Superheroes are built around iconography: individual heroes’ familiar silhouettes, color palettes, and oft-repeated mantras about power and responsibility are just as important as longstanding relationships and nemeses. As studios churn through superhero comics, looking for movie and TV fodder, it becomes clear what creators consider too iconic and essential to a character to change. Maybe it’s Spider-Man’s red-and-blue tights, or Batman’s wealth and gadgetry, or Wonder Woman’s lasso and tiara. Other familiar aspects of characters are more malleable: Peter Parker doesn’t have to be a Daily Bugle photographer in every story, Bruce Wayne doesn’t have to have a Batcave, Diana Prince doesn’t need an invisible jet. For Wanda Maximoff and Vision, the stars of WandaVision? The iconic thing about them seems to be their marriage, even if the show’s strange premiere is the first time non-comics fans are learning about it.
If it’s possible to suffer physical pain from trying to catch up on a comic book character’s fictional history, The Vision and Scarlet Witch would absolutely cause it. Even in a world where keeping up with entertainment news increasingly demands the skills of an amateur copyright lawyer, the marriage of Wanda Maximoff and her synthetic partner is a uniquely confounding morass, a chore for even the most dedicated fan. But they’re also unique among comic book characters, because in spite of that convoluted history, their ill-fated marriage has remained such a definitive aspect of their histories that it’s the basis of WandaVision, the first Disney Plus show set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In this, they’re something unusual in comics: a set of characters largely defined by their marriage.
Comic books share a maxim with television, another serial medium: married characters don’t work. (Editors frequently mandate that flagship characters stay single, no matter how ridiculous the reasoning might be.) Good long-term storytelling requires sustained dramatic tension, and a romantic will-they/won’t-they dynamic is a source of all sorts of potential conflicts. Marry off characters, the logic goes, and you effectively cut off a well of possible stories, and the audience’s interest as well.
A marriage is rarely an iconic aspect of comics characters’ histories, and yet here’s WandaVision, a show that fantasizes about a happily married life for Wanda Maximoff and The Vision through the lens of classic sitcoms. Their marriage, it seems, is an essential part of their history, a unique circumstance given that WandaVision is the first adaptation dedicated solely to the stories of these two characters. Even though the MCU versions of the characters never spent serious time together in the films — until Avengers: Infinity War, where they’re shown to care deeply about each other after some time in hiding — they’ve clearly been set up as a fated pair, even if that fate is currently just a tragic one.
This stands in contrast to their comic book counterparts, who did spend a lot of time married — a union that haunted many of their most popular stories for decades. This latest on-screen iteration looks like it’s no exception. Like so many of the characters’ past arcs, WandaVision is using their marriage to more memorably define them.
In order to appreciate how much room there is for a compelling TV relationship, it helps to understand the comic book mess these characters come from. The origins of their romance are hilariously perfunctory: Wanda Maximoff, who joined the team with her brother Pietro “Quicksilver” Maximoff in 1965’s Avengers #16, was the first female character to join the team without any romantic entanglements. (Janet Van Dyne/The Wasp, a founding Avenger and the only other woman on the team at the time, was in a troubled romance with Hank Pym/Ant-Man.)
Because it was the 1960s and women in superhero comics were mostly considered fodder for romantic subplots, Wanda eventually settled into one with The Vision — one of the few Avengers who, like Wanda, didn’t already have a comic book series of his own — and the two eventually married in 1975’s Giant-Size Avengers #4. The marriage of a (super)human woman and an artificial life-form naturally launched all manner of storytelling chicanery.
The comics don’t really supply consistent backstories for either Wanda Maximoff or The Vision. Wanda’s early stories revolve around her search for her true, mostly unknown origins. Her powers weren’t well-defined — she could mostly “hex” things, an ill-defined power that meant many different things over the character’s long history. (Including in the MCU.) As writers came and went, Wanda’s history and abilities were elaborated on and walked back to varying degrees.
The Vision’s history is clearer, but no less convoluted — he’s a self-described synthezoid created by the evil robot Ultron, who was in turn the accidental creation of Hank Pym. You could say he’s Frankenstein’s Monster’s monster, but, to everyone’s surprise, he’s a friendly creature. Given his status as an artificial life-form, most of Vision’s stories revolve around his potential humanity or lack thereof. These themes come to a head as his marriage with the Scarlet Witch is put through the gauntlet of superhero comics: Memories are erased, realities are warped, stunning revelations occur and are overturned, and ultimately, it all ends in tears, with The Vision and Scarlet Witch mostly operating independently.
The marriage effectively ended, as superhero marriages are wont to do, back in 1989, when Vision was dismantled by government agents and reborn as an emotionless being with an all-new look in West Coast Avengers #45. But writers’ reliance on that marriage hasn’t ended yet.
Few inspirations were cited ahead of WandaVision’s premiere, beyond the classic sitcoms of decades past. But the week of the show’s release, Marvel Studios producer Kevin Feige brought up one comic in particular: 2015’s The Vision by Tom King and Gabriel Walta. It’s a Stepford Wives-esque suburban satire where The Vision, having purged all emotions from his system, creates the perfect family for himself. Naturally, it slowly begins to implode, because its patriarch cannot run from his past — the most significant event in it being his failed marriage.
While WandaVision takes a different tack — Wanda is present, and seemingly even more central to the story than Vision — their relationship is at its center. Just as Batman is always an orphan and Captain America is always a man out of time, The Vision and Scarlet Witch are always haunted by the specter of their marriage, a strange fact that makes WandaVision’s odd sitcom fantasy even more unsettling, given that they don’t have the deep history of their comics counterparts. Thus far, it seems like these movies have put these two characters in each other’s orbit because their comic book marriage is arguably the most well-known thing about them.
