Katarina shares her love for the unsung hero of the Avengers.
If there’s one thing everyone knows about me, it’s that I love Wanda Maximoff a.k.a. the Scarlet Witch. I mean I really love her. I love her in comics. I love her in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I love her on my merchandise. I love her in my advertising. I love her in every way, shape, and form Marvel will give her to me. I have her picture on my t-shirts, and her posters on my wall. I cosplay as her at comic cons and I even put her symbol on my graduation cap. Wanda has resonated with me in a way no other character has. Her story is one of struggle, suffering, and recovery in much the same way as the past 10 years of my life have been.
I may be Wanda’s Number One Fan, but not everyone loves Wanda Maximoff. There was the cashier at the comic book store who told me he hated her when I was buying her comic book. And then there was that girl at the late night re-screening of Avengers: Age of Ultron who announced that she still hated her on our way out. Wanda Maximoff is not an easy woman to love. In both comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, she has doomed the world several times over (before saving it many more times). She has been villain and hero. And, frankly, so have I.
Wanda Maximoff’s history is fraught with mistakes. She even says it herself:
The reason the comic shop cashier gave for hating Wanda was the infamous House of M storyline. It’s a complicated tangle of a story but in short, Wanda suffers a mental breakdown as a result of the loss of her children whom she conjured with her magic. Her powers are out of control and unravelling the fabric of reality. The X-Men weigh their options and decide that killing her is the best way to stop the destruction. Pietro (Quicksilver), Wanda’s twin brother, alerts her of the plan and suggests that she grant everyone their deepest wishes so they leave her alone. She does, creating a world where everyone has what they desire. It doesn’t take long for the X-Men to realize what’s going on and mount a resistance. As Magneto confronts Quicksilver about what he did and kills him, Wanda appears. Heartbroken and enraged over her twin’s death, she declares “no more mutants.” She depowers 90% of the mutants in the world in one fell swoop.
Needless to say, X-Men fans were not happy about this. Wanda’s actions in House of M were wrong and their consequences horrible, but they were authentic. She was angry, and she lashed out. Wanda is unstable and emotional, and her powers reflect that. When she is upset she expresses it. She is aware of the chaos she wreaks. She even tried to kill herself once. She is raw. She makes mistakes. She is messy. She is human.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe:
The Marvel Cinematic Universe gives us a younger, but no less fraught Wanda, played by Elizabeth Olsen. She’s introduced as a villain in Avengers: Age of Ultron. She and Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are young rebels who signed up for experimentation in the hopes of retaliation against Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), the creator of the weapons that killed their parents. They waited under their bed in a bombed-out apartment building for a Stark Industries shell to explode for two days. They fight on behalf of Ultron (voiced by James Spader), easily knocking the Avengers back with their powers. Wanda, in particular, is depicted as hugely powerful, easily able to hold her own and mess with the Avengers’ heads. Wanda and Pietro switch sides when they learn of Ultron’s plan of global destruction and become an integral part of the Avengers team.
Wanda’s role in this movie sets up a journey of atonement and self-acceptance. It’s triggered by the realization that she has devoted herself to the wrong side. She let people experiment on her, give her powers, for the wrong side. What she has done cannot be undone, but perhaps she can make up for it by doing good. During the final battle on the flying remains of Sokovia, Wanda has a moment of weakness. She is overcome by fear and the guilt of having contributed to the situation. Clint Barton a.k.a. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is there to talk her through it. “It doesn’t matter what you did, or what you were. If you go out there, you fight, and you fight to kill…if you step out that door, you are an Avenger.” Step out the door she does, complete with slow motion and swelling score. Wanda makes the choice to fight, to become an Avenger. Age of Ultron ends in tragedy for Wanda with the death of her twin. To lose the only person who’s been by her side for her entire life, is a fate akin to death for her. She tells Ultron as much when she rips out his metal heart, delivering the final blow on behalf of the Avengers. But instead of caving to grief, she steps up. She fights harder, finishes the battle, and joins the team.
Captain America: Civil War brings us only more tragedy in Wanda’s life. She’s an accepted member of the Avengers, yes, but she’s without her brother. When the mission in Lagos goes sideways and she ends up killing civilians, she has to live with more lives lost on her conscience. She beats herself up for it, even after Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America’s (Chris Evans) mini motivational speech. Civil War gives us more direct access to Wanda’s psyche in the few scenes we get with her and Vision (Paul Bettany), the synthezoid powered by the Mind Stone who was created in Age of Ultron. As Vision says, people can’t help but be afraid of her because of what she can do. In response, Wanda delivers the lines of dialogue that hit me the hardest in this movie: “I used to think of myself one way, but after this,” she says as she twirls her magic around her fingers, “I am something else. I’m still me I think, but that’s not what everyone else sees.” It’s when she tries to leave the Avengers compound that she finds out she’s being kept on house arrest for the public’s safety, according to Tony Stark. Later, Clint comes to collect her to join Team Cap. Wanda resists at first, citing the damage she’s already done. Clint convinces her to “get off her ass” just before Vision arrives to prevent Wanda from escaping. “If you do this, they’ll never stop being afraid of you,” Vision notes as Wanda is preparing to overpower him. “I can’t control their fear, only my own,” she replies as she blasts him through the floors below. It’s this moment that Wanda chooses to accept what she’s become. She cannot erase her powers. She cannot erase her past. She cannot change what other people think of her. All she can do is mitigate her own responses to what happens. She does what she believes is right. Unfortunately, this time doing so ends her up imprisoned before Steve comes to free her. This is just another thing Wanda has to survive. And survive she does, if the Infinity War trailers are anything to go by (though, of course, an Infinity War self-sacrifice is my ultimate fear).
