critics who probably put the argument better than he did: a certain kind of entertainment which disregards human complexity and emotion beneath a certain depth is coming to predominate.
Unlike many of these critics, I don’t agree that this lack of depth originates from the source material — I’ve spent considerable digital ink defending the concept of video games as art (with caveats), for instance. The Irishman is sort of a punching bag for me in that while I respect Martin Scorsese as a filmmaker (The Departed is one of my favorite movies, Shutter Island could also have been if it had not also been a violent denial of actual historical fact in favor of a “the main character is mentally ill” shock twist), The Irishman is based upon material far trashier than any superhero comic: a man’s false confession to a real murder, probably written to earn money for his heirs when he’s too old to meaningfully prosecute. Scorsese made his remarks while promoting The Irishman, so I think this critique is fair to bring up. But Scorsese is also right. On the whole, The Irishman makes use of more complex cinematic techniques, goes deeper into human emotion, and relies more on ambiguity (something which superhero-genre stories tend to ignore, even though they don’t have to) than any film released in the MCU (with the exception, perhaps, of Avengers: Endgame, a film made with uncharacteristic care that nevertheless sports one of the more banal storylines of the entire franchise).
Enter WandaVision: a show I don’t think any lay or professional critic knew how to approach going in beyond vague remarks that “based on the trailer, this appears to be inspired by Pleasantville and possibly the works of David Lynch.” A true statement, but a misleading one at least in the case of the Pleasantville comparison — even with one episode left to air, I feel comfortable saying that WandaVision goes very different and more complex directions than Pleasantville, even though both of them use the conceit of a sitcom reality colliding with “actual” reality to show character arcs about escape from real-world pain. WandaVision is difficult to either defend according to typical pro-MCU/pro-superhero talking points (because there’s nothing but wry allusion to superheroes until the fourth episode, and going into the final one, there’s been few fights and most of the ones that have happened have been in-genre with something like Bewitched, a sitcom where supernatural powers exist and yet is still a sitcom) or to attack quite as easily as crowd-pleasing (because, again, it isn’t about superheroes punching each other and big explosions, at least not yet). And that’s where gender enters into things — but before I get to that, I want to get into the numbers on the critical consensus. I wanted to make a nice, neat graph:
As we can see, there’s no meaningful statistical difference between the reception of The Irishman, Endgame, The Dark Knight (a Dark and Serious and Thematic superhero film from the same year as the original Iron Man), the Netflix Daredevil show (which was part of the MCU at the time it was released, but whose status is now questionable), and WandaVision. The three titles that stand out that I’ve included include one typical MCU film, Captain Marvel, which receives the worst critical treatment (still better than its fan treatment), the recent and quite good Netflix/Amazon-distributed lesbian survival thriller I Care a Lot, and Cloak & Dagger, another ambiguously-MCU superhero show which grapples with race and socioeconomic issues with a shared male and female protagonist. You can probably see where I’m going here: regardless of whether you’re superhero movies, superhero TV, or gritty social commentary of the kind Scorsese would at least theoretically defend, the common thread between positive critical responses seems to be having almost entirely male characters as the center of your story arc.
Except WandaVision. Critics love WandaVision. WandaVision is about a woman, right? The male lead is dead before the story starts, it’s obviously really obviously about her! It’s even got gender commentary! How can you allege sexism, Dr. Lockhart, when the critics love this woman-centric MCU story? They love it because it has deep themes about grief and loss and all of that!
There’s three key problems with this narrative, though:
- As my chart shows, the presence of “deep themes” is not necessary to earn a film a lot of respect from critics; Endgame, while, as I mentioned, extremely artfully directed by the Russo Brothers, is the apex of everything that Martin Scorsese criticized, and Daredevil the Netflix show brings little to the table that’s new besides well-choreographed violence (not a theme);
- The themes of a film like I Care a Lot, which is not even remotely a superhero film, are more complex, challenging, and difficult to grapple with than any of the titles ranked in the 90s (except, potentially, WandaVision — that’s the point of this discussion);
- Cloak and Dagger may or may not have been successful at addressing race issues in the US, but it at least tried to do this in the context of the sort-of MCU, something none of the positively acclaimed titles did;
- Captain Marvel wasn’t great, but frankly it wasn’t twelve percentage points on the movie-rating-scale-that-really-starts-around-80 worse than Endgame.
Based on this, I think we can affirm my paraphrase of dril: the critical reaction here overall is weird and “smacks of gender.”