While comic book characters have iconic pairings — Clark Kent and Lois Lane, Peter Parker and Mary-Jane Watson — these couples’ marital status rarely matters. It isn’t vital to Spider-Man stories that Pete and MJ be married, but they were for 20 years, and in a few more years, it will have been another 20 since 2007’s bizarre One More Day wiped their marriage from their shared history. (The main exception to the no-marriage rule seems to be characters built around family: Reed and Susan Richards of the Fantastic Four, or the found family DC’s Scott Free and Big Barda built their marriage on in the hell-world of Apokolips.) But the way Vision and Scarlet Witch’s marriage keeps coming up in stories about them underlines how defining the writers consider it. For many people, their relationship is a nightmare scenario: a marriage that’s swallowed them whole, leaving little else for the rest of the world to acknowledge.
Bride and Doom
Like most people who’ve been married can tell you, the moment that particular commitment is made, the world suddenly starts making assumptions. This is especially true in heteronormative relationships, which face implicit and explicit cultural pressure, both that the participants will assume specific gender roles, and that they’ll take place in familial traditions. There’s a well-choreographed dance to marriage in American culture, which makes it particularly uncomfortable when you don’t know the steps, or don’t care for them. The world’s perception of a married couple simply shifts, and they can’t do much about it.
In the Marvel comics, Wanda Maximoff has frequently been depicted as one of the most powerful beings alive, capable of rewriting reality itself with a whisper, or even a repressed, unarticulated desire. The world changes at her will, and to those around her, this makes her dangerous. The writers of stories like 2004’s Avengers Disassembled or 2005’s House of M limit her defining character beats to the artificial man she once loved, and the disastrous effects of her unmet desire for children. In the Marvel Universe, the Scarlet Witch is a loaded gun, and her marriage to Vision is the hand pulling back on the slide to feed a round into the chamber. She came to the dance, desperately tried to learn the steps, and got punished anyway.
Married comic book characters rarely stay married. Frequently, a wedding doesn’t even happen, in spite of months of teasing — Tom King’s 2016-2019 tenure on Batman was built around a romance with Catwoman that left the Dark Knight alone at the altar in an arc called The Wedding, and X-Men comics teased the wedding of Kitty Pryde and Colossus in 2017’s X-Men: Gold #30, only for cold feet to strike there too, ultimately leading to the surprise wedding of their friends Rogue and Gambit.
For the most part in comics, a marriage is just grist for the soap opera mill — best avoided for as long as possible, then indulged until a shakeup is needed. When it’s over, everyone tends to move on — sure, it happened, but so did a lot of things, up to and including a fatal visit from a genocidal purple man with an affinity for jewelry.
In this framework — the tradition of serial storytelling, which has little interest in endings — marriage is an obstacle, the closing off of narrative options when there’s a desperate need for them. It’s rarely celebrated or portrayed as the thing it actually is: not an ending, but a crucible, the beginning of a never-ending negotiation between individuals learning to navigate the world as a unit, supporting each other, but also respecting each other’s independence. It’s true: this is a dry expression of a dramatic and highly relatable experience, but imagine it with superpowers. Specifically, imagine it with The Vision and Scarlet Witch’s superpowers — a synthezoid who can become intangible at will, and a magic-wielder who can change the shape of the world.
Through their comic book stories together, the Vision and Scarlet Witch don’t necessarily make a case for marriage as a focal point for superhero stories, even when their relationship takes on darkly poetic turns. They frequently lose themselves in each other, sometimes through their actions, and at other times through the machinations of writers unwilling to imagine a world where both characters have equal agency that would lead them beyond prescribed roles.
And here’s where there’s opportunity for a work like WandaVision to reconstruct a disastrously messy comic book marriage in ways that make sense for characters who audiences frankly don’t know on a particularly deep level. A good marriage can help define two people further, but so can a failed one — and given the way WandaVision is likely playing with viewers’ perception, there’s no guarantee any of this will work out. But the show could be a terrific opportunity to build a connection with these characters that’s unlike the glancing ones we’ve formed from the MCU’s busy, overstuffed movies.
Reading the comics won’t bring any clarity. It’s impossible to overstress how much the past execution around Wanda and Vision’s marriage has previously been a minefield of confounding and often sexist storytelling. One of Wanda’s most prominent stories involves her ultimately committing genocide, unstable at the end of a disastrous grief spiral because she couldn’t have children. They may have interesting-sounding histories, but even before WandaVision, they were stuck in an endless loop of classic sitcom tropes — where, ironically, a lot of our cultural ideas of marriage are reinforced.
This is where WandaVision’s conceit of a Pleasantville-style sitcom fantasy is most potent. By the end of the show’s first two episodes, Wanda and Vision’s TV-show life is simultaneously advancing from one decade of sitcom iconography to the next, and threatening to fall apart. Strange apparitions begin to poke holes in the integrity of their Nick-at-Nite world, and it’s clear they’re under observation — perhaps even imprisoned.
The possibilities of this show could allow for the most interesting turn in the half-century history of Wanda Maximoff and The Vision: a story where they’re in a sitcom marriage expressly because it’s a sham, a simplified version of an often messy, painful thing that’s ultimately more rewarding. Soon, the show’s bright illusion will have to collapse, and in its destruction, maybe WandaVision can construct a more complex portrait of two characters that love each other, by dissolving the best-known thing about them. What they had before did not work. Maybe the MCU can finally find something that does.