Mental health and the Scarlet Witch

Contributed by
May 14, 2018

Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch, is well known for being a longtime Avenger, having an ever-changing origin story, and marrying a synthezoid. Oh, and for having pretend children with said synthezoid who turned out to be manifestations of Marvel's answer to Satan, Mephisto, who reabsorbed and erased the children—only for us to later find out that they were really real the whole time and also members of the Young Avengers. What can I say? It's complicated.

Often defined in the context of her relationships or her struggles with mental health, there's been little focus on who Wanda Maximoff is as a person, what caused said struggles, or what those struggles even are.

Her origins are cloudy at best. The story of Wanda and her brother Quicksilver has changed and been retconned so many times over the years that you can't say anything definitively about their early childhoods. Initially, it was believed that they were the children of Golden Age heroes Miss America and the Whizzer. The former died during childbirth, and the latter fled the scene, traumatized by his wife's death. The children were adopted by a Romani couple, Marya and Django, who lived together in abject poverty. Marya and Django met their end when Django stole bread to feed his starving family; his house was burned down and his wife killed as a result of the backlash. The twins wandered through the snow, ultimately meeting up with Magneto and reluctantly joining his Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.

Later, the story was changed slightly to replace Miss America with Magneto's wife, who was fleeing from her husband at the time and froze to death.

In 2014's Avengers/X-Men: Axis #7, their origin changed again. No longer were Wanda and her brother Pietro Maximoff Magneto's children, but simply two children that were kidnapped by the High Evolutionary, a eugenics-loving supervillain who shows up every now and again when a gene-altering, shadow-lurking villain is needed and Mister Sinister is busy. The High Evolutionary is the worst, and usually when he shows up it means that some annoying retcon is about to occur. Case in point: In this version, Wanda and Pietro were kidnapped at birth, experimented on, and raised by a cow-human hybrid named Bova.

This shaky origin story is important to discuss when we talk about Wanda and her mental health troubles. It's one thing to deal with being adopted. It's quite another entirely to have multiple conflicting stories about your childhood, repressed memories, and multiple traumatically killed parents in your background. Besides that, Wanda and Pietro were raised more or less in isolation and in poverty, nearly starving or freezing to death many times over. For Pietro, this led to a coldness in his character. For Wanda, it made her codependent on men who had no hope of fulfilling her significant emotional needs.

For years, Wanda chose to hide her emotional vulnerability by deferring to the men around her. First it was Quicksilver, her brash, demanding brother, who made her choices for her and seldom let her out of his sight. Once she was in the Avengers and her brother had left to be with the Inhumans, Wanda was left emotionally untethered. Her fellow Avenger, Hawkeye, took an interest in her, but perhaps he was a bit too much like her brother: loud, boisterous, arrogant. She instead turned to Vision, a synthezoid created from the consciousness of Wonder Man. The Vision wasn't a particularly good choice for a husband, but it's easy to see why Wanda chose him. Seeking to distance herself from the emotionally charged, reactionary stances of her brother and the man she presumed to be her father, Magneto, Wanda felt comforted by the cold analysis of the Vision. The Vision viewed everything logically, with emotional distance, and with him Wanda felt stable for perhaps the first time in her life.

Unfortunately, and consistent with Wanda's comics track record, this happiness was not to last. After she and the Vision improbably managed to conceive two children, the Vision was reduced to an unemotional robot, denounced the children, and divorced Wanda—who was thus alone when the kids were proven to be constructs of the demon Mephisto. Being more or less the Devil, Mephisto coldly reassimilated the children. For her own survival, Wanda went deeper into her studies with Agatha Harkness, attempting against all odds to find an emotional balance.

One way in which a therapist would be infinitely valuable in this case is solely through their ability to offer Wanda a diagnosis. We don't know what Wanda suffers from, besides an incredibly traumatic past and loosely defined mental instability. Her first apparent “break” wasn't until the now-infamous Avengers Disassembled storyline by Brian Michael Bendis. In Wanda's comics history, this story arc may be the most important, although Scarlet Witch fans would be understandably reluctant to admit that.

Bendis' take on Wanda doesn't particularly show a lot of nuances, nor does it provide much sympathy for her plight. In an interview with CBR, he stated, “I would read those Scarlet Witch stories and her powers seemed crazy. It felt like she could easily get unhinged. Plus, she's Magneto's daughter. That certainly seems like a recipe for craziness.” That Bendis does his comic book research is indisputable, but often in mainstream comics characters are taken on by writers who don't seem to particularly like them. The brief summary of how “easily unhinged” Wanda would be made it possible for her to “snap” during Avengers Disassembled when Janet Van Dyne made a single rude comment about Wanda's children, but we're talking about a character who had been through an incredible amount of disappointment and turmoil in her life up to that point. Wanda's inner strength and her years of training with Agatha Harkness were nonexistent throughout the storyline.

