Doctor Strange and the Insidious Misogyny of the MCU

Movies Features Marvel
Doctor Strange and the Insidious Misogyny of the MCU

It’s often more difficult than it should be to be a female fan in the genre space, and that goes double when you’re talking about superhero properties. Despite important strides forward in recent years, the medium is still heavily dominated by male characters and male-centric stories. Female heroes are far too often left to languish on the sidelines, serving as love interests or plot devices—if they’re lucky, sometimes both. And though female viewers are ostensibly welcomed in this space, there’s a sadly pervasive sense that we’re part of this fandom on a sort of “guest pass” basis, and we should simply be grateful for the crumbs of representation we get.

Because while Marvel Studios is certainly eager enough to tout its feminist bonafides by pointing to Captain Marvel or Black Widow, the franchise still waited for 20 films to feature a female lead in Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) and sat on a Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) solo outing for so long the character died first, essentially rendering the project useless for any larger storytelling purpose…beyond introducing her sister (and obvious replacement) Yelena (Florence Pugh). And don’t even get me started on the crass pandering that was that “all-female team-up” moment in Avengers: Endgame, as though letting a bunch of women stand near each other is the same thing as giving them things like interiority, emotional depth or stories of their own.

It’d be one thing if the larger franchise was simply ignoring its women, or featuring one female character for every five men. Most women who spend any time watching genre properties regularly are sadly all too used to this. (It’s the Eowyn effect, writ large.) And, to be fair, Marvel has greenlit a ton of female-led series under its Disney+ banner, from WandaVision and Hawkeye to Echo, She-Hulk and Ms. Marvel. But it still often feels like the entire franchise is trapped in a holding pattern of one step forward, two steps back when it comes to its women. The truly maddening thing about the MCU is that, although it actually has a ton of great female characters, it often seems to have no idea what to do with them, frequently defaulting to the most simplistic storytelling choices and behaving as though simply including women on its canvas is the same thing as writing for them. Nowhere is this sort of insidious misogyny more apparent than the MCU’s treatment of the Scarlet Witch.

To be fair, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) certainly isn’t the only woman the MCU has done dirty in recent years. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier turned all-American good girl—and Peggy Carter’s (Hayley Atwell) niece!!—Sharon Carter (Emily Van Camp) into the leader of an international criminal syndicate. Loki judged Sylvie (Sophie Di Martino), a female variant of the God of Mischief, much more harshly than any of the male versions of the character—and they’re all literally the same person. Laura Barton (Linda Cardinelli) was apparently once a kickass S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, but her primary role in Hawkeye is to serve as little more than Clint’s (Jeremy Renner) emotional sounding board.

But no single female character’s treatment can compete with what Wanda has endured, simply because she has been going through it for the better part of a decade now. From Avengers: Age of Ultron, where she is introduced as a brainwashed Hydra captive to Captain America: Civil War, in which her very existence—and a tragic, well-meaning mistake—is the catalyst by which the globally oppressive Sokovia Accords are enacted, she’s constantly being punished for powers she doesn’t entirely understand and never asked for. She’s forced to kill the love of her life not just once but twice during Avengers: Infinity War in the name of saving the world from Thanos. Her reward? Getting blipped out of existence for five years, and none of her alleged friends can even be bothered to call her afterward. At this point, who’s even angry at her for mind controlling some random New Jersey town? (Just kidding. Mostly.)

But while WandaVision is essentially perfect television and leads with both honesty and empathy as it finally wrestles with the sheer scope of grief and trauma that Wanda has had to endure up until this point, it’s also apparently the exception that proves the rule. Because by the time Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness rolls around, all that nuance is out the window. Gone is that layered, complex Wanda. In her place is simply a witch: A scheming, manipulative, murderous archetype who’s suddenly monstrous instead of sympathetic, who seeks to replace her lost children by stealing another woman’s.

