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The MCU keeps doing its women dirty

“You break the rules and become a hero,” Wanda Maximoff tells Stephen Strange in a heavily memed moment early in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. “I do it, I become the enemy … That doesn’t seem fair.”

That self-serving quote from the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe movie doesn’t really hold up if you think about it for more than two seconds. It’s a false equivalency between two characters who are inherently on unequal footing. Wanda selfishly enslaved an entire town out of grief, while Stephen Strange sacrificed half the universe in a gambit to save it. Within the movie’s framework, her logic doesn’t make sense. But her grievance does point at a real trend in the ways female characters are treated across the MCU. As a micro observation, it doesn’t work, but on a macro level, the connotations point to a problem. While Doctor Strange breaks a lot of new rules in Multiverse of Madness and still rises as a hero, Wanda becomes a simplistic, one-note villain — and becomes the latest MCU woman to fall.

[Ed. note: Spoilers ahead for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and MCU movies in general.]

Image: Marvel Studios

It emerges early in Multiverse of Madness that Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) is the main villain of the story. In a quest to find a universe where the children she imagined for herself in WandaVision actually exist, she’s hellbent on capturing multiverse-hopping teenager America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) and stealing her powers. As the villainous Scarlet Witch, Wanda has some truly terrifying scenes and more specific motivations than some past MCU bad guys. The fact that she turns into a villain isn’t necessarily the issue. But her full plunge into evil speaks to an unfortunate trend in how the MCU treats female characters: They’re rarely allowed to be the same type of heroic as their male counterparts.

That’s slowly changing as new heroes get added to the ever-expanding MCU roster. But Wanda is the last of Marvel’s Phase One and Two heroines, all of whom met similarly tragic, ignominious ends. That doesn’t make for a good track record going forward, especially given how the male heroes of the same era have held up.

I think I’ve seen this film before

natasha romanoff landing on a platform in her signature pose

Image: Disney/Marvel Studios

The upcoming MCU lineup has more female heroes than ever before, with Hawkeye’s Kate Bishop, Captain Marvel 2’s Carol Danvers, and Ms. Marvel’s Kamala Khan all ready to save the world. But the MCU wasn’t always so inclusive. For two whole MCU phases, there were only three women who were suited superheroes, not civilian love interests or other side characters: Natasha Romanoff, Gamora, and Wanda Maximoff.

All three of them have shady pasts. All three of them joined groups primarily made up of men. (Natasha was already part of the group by the time Wanda arrived, but she’s still the one woman among five men.) And while all three of them had a chance to grow as heroes and become just as important to their respective teams as their male counterparts, all three of them are now dead. (At least, the Gamora who went through character growth died in Avengers: Infinity War. Her villainous, still-loyal-to-Thanos time-traveling past self is still running around. Similarly, it’s possible that Wanda only appears to be dead, or will be brought back through multiverse magic.)

gamora in avengers: infinity war

Image: Marvel Studios

Yes, Tony Stark also died in the line of duty, but the MCU has a whole legion of white men ready to step up when one of them falls in battle. Even setting aside the sheer census discrepancy, the respective way deaths are treated in-universe is also jarring. When Tony Stark dies, he gets a well-witnessed hero’s sacrifice that saves the world. He gets a big funeral packed with deep-cut Marvel cameos, and the whole MCU feels the effects of his death. Peter Parker spends his next movie unpacking Tony’s legacy, reminded of him at every turn.

When Natasha Romanoff dies, only Clint and Wanda comment on it during Avengers: Endgame. She’s largely forgotten by everyone else. Disney Plus’ Hawkeye eventually gave Clint more space to process that grief, but the only person who shares his feelings is Natasha’s long-lost sister Yelena — a character only introduced after Natasha died, in her belated solo film. Granted, it’s not like a lot of the other heroes felled in battle got a huge funeral attended by every on-screen character, since the MCU seems more focused on plotting out the next thing than on giving characters space for emotional catharsis. But still — only a handful of people mourning one of the original Avengers?

We still don’t know the greater ramifications of Wanda’s and Gamora’s deaths — or if they are even really deaths. (Though Scarlett Johansson’s messy break with Marvel makes it less likely that she’ll be resurrected somehow.) But whatever the case, they never got the chance to become the same type of heroes as their male counterparts. There’s no hero’s journey for them, just a tragic ending, often as footnotes in someone else’s story.

The WandaVision of it all

Wanda in WandaVision conjuring a red magic blast

Image: Marvel Studios

It is particularly frustrating in Wanda’s case, considering how much screen time and attention she’s gotten compared to the MCU’s other female characters. Before Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Disney Plus’ first original series, WandaVision, centered on Wanda, who has taken control of a town and plunged it into an escapist sitcom fantasy. The show ended without Wanda facing repercussions for her actions, which some viewers found frustrating.

But in retrospect, the reason Wanda didn’t deal with consequences or make amends in WandaVision is because the series was apparently a villain origin story — even if that was unclear at the time because the ever-churning MCU machine relies on never fully showing its next move. Even if Wanda didn’t give up on her grief during the show, it at least felt like she’d learned not to let it consume her and the innocent victims around her. What was that line about love persevering, if not hope that Wanda could recognize that her mourning is just love left with nowhere to go?

Because Wanda was the center of the show, and because it focuses so clearly on her pain, she became a sympathetic character — and also the female MCU character with the most dedicated, central screen time. She turned into a fan favorite. Part of that was the fact that audiences got to know her in a way they never got to know Gamora or Natasha, in a way they have yet to know Carol Danvers or Thor’s Jane Foster. But part of it is also her feelings of alienation and grief, which appealed to fans who saw themselves in her struggles. By the time WandaVision ended, Wanda had become one of the very few female characters in the MCU with an actual story of her own.

Wanda Maximoff aka Scarlet Witch stands guard with her powers in her right hand in WandaVision

Image: Marvel Studios

The way she became a villain isn’t the problem. (Though the fact that she seemingly forgets about her lost love, Vision, and focuses solely on finding her children speaks to a stereotype of female characters only becoming significant and heroic when they’re acting as mothers.) The frustrating part is the fact that she became the only one of the three original MCU female heroes to get a chance at becoming a worthy hero with a full character arc — and instead, she turned into a villain to be thwarted. All the lessons fans thought they saw her learning at the end of WandaVision turned out to be red herrings.

“That doesn’t seem fair,” Wanda tells Doctor Strange, and she’s right. It isn’t fair that Wanda, Natasha, and Gamora all die (or “die”) so the men around them can rise and soldier on. It isn’t fair that the only one of them to have a story of her own — the story of a lonely woman trying to understand powers she never asked for, and processing the grief of losing everything she ever loved without having anyone to lean on — becomes a bad guy so Doctor Strange can have a reason to hop around the multiverse.

Future plans for the MCU have tentatively promised to rectify this. Kate Bishop will likely take up the Hawkeye mantle, while Jane Foster is becoming the new Thor in Thor: Love and Thunder. Yelena might turn into a hero yet, and Black Panther’s Shuri will supposedly be spotlighted in the sequel. Carol Danvers will be joined by Monica Rambeau and Kamala Khan. Likewise, Ant-Man and The Wasp’s Hope van Dyne, Thor: Ragnarok’s Valkyrie, Black Panther’s Okoye and Nakia, Guardians of the Galaxy’s Mantis and Nebula, and Eternals’ Thena, Sersi, and Makkari might eventually get the chance to evolve into dynamic heroes. It just sucks that the original heroines had to fall for that to happen.

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