Why WandaVision is Different
So, let’s say you grant me my argument that female-led films and shows get ranked below male led films and shows by Serious Critics, whether those films and shows are Serious Art or Crowd-Pleasing Superhero Junk. Why would a superhero show plainly centered on and led by a woman be garnering what seems like nigh-universal praise? Let’s even grant that it has Themes; not only does this not answer why it compares so favorably with a Good Old School Art Film like I Care a Lot which just happens to be about a lesbian descending into moral abomination because of Capitalism and Stuff instead of a bearded dad descending into same because of same, it doesn’t answer why it is outperforming Captain Marvel, which didn’t have themes but neither did the acclaimed Endgame, which lost by only one statistically-insignificant point in critical response to The Arbiter of True Art, The Irishman.
No, something is wonky here, and I’m going to tell you what it is. There’s a couple of parts to it, and the first has so far been most clearly articulated in the world of professional critics by my friend, professional critic and frequent contrarian Noah Berlatsky, who initially really liked WandaVision and wrote about it for NBC, acknowledging the clear influence of David Lynch, who is one of my own favorite directors, and suggesting that perhaps WandaVision was an attempt to fit the wacky style of the MCU to television more effectively than previous attempts like Daredevil which attempted Breaking Bad-style prestige. A few weeks in, however, Noah wrote on his Patreon something that sums up a lot of my own issues with WandaVision:
I’m growing increasingly frustrated with the show. WandaVision seems to want to be about grief, trauma, and sadness. But it compulsively spews out penultimate truths and shocking plot reveals. It wants to inspire excited fandom headlines and speculation about What Happens Next Week. But what does excited speculation about What Happens Next Week have to do with the experience of loss?
I didn’t actually necessarily agree with Noah when the show first shifted a bit closer to the typical MCU, because it still seemed to be focusing on the experience of grief, even introducing another female lead character, Monica Rambeau, Captain Marvel’s-maybe-but-we’re-not-telling-you-because-as-Disney-we’re-obliged-to-be-30-years-minimum-behind-the-times-on-gender stepdaughter, dealing with her own grief at the loss of her biological mother, who died of cancer while she, Monica, was vanished from existence as the result of Thanos’s Snap in Infinity War. I assumed that even though we were now back to dealing with secret super-agencies (this one, S.W.O.R.D., plainly modeled in part on the Internet meme/fanfic community The SCP Foundation) and characters (Monica) that comics readers know are destined to become powerful superheroes, the ultimate connection between Monica and Wanda would be some sort of shared coping with having to live in a world where ultimately one purple-colored individual has robbed them of the only family they have in different yet equally traumatic ways. But no, as Noah points out, barring a massive shift in the final episode, that’s not where we’re going with this.
No, the plot turns out to be very similar to a famous comics arc in which Wanda, under her full-fledged X-Men name Scarlet Witch (which the MCU now has but did not previously have the legal rights to use) creates an imaginary family while she threatens the integrity of the timeline/universe, and is threatened by the manipulations of her sitcom-neighbor but secretly-more-powerful witch, Agatha Harkness (played here masterfully by Katherine Hahn). All of this is fine, but there’s still this suggestion of a deeper theme that’s getting… downplayed, the same way all of the moral questions involved in time travel and resurrection were downplayed in Infinity War. This question was breached, but not really confronted in a meaningful way, in the most recent episode, in which Agatha forces Wanda to relive her traumatic past as a victim of a US bombing campaign in the former USSR and as the widow of a man she had to kill and then watched resurrected and destroyed, and then see dismantled and violated yet again for the purusuit of military power. The question is about how we understand, how we judge, how we make up our minds about a character who takes intense, harmful-to-self-and-others actions they obviously have no right to take, when those actions could very easily seem rational and even necessary in the face of all the pain they’ve faced.
