Is “WandaVision” Celebrating or Condemning the Military?

Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) in WandaVision.

Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff, left, and Paul Bettany as Vision in WandaVision (Photo credit: Disney+/Marvel Studios)

When WandaVision debuted on Disney+ in January, it became hugely popular. In the weeks that followed, it grew in popularity, filling social media with memes, reportedly becoming the most watched streamed series in the world, and reigniting debates over the power and prominence of the Marvel franchise. The discourse has been rampant: Some fans believe Marvel stories are a (non-Indigenous) U.S. version of mythology. Critics point out that Disney has an intellectual property chokehold on the entertainment industry that does more harm than good. Others argue about the themes and threads of the series: Is WandaVision about grief or something else entirely? Many critics have also revived the argument that Marvel’s onscreen products—WandaVision included—are simply propaganda for the U.S. military.

But it’s not that simple. Yes, it’s true that WandaVision is a form of military propaganda, but there’s a lot more to be said about the role of the military in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and in Hollywood in general. The most notable collaboration between Marvel and the military in recent years was 2019’s Captain Marvel, the franchise’s first woman-led superhero film. Fans and critics alike noted the film’s promotion of the U.S. Air Force (USAF), which was never hidden from audiences: The cast filmed promotional materials for the military branch, multiple movie theater chains showed a recruiting commercial before the film, and the USAF lent Marvel use of their planes, vehicles, and gear. Lending military gear is common both for superhero films and many action flicks, as military-grade vehicles aren’t exactly easy to come by for civilian filmmakers. The Department of Defense’s (DOD) long history with the MCU typically involves equipment loans in exchange for script approval, though the DOD backed off in the mid-2010s as more Marvel films dealt with outer space and fictional entities such as S.H.I.E.L.D.

To the contrary, Marvel’s defenders are quick to declare that depictions of military authority in Marvel films develop beyond a black-and-white narrative of good and evil or war and peace. Marvel’s military world comes to live within that old sentiment, “Antiwar is not antisoldier,” a phrase I heard often both as a child of the Bush era and as a Quaker school student. How does WandaVision fit into this narrative? In the MCU, systems such as the military are often corrupted from within, either from an infiltrating enemy such as Hydra, a fictional Nazi offshoot, or from an individual bad apple or rogue soldier, such as the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents who turn their allegiance to Hydra. But this corruption is also amended from within: Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) puts down his arms. Captain America (Chris Evans) no longer follows orders indiscriminately. A good soldier or a good cop always matches a corrupt one’s brashness with equal grace. It’s an interesting tradition to take us into the world of WandaVision, where we follow a woman who has been on both sides of this battle, who has fought both for and against the Avengers and has come out scarred, shattered, and unwilling to put her faith in any organized entity.

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Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) is the clearest victim of the military industrial complex in any MCU property: Her parents were killed in a bomb strike, with the missile bearing the name of Iron Man’s defense business, Stark Industries. She joined a paramilitary organization with the promise of exacting revenge against the United States, giving her body to the state for experimentation, and coming out as a human weapon. She lost her brother, Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), to another of the Avengers’ creations; lost her agency to the U.S. government and the United Nations; and finally lost her love in an effort to stave off further widespread devastation. So when U.S. military powers, led by the FBI and the fictional Sentient Weapon Observation and Response Division (S.W.O.R.D.), invade the alternate reality she has so painstakingly created in her grief in WandaVision, she will stop at nothing to defeat them.

S.W.O.R.D. is led by Director Tyler Hayward (Josh Stamberg), a one-dimensional antagonist who at first just seems insensitive and volatile, but is later revealed to have created a bioweapon out of Vision’s (Paul Bettany) reassembled body. Tyler’s foil is Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), an FBI agent on a missing persons case who was featured in 2018’s Ant-Man and the Wasp. Jimmy’s partner on this mission—and Hayward’s biggest in-house rival—is Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), the daughter of a late USAF pilot who played a key role in Captain Marvel. Monica is sucked into Wanda’s “hex” and hypnotized into becoming Geraldine, an unassuming, upbeat neighbor who helps Wanda deliver her children and then reveals she knows about Wanda’s real past life. Defiant and confident in her convictions, Monica challenges Tyler and reenters the hex to warn Wanda of the impending storm, even after multiple colleagues warn her that the frequent exposure to the hex’s radiation has altered her DNA.

