Wanda Maximoff: a Study in Power and Fear

June 9, 2018

 

 

 

 

“You’re saying they’ll come for me.”

 

Wanda “Scarlet Witch” Maximoff occupies the most unusual position of any of the fourteen characters one might hesitantly call the Avengers in the current state of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She is one of four members not born on US soil (the others being Natasha Romanoff, Thor, and T’Challa), she is part of the large minority of the Avengers with criminal or villainous pasts, she is one of four people of color in this group (despite the MCU refusing to acknowledge this and casting a white actress in the role), and she one of two women on this burgeoning roster.

 

While Romanoff hits three of those buttons as well, Romanoff didn’t get her start as a victim of Tony Stark’s arms deals who volunteered as a HYDRA experimental subject for revenge. From the start, we are made to see: Wanda Maximoff is special.

 

Maximoff is also conspicuously femme in ways that Natasha Romanoff is not, and that juxtaposition is not a coincidence. The relationship between Maximoff’s femme style, her powers, and her sense of personal security evolves continuously throughout the two Marvel films (and one after-credit teaser) in which she has participated. No other character’s fashion serves as a metaphor for their journey quite this well, and this connection is a big part of why Wanda is by far my favorite character.


When we first meet Wanda, she appears to be a prisoner. Late-stage HYDRA is even more dour and gloomy than this villainous, Nazi-derived organization was in its earlier appearances, and she wears the sorts of drab, subtly oversized, “one-size-fits-all,” military-issue clothing that suits that mood. These earliest views provide subtle hints that she has no agency here, up to and including blank, glassy stares and childlike play. The message is clear: at this point in Maximoff’s life, her style is not her own.

 

As a transgender Latina who spent most of her life buried in oversized masculine clothing, this speaks to me. As a woman of color too easily mistaken for white, the fact that Wanda Maximoff is canonically half-Jewish and half-Romani, a woman of color, played here by a white actress, adds to this uncanny relatability. Wanda’s story is one of gaining and losing the ability to be and appear as herself in a world where most people refuse to see her for who she is, similar to my own story.


As early as the attack on the last HYDRA facility that begins Age of Ultron, Maximoff’s style has already evolved. She stands with more confidence, and wears a black dress whose muted hue does not make it stand out any less in her unlikely surroundings.


MCU Wanda Maximoff has powers that are psychic in nature, involving the transmission of force at a distance for both offense and defense and, more unsettlingly, mind control. Romanoff brings calculating bravado that fills even her most subdued presentation with verve and allure, where Maximoff would rather seem harmless or even invisible before bringing her powers to bear.


This, too, changes over time. With HYDRA’s destruction, Maximoff’s style shifts again. She begins incorporating scarlet into her clothing, while retaining its black base As Wanda’s confidence grows, so does her willingness to be visible, even if it never reaches the sexualized heights seen in her comic-book costume. In Age of Ultron, this transformation culminates in her telekinetically tearing Ultron’s Sentries to pieces while wearing a black dress, red jacket, and black knee-high socks, a femme display rarely permitted this kind of power in Western media.


This, too, is familiar, and a choice I have had to make on many occasions. Those of us who would wear filmy cotton all the time if we could must still, here and there, impress those who interpret softness as weakness, and we get good at it. That goes double for trans women of color and others whose seriousness and competence are constantly in doubt, and who cannot afford the handicap of clothing that sends the wrong message. Part of being femme is mastering this language of power and safety, and Wanda Maximoff shows this to us with a natural aptitude that few superheroes exhibit.

 

At the end of Age of Ultron, Wanda Maximoff is a potential engine of chaos on par with the Hulk, with an extensive list of prior crimes and a lot of reasons for the Avengers, and everyone else, not to trust her. As Tony Stark harshly observes, “They don’t grant visas to weapon of mass destruction,” and it’s strongly implied that she has no legal status in the United States. Whether feeling safe in black dresses and socks or powerful in red leather and boots, she is an undocumented immigrant, and she has nowhere to go.


This past is what was behind her when the thick book of suspicious rules named after her shattered homeland was passed around the Avengers’ conference table: You’re saying they’ll come for me.


One can hear the wheels turning in her mind. One can hear them turning in mine, as the child of immigrants and an exile from three homes.


She knows that signing that stack of paper means that she, an incredibly vulnerable person, will be putting herself, not in the hands of a group of people she increasingly trusts (and also Tony Stark), but those of the same presidents and prime ministers whose United Nations let Sokovia turn out the way it did, and that is not an outcome she can accept.

 

I can’t control their fear, she saliently observes, knowing that this means she can’t control what they’re afraid of, or what they do with that fear, and therefore doesn’t want to take their orders, but I can control mine.

 

I haven’t visited my family in Miami since December 2014. I’ve had nightmares about what they might do, if they had me in their home, where I can’t easily get a copy of the key to the front door, where there are security cameras watching most of the exterior and some of the interior, where my bedroom is the last one in a hallway and the windows were designed to withstand hurricanes.

 

I spent the space between finding myself and disclosing to them my trans identity frantically changing clothes to make sure that my webcam never revealed what I wore around the house. I invented reasons for having to skip visits. They became suspicious. They noticed my painted nails and my growing hair. I lost friends who faced my new reality with horror. I socially transitioned in more and more of my life, until they were the only people who didn’t know. I planned, down to the day, when I would disclose to them, and wrote a multi-page, tearful letter to them. I braced for the welter of abuse that would follow, terrified and liberated in equal measure.

 

I can’t control their fear, I hear myself say, but I can control mine.

 

Wanda Maximoff recognizes here that her fear of the US government and other hegemons has led her to put too much trust in the Avengers, and therefore the ongoing nuclear blimp accident that is Tony Stark, and that is about to change. If she is to be regarded as such a terror by half of her own teammates that they see fit to preemptively imprison her, then she shall carve her own way out, alongside the half that still sees her as a person. Friends that cut off contact because one turned out to be transgender aren’t friends at all.


For Wanda, the resulting battle was explosive and spectacular, and it ended in overt imprisonment for Maximoff and several of her allies against Stark’s excesses.

 

My battle is not yet over, and I hope it can end differently.

 

Maximoff’s character arc is rich enough to merit more attention than it has received, and not just because of its resonance with my own journey. I look forward to further exploration of Maximoff’s emotions surrounding the political order in which she now finds herself. .

 

The tie between her sense of herself and her wardrobe promises, likewise, to continue to take shape as the Marvel Cinematic Universe develops. It’s not even too late to undo the unforgivable whitewashing of her character and reinstate her Romani and Jewish ancestry, adding another layer of depth and honesty to an already fascinating character.

 

Wanda “Scarlet Witch” Maximoff is a femme jewel in a genre that too often equates femininity with weakness and a too-rare glimpse at an undocumented immigrant allowed to be more than her legal status, and it is a joy for me to see her onscreen.

 

by Alyssa Gonzalez

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