“You break the rules and become a hero. ??I do it and I become the enemy. That doesn’t seem fair,” Wanda says at the beginning of the film, and the problem is that Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness never really makes a convincing case that she’s wrong, instead simply choosing to rewrite her character as an unstoppable Terminator-esque killing machine, powerful and violent in a way that uncomfortably mirrors many of the tropes surrounding the idea of “female hysteria.” (Sigmund Freud would be proud!)

Wanda’s overwhelming desire for a family was a major narrative engine behind WandaVision, which saw her essentially force an entire town of innocents to live out her fantasy of a cozy sitcom family, so it’s not like this is a new emotional driver for her. But Multiverse of Madness essentially ignores much of the show’s conclusion, in which Wanda faces up to the reality of her mistakes and fixes them, despite the fact that doing so meant once again losing Vision and the children they’d created. That’s growth, y’all!! But instead of moving her story forward, the film is content to retread what is essentially the same ground, just with a higher body count, (much) worse dialogue and the convenient insertion of an evil MacGuffin that supposedly made her evil. (The ultimate insult—Wanda can’t even fully claim her own rage.)

While all of Wanda’s decisions in WandaVision stem from the fact that she was desperate for a family, Multiverse of Madness twists her maternal instinct into a chaotic and dangerous weapon, essentially reducing her to a one-note supervillain defined almost solely by her desire to find some version—any version—of her sons. She’s not terribly picky about which, and she also doesn’t care about what their loss will mean for the Wanda she’ll have to take them from. (The film also never bothers to ask why she doesn’t try to inter-dimensionally kidnap another Vision or Pietro either. I mean, in for a penny, in for a pound, right?)

The MCU ??has always had something of an uncomfortably gendered view when it comes to Wanda’s powers, one that’s made even more explicit when you compare and contrast her treatment with that of Doctor Strange. She’s emotional and unstable, he’s calm and rational. His ability to suppress his feelings is something the story seems to view as weirdly aspirational, rather than sad. Wanda’s immense powers automatically render her dangerous and untrustworthy, while Strange’s powers mean he is seen as a strong and capable leader no matter what mistakes he makes. (Would you know that Wong was Sorcerer Supreme now if the movie didn’t loudly mention it so many times? Does Multiverse of Madness ever treat him like he outranks Stephen? Just something to think about!)

I mean, Stephen Strange commits every single sin he accuses Wanda of in this movie and is still offered a chance at redemption; he’s named a hero instead of a hypocrite, even though he basically self-immolated out of sheer hubris in every other reality. He’s the one that the Earth-383 version of Professor Xavier believes in and tries to help, not Wanda. He gets to openly pine over every version of Christine, even as he refuses to reach out to a mother grieving the loss of the sons she never really had.

After all, Wanda did the impossible thing that was asked of her by killing Vision. She undid Westview—by her own choice I might add!—and said goodbye to him all over again. She’s still suffering for all those things. But Strange gave Thanos the Time Stone and stole five years from half of humanity in the process, all before literally ripping reality apart a second time as a favor to a teenager he doesn’t even like that much. The only consequence he’s had to face is that one (1) man was rude to him at a public event one (1) time. Clint Barton spent the five years of the Blip straight-up murdering people in the name of some nebulous “vengeance” and not only gets immediately welcomed back into the Avengers fold, but rewarded with his own series that can hardly even be bothered to say that what he did as Ronin was even bad. These things are not the same!

The thing is, I think Marvel is legitimately trying. I think Kevin Feige understands that legions of women are fans of this franchise and want to see their stories represented in the heroes they love. I think the MCU doesn’t truly mean to treat its female characters as second-class citizens. But what does it mean that they keep doing it anyway? With the return of the X-Men and the Fantastic Four to the Marvel stable, we’re going to see some of the most popular women in comics history—Jean Grey, Ororo Munroe, Rogue, Sue Storm—-arrive on our screens in the near future. Don’t they deserve better than this?

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.

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