In the MCU, exposure to radiation from the U.S. government or other forces results in genetic mutations that grant superpowers: Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) becomes the Hulk, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) becomes Spider-Man, and Monica gains the ability to slow down objects like bullets from a gun. In the real world, of course, radiation exposure from the U.S. government resulted in genetic mutations that destroyed entire communities and environments of the Marshall Islands and sowed generations of disease on Japanese civilians. Many Marvel stories are obvious explorations of the collective guilt and fear of the Cold War era, brimming with anxiety about a nuclear apocalypse and the retroactive hope that the hells unleashed in the 20th century may be salvageable. Monica’s newfound powers live at this intersection of hope and fear, as she plows into an uncertain world to save Wanda from Tyler’s planned attack.

Like the MCU as a whole, WandaVision wants to have it both ways to exist in a noncommittal space where authority figures can be both foes and friends.

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But Wanda doesn’t want Monica’s help. She hardly trusts anyone, let alone someone representing the U.S. government. When Monica tries to warn Wanda about Tyler’s plans, Wanda throws her through the air, snarling a list of wrongs S.W.O.R.D. has done her: “The drones, the missiles, Pietro—all you do is lie.” This is a direct affront to Monica’s earlier insistence that she’s an “ally,” a good soldier who operates against the wishes of her superiors in pursuit of some kind of justice. It’s a rhetoric that Wanda scarcely believes until the very end of the series, and one that felt even less believable to a critical audience. It’s difficult to accept this narrative of allyship—both within the universe of WandaVision and in our larger pop culture context—after years of being presented with both subtle and overt military interventions in the MCU. Though the Pentagon steered clear of endorsing aliens and spaceships, Marvel continues to form partnerships for their stories, including a 2017 comic-book collaboration with massive arms manufacturer Northrop Grumman, which it later withdrew due to controversy. And, in the debate over whether Marvel stories are military propaganda, it’s important to note that Hollywood’s relationship with the DOD extends far beyond the reach of high-flying superbeings.

“Most people, even if they recognize that the military is involved in filmmaking, have no idea what the consequences of that actually mean,” writer and researcher Tom Secker explains on the podcast In the Context of Empire, citing collaborative films including Iron Man 2 (2010) and Pitch Perfect 3 (2017), where an official insisted a line about the killing of Osama bin Laden be delivered as a “joke.” Even subtler entries may be “carefully shaped” by the DOD or the FBI, which often finances approved productions. Films that don’t work directly with the military still benefit from the heroic image that Hollywood has helped create of the armed forces. WandaVision enters this conversation unsure of its footing and thesis when it comes to S.W.O.R.D. and the FBI. Our heroes are once again good cops who reform the system from within, but our protagonist knows the very existence of these organizations leads to chaos and destruction.

In the finale, Wanda instructs her superpowered twin sons, “Kids, handle the military. Mommy will be right back.” It’s a funny throwaway line meant to highlight the disparity between two 10-year-olds fighting machine gun-wielding soldiers in tanks, but it also highlights just how uncomfortable Marvel is with its current portrayal of the U.S. military. Like the MCU as a whole, the show wants to have it both ways to exist in a noncommittal space where authority figures can be both foes and friends. WandaVision’s ending could be read as a rejection of any authority, whether coded villains or heroes, as Wanda flees to find peace in the solitude of her witchcraft. But as with Marvel’s simultaneous condemnation and celebration of organized Western military power, this reading lacks the critical engagement necessary for reading Cold War stories adapted for the screen during endless U.S. conflicts in the Middle East. Wanda may see right through the tactics of everyone from S.W.O.R.D. to the Avengers themselves, but Marvel is counting on viewers to resist this same urge.

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by Amelia Merrill
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Amelia Merrill is a New York-based journalist and theatre artist originally from Baltimore, Maryland. She is a contributing writer at AwardsWatch.com.