People who’ve read my other Medium posts know where I’m about to go with this: The Last of Us Part II. The 2020 video game’s primary arc about its main protagonist, Ellie, is remarkably similar: forced to watch the murder of her surrogate father Joel in circumstances equally gory and eerily similar to Vision’s death, after losing everyone else she cares about violent as well, denied aid by her community, sets out with her girlfriend on what she sees as a perfectly justified crusade of revenge against the Washington Liberation Front, the insurgent army whose members killed the last man she had any trust or care for. Of course we know what Ellie is doing is wrong, and we get an increasing sense that she knows, too, and is repressing it. There’s a remarkably similar scene, despite the seemingly large gulfs between a zombie-apocalypse-revenge story and a superheroine-gone-bad pseudo-sitcom, in each. For Wanda, it’s the moment when Agatha forces her to remember why she’s obsessed with American sitcoms — because of the moment where her life froze, when her parents were killed in a bombing. She remembers the exact season and episode of The Dick van Dyke Show that had been playing, a numeric sequence which had echoed through the show but never been explained, a reminder of both horrible trauma and also the only hope or escape she has. In TLOU2, the equivalent scene is when Ellie finally finds Joel’s killer, now protecting another child as Joel once protected her, and begins to drown her in the waters off the coast of Santa Barbara — and then has a brief flash of Joel playing guitar and smiling. It’s the moment when she puts together the cognitive dissonance, realizes this whole time she’s been trying to avenge a man she cast off because she despised the actions he took in rescuing her, out of guilt for that very casting-off, that her own inability to reconcile Joel’s monstrous side and the part that had given her the only stability she had in her trauma-filled life is why she has killed so many and is about to kill more. Like Wanda, Ellie has her escape — in her case, comic books where the future looks less bleak and morality less grey. The themes are very similar.
And critics liked The Last of Us Part II if we look at it on paper. It won a game of the year award, with Abby’s voice actor Laura Bailey being given the video game equivalent of the Best Actress award for video games for her secondary protagonist role, presented by Captain Marvel actress Brie Larsen herself — clearly a commentary on the horrific harassment both women experienced for their participation in roles written by other people, in franchises previously seen by male fans as “theirs”. But, did the critics really like it?
The “reviews of record,” which tend to trend high for games from large and influential publishers because of the need to preserve a positive relationship with distributors, who provide advance review copies, make up the RottenTomatoes scores. As I’ve documented, the next few weeks in gaming press were a series of broadside at TLOU2, its story, and its developers, about labor issues, about the story, more than anything about the tone and the assumption that we just don’t need gritty, morally flawed female protagonists, especially not if they graphically hurt people (see the panning of I Care a Lot).
I think that TLOU2 faced backlash for exactly the reason that WandaVision isn’t — because it presents a palatable vision of a woman’s grief. It shows the acceptable unacceptable way to handle the specific scenario of the closest male figure in your life having his head physically annihilated in front of you, feeling responsible, and doing things you know are wrong while pushing those things down. After all, Wanda’s horrific actions look beautiful. The people of the New Jersey town she’s taken over are literally screaming inside — at one point, the resurrected Vision temporarily removes the power of her Hex from his coworker, and the coworker breaks down begging to escape — but they look happy.
The creators of WandaVision don’t intend this. Regardless of whether the ending is a poignant meditation on grief or a smackdown between Vision and the evil Grey Vision introduced in an end-credits stinger in the previous episode, they clearly mean for us to think that Wanda Maximoff has done a very bad thing, even if worse people are involved. The lack of graphic violence is a result of the show being on Disney+, not a true creative choice. But the ways in which professional critics are responding — praising a much less deep text about grief, panning a more complex one — shows that they don’t think violence, visible harm, etc., are woman things. And there’s a huge contingent of young people raised on pastel cartoons who feel the same way, who aspire to the kind of idyllic life Wanda commits an atrocity to have and who would be more concerned by the appearance of blood or even overt sexuality than by the psychic trauma we’re told Wanda is inflicting. They see action, fighting, the kind that feels real and isn’t aesthetically tuned to bother us less, the kind of stuff Scorsese directs, as a toxically male thing, and they’re not quite sure about the actual gender of anyone saying she’s a woman who prefers the latter to the former.
It’s my policy not to link tweets without consent, but there’s a tweet going around that essentially says people who are watching WandaVision and like it are women, who “get it,” and men, who want it to be a comic book show. This sounds progressive until you think about the extent to which this sets aside so much from “womanhood” in favor of embracing allegedly positive gender stereotypes.
WandaVision is, if we can say anything prior to the finale, supposed to be a cautionary tale about what grief can make us do. But in a society obsessed with the sort of “clean” aesthetics that the MCU has created, where intergalactic genocide is just a painless fade-to-black and where the violation of minds is mostly a joke, and blood and sex are just things we don’t see — I’m with Scorcese. In a way, we’re all living in Westview whether we like it or not — shut off from legitimate emotions, unable to fully express ourselves, unless it’s in the sanitized technicolor imagery we’re allowed. And anyone expressing this view is, like Monica early in the story when she tried to infiltrate Westview, at risk of being literally thrown from the discourse.