Wanda’s journey from villain to hero and her rocky relationship with her stigmatized powers is something I can personally relate to. Her character resonates so strongly with me because I draw a parallel to my own life. I am a self-harmer. Or, more optimistically, I was a self-harmer. For 10 years I purposely inflicted damage on my own skin as a less-than-stellar way to cope with mental illness. At times it was rare, at other times it was many times a day, every day. I celebrated one year self-harm free this spring, the longest I’ve gone without self-harming since I began. I wear a thousand scars littered from head to toe. Some are faded white lines, others are raised pink gashes that have yet to flatten and pale. I wear my past, my illness on my body in a way that’s nearly impossible to conceal. Once, after I stopped trying to conceal my scars, I had a woman visibly manhandle her child away from me at a petting zoo. I used to conceive of myself like she must have, as a monster. At my lowest, it was my favorite word to call myself. Not only for who I thought I was, but for what I was doing in response. What sort of monster brutalizes their own body like that? Wittingly, knowingly, deliberately. I was the villain in my own story. I was the one who was causing harm to myself and those around me. I did things I’m not proud of. I lied, I tricked and hurt people all to continue being sick. I not only have to live with that, but I have to live with a reminder of my rock bottom that I can see on my body every day. It took time for me to become comfortable showing my skin. When I was at my sickest, I was perversely proud of my scars. I was proud of the damage I’d done. Then I was ashamed of them, of what I’d done to myself. Like Wanda, I went on a journey of self-acceptance. I had to make my peace with my past, present, and future. To do so I grew other parts of my identity and slowly let go of being sick. I filled all the time I devoted to sickness with other things. With movies, with fandom, with writing, with friendship. I let these things replace the holes in my identity being sick had left. I became a person again, so far from the monster I once thought I was. I’m still me, I think. Perhaps more me than I was before. But that’s not always what everyone else sees. Now that I no longer try to hide, I garner a lot of stares. People see the scars and while they aren’t necessarily afraid of me like they are of Wanda, they certainly make their own judgments about me. It’s taken time to accept that as well. I had to stop trying to control what others think about me. I simply can’t control what they think. I can only control my own response, as Wanda discovers. Taking a step back from that has been freeing. Last year I stepped out of a crowded elevator with my friends only to find them about to start a fight on my behalf. Apparently, a man in the elevator had been openly gaping at my scars, on full view in my sleeveless summer dress. I hadn’t noticed at all. People staring doesn’t bother me anymore. I know my body. I know myself. I accept my past. I accept the way it impacts my present. People may see the scars first, but I make sure the real me shines through them as brightly as I can manage.
Now, with Wanda getting her time to shine in both film and comics, I have her storyline as a constant source of inspiration. In the MCU, Wanda’s story offers a vulnerability we don’t normally see in superheroes. Yes, we have Tony Stark with his trauma, guilt, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. But Tony has never been called a human weapon of mass destruction, as he calls Wanda in Civil War. Wanda has to cope with the horror of having powers that just spring from her body unaided by technology. She also has to deal with other people’s fear of her for having those powers and the stigma that carries. She isn’t just thrown in a cell when deposited in the Raft at the end of Civil War, she is straight-jacketed and shock-collared. It’s not just what she’s done that Wanda has to cope with. It’s what she is. It’s what she’ll always be. She can’t get rid of her powers any more than I can cleanse my body of scars. She chooses to embrace, to fight for good to atone for her mistakes, and to accept her present reality.
That comic book I was buying when the cashier told me he hated Wanda? It was her atonement in the comics universe. The story, written by James Robinson, found Wanda alone, self-isolated, and trying to fix magic, which she believes she herself has broken (Scarlet Witch, 2015). Every spell she casts ages her and brings her closer to death, but she is determined to fix the problem. The entire run shows her in recovery, even going so far as to mention she’s on anti-depressants and seeing a psychiatrist regularly. This is a Wanda trying to right the wrongs she’s caused in her own life and in the world. This is her penance.
Wanda, in both the MCU and comics, takes blow after blow but she never stops fighting. She is a survivor in every way. I fell in love with her because her struggles made her resilient and compassionate instead of bitter and cold. She continually inspires me to find strength in my vulnerabilities instead of shame and to stay soft in the face of so much struggle. This is what I wish I’d told the cashier, and even the girl in the movie theater. This is the Wanda I love. The one whose journey speaks to my own. Whose perseverance encourages me to carry on. In the eternally relatable words of Tom King’s Vision (Vision, 2016): “Wanda Maximoff, I love you.” See you in Infinity War.
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