Dr. Mike Robinson ~ UL Communication Studies Professor
Warning: This column contains spoilers for Wonder Woman 1984 and WandaVision
In many ways, the superhero genre is about wish-fulfilment. Superheroes have powers and abilities we can only dream of. Additionally, the device of secret identities often encourages us to imagine that inside us all, there exists a great hero ready to emerge.
Of course, mythology, folklore, and popular culture have long taught us that wishes can be dangerous things. Not surprisingly, the superhero genre also shows us this dark side. Spider-Man learns perhaps the best-known lesson about great power and great responsibility when his inaction leads to the death of his beloved uncle. Recently, Wonder Woman and Wanda Maximoff ventured into this thematic territory and their stories have led to some controversy.
Wonder Woman 1984 finds Diana of Themiscyra going through the motions of what should be an amazing life as an antiquities expert for the Smithsonian Institution.
As she explains early in the film to her soon to be frenemy Barbara Minerva, “My life has not been what you probably think it has. We all have our struggles.” Diana’s life is emotionally hollow. She is still pining (or perhaps Chris Pine-ing) for her lost love Steve Trevor, gone at this point for almost seven decades after a heroic sacrifice in the previous film. When Diana inadvertently wishes upon the Dreamstone for Steve’s return, she is elated and the two reunite intimately.
There are, however, consequences. Steve does return, but in the body of another man, whom the film identifies only as “Handsome Man.” In this way, Wonder Woman has committed sexual assault, coupling with a man who, due to powerful magic, could not give his consent. Diana and Steve are too quickly caught up in the fight to stop Max Lord’s mad power schemes with the Dreamstone to really consider this. The movie does have a small scene in its denouement in which Diana bumps into Handsome Man and learns that his life is going well.
WandaVision also finds its protagonist in grief. This quality takes a while to emerge. In the first few episodes Wanda and her android husband, the Vision, appear to be living idyllic lives as main characters in various sitcoms. While mysterious, the experience is largely a joyful one for Wanda because she is reunited with her love who was killed by Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War. However, this joy is impacted by the schemes of Agatha Harkness to steal Wanda’s magical powers.
Wanda’s paradise comes at a cost too. Her fantastic powers have turned Westview, NJ, into her fantasy world. Its reality changed to meet her whims. The town’s inhabitants have also been forced into this process and the few times in which the spell is broken, we learn that the process is painful to the players forced to be in Wanda’s play. After Agatha is defeated, the citizens are fearful of and angry towards Wanda.
Both stories created controversy. Debates raged over the lack of consideration of Wonder Woman’s actions in her movie. Since Wanda leaves Westview at the end of the show, unchallenged by authority, arguments have spilled into the mainstream press about Wanda’s actions and whether she deserves punishment.
Rather than solve that dilemma for the reader, a contrast will be offered. Consider Captain America. The Sentinel of Liberty also grieved for the loss of his soulmate, Peggy Carter. When Cap was frozen in ice, he lost the chance to be with his true love and instead witnessed her death of old age.
Yet in Avengers: Endgame, Cap got the opportunity to fix that. Through the miracle of time travel, Cap returned to be with Peggy in the past and lived a long life with her on some presumably alternate world. Cap appeared to be a happy old man when last we saw him and no negative consequences were revealed. In this other world did Cap hide on the sidelines and let evil things happen? Did Cap subsume the life of an alternate Steve Rogers? So far, we do not know.
Male grief was rewarded. Female grief was punished, or at least treated as punishable. Interesting difference, don’t you think?