Sunday, May 15, 2022


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*


In one respect, it seems anomalous that any disciple of the ultraliberal Kevin Feige-- in this case, WANDAVISION showrunner Jac Schaeffer-- should choose to adapt one the most ultraconservative plotlines to come out of Marvel Comics, courtesy of John Byrne, who in most respects would seem to be one of the most ultraconservative plotters in Marvel history.

But now that I've streamed the nine-episode narrative of WANDAVISION, the reason seems obvious: mediocrity calls to mediocrity. For most of his career, John Byrne has been a mediocre writer, whose ability to provide pretty pictures encouraged editors to buy his mediocre melodramatic scripts. WANDAVISION, like the majority of efforts from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is just a series of meaningless melodramatic episodes, made somewhat palatable by the skilled services of actors like Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany, who respectively play "Wanda" (aka the Scarlet Witch) and The Vision. 

One good thing about WANDAVISION is that because its melodramatic incidents are so bereft of meaning, I don't feel the need to cover them in detail. Instead I'll devote more space to the strange parallel between the conservatism of Byrne and the ultraliberalism of the Feige disciple.

Quick background: the Scarlet Witch became a regular Avenger in 1964, but was not romantically linked to any other Marvel character until the early 1970s, when she became entwined with the android hero The Vision. For roughly the next twenty years, their entanglement was a liberal's wet-dream of a relationship marginalized by human bigotry, much akin to the earlier paradigm of mutants vs. human in the X-MEN titles. Though writer Steve Englehart was not the sole architect of this development, he's associated with most of the high points, ranging from having the characters married, giving them mystically inspired children (since the Vision technically didn't have seed to donate), and letting them set up housekeeping in a suburban town.

In 1989, John Byrne-- who was still considered a superstar thanks to his tenures on the X-MEN and SUPERMAN titles-- took over Marvel's WEST COAST AVENGERS. In a contemporary COMICS JOURNAL interview, Byrne made it very clear that he did not validate the liberal thought-experiment of human beings, mutant or not, marrying artificial people. Indeed, he memorably compared the idea to that of "marrying your toaster." In a sequence named "Vision Quest," Byrne divested the Vision of all his human characteristics, so that he became an unfeeling robot, and he revealed that Wanda's children were demonic illusions rather than distinct entities, banishing them into narrative nothingness. I know that this state of affairs lasted a long time in the AVENGERS titles, even after Byrne no longer wrote for Marvel, but I have no idea what the current state of affairs may be for the two heroes.

Over thirty years later, Kevin Feige worked his versions of the Vision and the Scarlet Witch into his AVENGERS films. Given that these grandiose productions did not lend themselves to the slow soap-operatic development seen in serial comic books, I have often wondered why he bothered. Most of the burgeoning romance between the mutant sorceress and the android develops off screen, and the culmination of their relationship is that the Vision is destroyed and Wanda mourns him. 

I suppose WANDAVISION was conceived as some sort of answer to that question, inadequate though it is. Rather than simply reviving the Vision as most comic books would, Schaeffer rather ham-handedly treats the hero's demise as being as permanent as is a human's death in the real world. Wanda, whose powers are much greater than in the comics (though still erratic in nature), doesn't just magick up two fantasy-kids. This time, she transforms an entire town of people into the perfect suburban community, thus combining Englehart's idea of the suburban sojourn with Byrne's notion of a berserk heroine's fantasy-psychodrama. Moreover, Wanda's transformed town goes through phases patterned after famous American sitcoms that the heroine encountered in her youth. 

I don't know if Schaeffer deemed his sitcom-spoofs as piercing satire or as affectionate parodies. All I know is that whether he was sending up BEWITCHED, THE BRADY BUNCH or GROWING PAINS, all of the lampoons were excruciating to sit through. I mean, you know you're doing badly when even THE BRADY BUNCH seems wittier than its purported mockery. Of course, I suppose Schaeffer could always excuse the witlessness of the sitcom-imitations by the fact that they're being generated by the mind of a young woman from the fictional Middle European land of Sokovia, who grew up watching bootleg copies of American sitcoms but who was not actually a script-writer herself. Suffice to say, Schaeffer COULD say that, but I still wouldn't excuse him from perpetrating such garbage entertainment.

Though Wanda has generated her fake suburban dream-town to palliate her grief and to imagine herself enjoying a happy life with a re-created version of Vision, she's also broadcasting signals of her "TV shows" in such a way that the signals can be received by official entities. One entity is the real-life FBI, represented by Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), playing the MCU's version of an Asian lawman who first debuted in the 1956 title THE YELLOW CLAW.  The other organization of the fictional Marvel SWORD, which deals with extraterrestrial threats. This group is dominantly represented by Monica Rambeau, which character Schaeffer wrote for the 2019 CAPTAIN MARVEL film. 

Because of circumstances beyond her control, Rambeau was separated from SWORD for a time, allowing an Evil White Guy to take charge of the group. (How does one know that his evil and his whiteness are connected? It's hard to prove, but I felt that in the first scene that EWG has with Monica, it's strongly implied that his white privilege got him the job once the more qualified Superior Black Woman Monica was out of the way.) Sure enough, toward the end of the series it's revealed that EWG is the real villain: that he attempted to confiscate the shattered body of the original Vision in order to create a new defensive technology. Wanda witnessed her former lover being disassembled like, well, a toaster, and that, among other factors, caused the heroine to flip out and magick up her ideal suburban life. 

Most of the middle range of episodes focus on Jimmy and Monica trying to figure out what's going on with the fantasy-town while also seeking to prevent EWG from provoking a major conflict with the godlike powers of Wanda. Both are fairly dull secondary heroes, but they get some assistance from Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), a quip-happy scientist from the first two THOR movies. Finally, toward the end of the series it's belatedly revealed that a mystery villain seeks to manipulate Wanda's powers to her own ends. Malefic magician Agatha Harkness, extremely loosely based on a long-time Marvel support-character, suffers from fuzzy motivations and is played more for humor than for menace-- probably there's already talk that she might spun off into her own series. (As I've observed elsewhere, no matter what bad things either a female or person of color may do, in the MCU, all is forgiven thanks to identity politics, since only White Men can be truly evil.)

To wrap up, somehow I enjoyed the performances of Olsen and Bettany even though I hated their dialogue, much as I would enjoy the pretty drawings of Byrne despite his ghastly attempts at characterization. This mingling of strange bedfellows therefore shows that, to paraphrase Tolstoy, good conservative stories and good liberal stories are all good in different ways, while mediocre stories from both camps are all pretty much alike.

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