Better Late Than Never: Is Marvel Finally Addressing Trauma?

WandaVision and other MCU spoilers ahead.

All your favorite super-heroes have saved the world, and for almost over a decade, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has conditioned fans and movie-goers to believe that saving the universe is the ultimate goal, and post-Avengers: Endgame, the mission’s been accomplished.

How exciting is that? How traumatic is that?

Some heroes still had lives to live after Tony Stark’s snap restored everyone who turned to dust in Avengers: Infinity War, but what about those who died during battle? What about Vision, the love of Wanda Maximoff’s life? There’s no getting him back, right? So what’s supposed to happen when Wanda is left to deal with her grief alone?

Unlike Stark who knew he had to give his life to save the universe, or Captain America who went back in time to live the life he never had, Wanda, in the aftermath of events post-Thanos, was left on her own, to cope with the loss of the person she loved, and by the looks of WandaVision, was given no tools at all on how to do it.

The show that premiered earlier this winter reveals Wanda living a Norman-Rockwell-American-Dream type life in her form of a new made-up reality in a small town in New Jersey under a static forcefield guarded by her powers in present day. She and Vision (who she’s somehow brought back from the dead) are seen getting married, running a household, and even starting a family on a show she strategically broadcasts for outsiders to watch. Yet, there are multiple times throughout the series where this reality Wanda has made up for herself to live the life she never had is off-putting, unsettling, and puzzling, as if parts of it don’t make sense or aren’t meant to fit in.

The sad thing about WandaVision is how a show centered around such a strong female character is beginning to paint her as the villain. As agents of S.W.O.R.D. and scientists smart enough to deal with super-humans begin to criticize her for mind-controlling those who live in her bubble or shutting out the outside world, they overlook one of the storyline’s most important things – Wanda’s grief.

WandaVision (2021) Image via Disney+ / Marvel Studios

Wanda has built a whole world that she can live in with Vision, one she would be unable to have if she were to return to reality, and despite how she’s using her powers – yes, it’s wrong to control someone with your mind – it’s still out of pain. She’s doing this out of agony because nobody gave her the tools she needed to cope with the loss of Vision or her brother, Pietro (Quicksilver) after the entire universe was supposedly restored in 2025. Sure, some people came back but not everybody came back, and no one came to help Wanda when the person she loved most wasn’t one of those people. We know that every Marvel storyline needs a villain, but in truth, it isn’t Wanda. It’s her grief. It’s her trauma. It’s her broken heart.

This isn’t the first time Marvel has acknowledged that saving the world comes with an emotional and psychological toll to pay, but all they ever really do is acknowledge it. For a multi-billion dollar franchise, it’s shocking to think that the heroes they put on screen – the heroes so many people love and relate to – are not given more than almost five minutes to cope or deal with their mental health, trauma, sadness, and pain.

People don’t relate to heroes like Iron Man or Captain America or Thor because they also own a weaponized metal suit, a vibranium shield, or a boomerang hammer sitting in their rooms at home. People relate to these characters and have come to love them over the past decade because of the human touch MCU movies have shown us they have. When Steve Rogers is getting beat up at the back of an alley in Captain America: The First Avenger, people root for him and stay until the end of the movie to watch him stand up again. “I can do this all day,” he says over and over. People relate to that humanness – that resilience – in our heroes, but they also relate to their pain.

Marvel has a habit of introducing trauma on-screen, and then not dealing with it at all. It’s almost as if they do it just to show they’re still as human and heartfelt as we believe they are, but nothing ever really comes of it. Iron Man 3 shows Tony Stark coping with major anxiety after flying himself up through an outerspace wormhole in Avengers only to come back down to New York City barely breathing. He asks Jarvis to run vitals on his heart thinking he’s about to die, when really what he experienced was a panic attack, and then what happened? He went off to fight people on fire.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018) Image via Marvel Studios

By the start of Avengers: Infinity War, Thor has literally lost everyone he has ever loved. His brother, his mother, his father, and his best friend, whose deaths he had to witness with his own eyes. While Thor is a unique kind of heroic persona, displaying many times his emotional being more than other men on the Avengers team, there are moments throughout the movie where you can see him grieving in what he’s lost. To think of one of the most powerful heroes, for a split second, can feel sad, disappointed, and hurt is a powerful message to give to audiences. As simple as it is, it proves they aren’t alone.

But what did the MCU do? Thor’s response to all of this was to get a weapon to enact revenge. “The Thanos killing kind,” he says. Yes, that’s the whole plot of the movie, but there was no time for Thor to deal with his emotions. He has a less than three-minute conversation with Rocket where they both bond over loss, and then by Avengers: Endgame, the way his pain, grief, and loss has manifested in him five years later is the laughing stock and comic relief of the entire film. I personally didn’t think his grief was funny.

