Content Note: This article contains discussion of depictions of mental health in film.

Of the two juggernauts running today’s duopoly on comic-book movies, DC has long been known for its darker, grittier approach to filmmaking. Yet the release of Joker (2019) broke the DC movie mould in dramatic fashion, as – for all its angst and edginess – it strove to be more sophisticated than the studio’s typical work, tackling explicitly psycho-philosophical issues in a ‘realistic’ setting. Conversely, Marvel Studios has made no such attempts at intellectualism, but is never far behind its longstanding rival (and eager not to be outdone). The upcoming series WandaVision (coming to Disney+ 15 January) may realise Marvel’s answer to Joker’s challenge.

WandaVision has been heavily marketed unlike any other instalment in the MCU, and it follows the emotional breakdown of ‘Scarlet Witch’ Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) as she creates alternate realities – inspired by old sitcoms from Bewitched to Roseanne – to pursue an idyllic suburban life with her deceased lover, Vision (Paul Bettany). Crucially, a happy ending is not guaranteed, adding substantially more weight to individual plot elements compared to Marvel’s typically formulaic standalone movies. Instead of showcasing the flashy (yet vapid) fight sequences for which Marvel is famed, the trailer prioritises the protagonists’ domestic struggles and the fragmenting reality around them. This emphasis on complex, tragic characters with nuanced emotions is reminiscent of what Joker tried to achieve.

“Wanda is neither a senseless killer nor a rehash of the same quippy wise guy filling most leading Marvel roles.”

Of course, many have argued that Joker hit wide off its mark. David Rennie previously outlined the ‘maelstrom of tiresome dialogue’ that Joker provoked, with audiences squabbling over whether it is a ground-breaking cinematic masterpiece, an unsubtle misrepresentation of mental illness, or a seditious promotion of anarchic nihilism. Others maintain the Joker did not need a new sympathetic origin; Michele Sanguanini described ‘a patchwork of plot lines from at least three potentially interesting movies forced to be set in the Batman universe’.

But WandaVision need not be so controversial. Firstly, it helps that Wanda is a relatively blank slate; whereas the Joker is practically synonymous with the archetypal ‘evil clown’, problematising a newly tragic backstory, the Scarlet Witch is not usually depicted as a villain (and even when she is, she is never evil like the Joker). She is therefore free of the negative connotations that made audiences uncomfortable with the Joker being made ‘relatable’. Wanda is thus neither a senseless killer nor a rehash of the same quippy wise guy filling most leading Marvel roles. Her struggle with mental health consequently seems more genuine and ‘realistic’ despite the fantastical ornamentation; her interdimensional superpowers depict her delusions and their effect on her marriage from a more immersive and dynamic perspective, enhancing the allegory rather than detracting from it.

“The show therefore faces a delicate balancing act, blending superhero action and genre subversion to engage both parties.”

Furthermore, WandaVision’s premise is not as inherently resentful or misanthropic as that of its DC counterpart. Whereas Joker delighted in pointing the finger of blame at ‘society’ or ‘the system’ for all the hardships of the downtrodden, WandaVision is much less black and white. There is nobody to hold accountable for Vision’s death that Wanda can avenge against to resolve her grief, making her psychosis based on denial, not vengeance – hence her impulse is to create rather than destroy, building up (literal) walls to isolate herself from reality instead of tearing society down to its foundations. By addressing struggles within the self rather than those with external forces, WandaVision is poised to explore mental illness without being decried as irresponsible or incendiary, and hopefully to at last depict a reality wherein mental illness often renders us more vulnerable than violent.


WandaVision could thus circumnavigate many issues that made Joker divisive. Nonetheless, it faces its own set of problems. Principally, it needs to appeal to two polar demographics: the loyal fans of Marvel’s existing style, and those of us enticed by the promise of innovation. The show therefore faces a delicate balancing act, blending superhero action and genre subversion to engage both parties.

But the real tragedy is that even if WandaVision does everything right, it still may not be financially successful enough to make Disney take it seriously. It certainly cannot reach Joker’s level of success – propelled as it was by controversy – as a smaller-budget television series locked behind a streaming service paywall, in contrast to its big-screen competitor. Additionally, the lesser-known superheroes Scarlet Witch and Vision simply cannot match the famous Joker’s mainstream appeal and, of course, the pandemic adds more uncertainty to the already notoriously unpredictable industry.


Mountain View

Christmas in the Caribbean

But while WandaVision cannot surpass Joker commercially, it remains to be seen whether the show will prove to Marvel that audiences are ready for something new. If WandaVision ‘succeeds’ in this sense, the new Joker–WandaVision style of intellectualism could carry over into the rest of the MCU (as its storyline confirmedly ties into upcoming Spiderman and Doctor Strange sequels). Hence I hope WandaVision will be a hit, as it could herald a new age of comic-book movies – and by extension, all mainstream media.

WandaVision will premier on Friday 15th January on Disney+