Spiderman: Far From Home (2019) Image via Marvel Studios

Spiderman: Far From Home might be one of MCU’s best examples of showing grief on-screen so far. Throughout the movie, Peter Parker is laced with flashbacks, trauma, and the simple but crushing hurt of missing someone that’s gone. Knowing Tony Stark gave his life for his, one of the film’s most powerful scenes is when Peter says, “I just really miss him.” The following conversation he has with Happy is a healthy one, in the sense that he expresses how he’s been feeling, and yet, it only lasts four minutes. What the audience sees after is Peter finding comfort in the technology Stark left behind, which then makes sense, as material possessions are often what so many of us find solace in… but then he leaves to fight Mysterio without looking back.

I love these movies. I grew up with them too, but in an honest critique, it is not enough for me to watch these heroes feel pain and then just go off to fight another battle like that’s their coping strategy. It’s not. If anything, that would make it worse.

Is there any healing at all?

Even now as I’m writing this piece, it might be difficult to figure out the real question underneath all of this. Is the question really if Marvel can address all this trauma. Or if they will?

Perhaps movie creatives think it’s not what the audiences want to see, especially an audience showing up for a Marvel film. They want action and a fight and a little humor, but I disagree. If you’re going to put our heroes through something as insane as saving the entire universe, you need to show the ones who have survived healing too. Perhaps it happens off-screen. That’s great, but it’s detrimental. Audiences deserve to see their healing process on-screen too, and if there isn’t a healing process, then it’s time to write one in. There needs to be one.

It doesn’t matter if a hero’s blood is made from infinity stones or if they’re part-robot. For over a decade, the MCU has been creating protagonists with emotions, and they know their audience adores it. They gave them feelings and hearts and minds for people to cling to, to relate to, to watch, and root for. They might not think people want to see them coping with their losses, but there is power in the notion of it alone if audiences could. If people saw with their own eyes the strongest of their favorite heroes healing from pain, just imagine how much they would believe they could heal themselves. We need to see our heroes being as human in their healing as they are in their resilience.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018) Image via Marvel Studios

Wanda just might be one of the most powerful Avengers on the team because she fights with the most unyielding force to ever exist – love. In WandaVision, she is doing everything to protect it, and you can hardly blame her, but her ways of coping are far beyond unhealthy. There is obvious evidence that Wanda is trying to protect this world of perfect happiness she’s conjured up from the things that still weigh her down like the fear of things from the outside world, the simple mention of losing her twin brother at the hands of Ultron, and even a subconscious commercial advertising a fake paper towel brand called “Lagos” – the city where her powers accidentally hurt more people than it helped – which proves that there are regretful, painful things in her past that seep into her fake reality. Not even she can escape the hurt parts of her own mind.

There’s fan speculation that the bubble Wanda is living in could possibly be thanks to Stark Industry technology, and if that’s true, it would make sense that the only other being Wanda ever had close enough ties to who would understand her pain is Tony Stark – the hero who slept at night but never rested until he gave his life to save everyone. Perhaps he wanted to make up for protecting Wanda, knowing he would have to leave her behind, the same way he wanted to shield her and the outside world from her by keeping her inside during Captain America: Civil War. Or perhaps this is just another Marvel fan theory from fans who still to this day have grief about missing their lost on-screen heroes too.

The MCU has turned superhero movies into such a worldwide cultural phenomenon for so many, but isn’t it the most humanistic sides of each character that so many people have come to love? At the end of the day, none of us can relate to fighting aliens or having super strength or moving objects with our minds, but we can all relate to grief, not knowing how to deal with someone we’ve lost, sacrificing yourself for others, and using humor to distract ourselves from our own painful realities. A lot of people can relate to Wanda.

As pioneers of showing situations of life-threatening pain to mass audiences, it would be a great move if the Marvel franchise began to show more of the slow but necessary and perhaps cathartic healing process for a hero like Wanda, too because, although it’s “just a show” or “just a story,” the fact is people are still watching it. It is true that pain like Wanda’s is not just a storyline, and it also true that pain like Wanda’s has the potential to heal. So many people are already pining her as the villain of her own story, but she killed the love of her life to save the universe, saw her sacrifice go to waste in turn for murder instead, and was left with no one by her side. She can only ignore her reality for so long.

Wanda deserves help and healing through her pain, and Marvel has a ridiculous amount of people they could influence with their on-screen stories. If they don’t take the chance to somehow help her through her reality, then it wouldn’t be grief, pain, denial, Wanda, or even Thanos, who were the villains in all this. It would be the franchise itself.

If you’re going to show people on a worldwide streaming platform the story of cherished, beloved characters fighting battles, saving lives, and losing everything in the process, then why not also show them coping, recovering, and healing from it too when we all know that in our realities that it’s possible? Inexplicably hard, but possible. Why does the answer in the aftermath of a battle always have to be death?

This isn’t another box-office film, Marvel, and I know you’ve already made it. It’s already edited. It’s done, but you have this platform and you have this chance. You have a chance now with WandaVision – this story of pain and horrible heartbreak that you’ve already set up – to show us our heroes healing. So, show us our heroes healing. We need to see it and there are so many people out there right now who can relate to Wanda’s grief who need to believe that they can.

Images via Disney+ and Marvel Studios

Edited by Camille Duhon