While the quality of the story itself is, as always, in the eye of the beholder, it would be hard to argue that it did Scarlet Witch a huge disservice in the way it dismissed her prior character growth. My issue with Wanda losing control during Avengers Disassembled isn't that it happens; it's that it happens as a plot device, and with little understanding of either the character or how mental health problems manifest in people's lives. The Wasp saying something flippant — and Captain America breaking off a questionable fledgling affair with Wanda — send her completely over the edge. Bendis seemingly embraced the idea of the “psychotic break,” in which a person simply snaps due to a random event in life, with little examination of Wanda's long history of trauma or how she had dealt with it in the past. On the other hand, it's impossible to say whether she's being realistically portrayed in her actions because the author himself defined this mental health issue as “craziness.” Later, we discover that she was being manipulated via her children by Doctor Doom and something called the Life Force Entity, but, as Wanda goes on to cause even bigger problems, it's hard to see where exactly that influence begins and where it ends.

No irrational action exists in a void. Even without the influence of the Life Force Entity and Doctor Doom, Wanda's break would be understandable. She has been controlled, manipulated, and hurt or used by those she was closest to at every turn throughout her life. A gradual look at a decline in her mental health would do her and the readers more justice than dismissing her as a stereotypical hysterical female or deferring that her actions were the result of supervillain trickery.

The events of Avengers Disassembled led to Wanda causing the deaths of several of her team members, including her then-current fling, Hawkeye, and her ex-husband, the Vision. Afterward, she was in a mostly catatonic state and moved to Genosha, where Professor Xavier attempted to help her heal her fractured self. His way of doing this was to repeatedly tell her that her children weren't real, which turned out later not to be true and probably caused her more troubles in the long run, as she insisted they were alive. Her brother, Quicksilver, convinced her to create an alternate reality, in which mutants ruled. When Magneto discovered the manipulation, he beat Pietro to death. For her part, Wanda was completely appalled that a world of mutant superiority had done nothing to quell her father's murderous urges, and in a moment of profound self-loathing, she uttered the phrase “No more mutants,” causing many mutants to lose their powers and thus face the threat of impending extinction for years to come. Wanda vanished for some time after that, returning later to rejoin the Avengers in a quest for redemption.

Over the years, Wanda repeatedly took steps to get help. She studied with Agatha Harkness to better understand her own powers and how they interacted with witchcraft. She took up training regimes with Wonder Man to stay fit and healthy. She left the Avengers repeatedly and distanced herself from her brother when his domineering nature became too much for her, showing a desire to prioritize her own happiness. We discover in the Scarlet Witch series by James Robinson that she's on antidepressants, which shows a significant step toward self-care. She did the work of getting over the loss of her children, while her husband, through no fault of his own, was reduced to a cold, emotionless state by the events in The Vision Quest. It was the Avengers themselves who continuously neglected Wanda's attempts at preserving her mental health, allowing her to participate in life-or-death situations even when she was at her most vulnerable. For characters like Captain America, whose entire existence is based on a fight for justice, this might be manageable, but, for Wanda, who has been in search of love and emotional stability her entire life only to be confronted with life-shattering tragedy at every turn, there are other, better uses for her skills than participation in constant knock-down, drag-out brawls with supervillains.

Admittedly, her actions aren't anyone's fault save her own, and it's important to remember: Wanda lies. She lies to protect those around her, she lies to avoid conflict, she lies to avoid disappointing others, and she lies, even to herself, that she is capable of fulfilling the expectations others have put on her. This is the result of many things, the foremost being a complete lack of certainty of what is real that stems from manipulation, both from others and from her own reality-warping powers. It's also because she's incredibly insecure and doesn't believe the people around her will protect her, nor does she believe that they really love her, deep down. This belief stands to reason, as the people who are closest to her have often demanded more from her than she could comfortably give. She does these things in exchange for love, but the love that is given to her is often conditional.

In Uncanny Avengers, Wanda is a part of a hybrid team mixing X-Men and Avengers together in an attempt to make the two very different, often adversarial teams appear as a unified front. This isn't a great idea overall, and leads to a great deal of antagonism between characters, particularly from Rogue toward the Scarlet Witch. Rogue justifiably blames Wanda for nearly causing mutants to go completely extinct. The Scarlet Witch, on the other hand, tries to maintain control of her powers and her emotions as Rogue constantly berates and insults her. Rogue ultimately absorbs Wolverine's powers and beats Wanda in a fight, saying, “I'm sorry, you're too dangerous to live.” In a moment true to Wanda's character, she looks back at Rogue without anger or fear and says, “Then what are you?” before the killing blow falls upon her. In this scene, Wanda might take the place of anyone suffering from any number of mental illnesses, condemned by society, reflecting society's failure to account for people like her even in her last moments. Thankfully, Wanda survives the seemingly fatal encounter, and her quest for forgiveness continues to this day.

The times during which Scarlet Witch has gone rogue are partially explained by the enormous amount of stress that she, her brother, and her teammates put on her. Part of it is the fact that the Avengers have no on-hand counselor to speak of, but a team of highly volatile, highly dangerous metahumans undergoing constant flux and deadly situations probably needs one. Part of it is due to influence by other powerful entities, such as Doctor Doom, the Ancient Evil, the Life Force Entity, and Mephisto. Much like Jean Grey, Wanda is positioned in a team where everyone around her walks on eggshells, terrified that any misstep might send her spiraling. While Jean's reaction is to laugh things off and lock away her emotions, Wanda's is to hide and to lie, believing that she needs to protect the people around her from the truth. This isn't particularly healthy, but the unhealthiness is encouraged by the people around her.

When people discuss Scarlet Witch's instability, as in most cases, it would be appropriate to discuss in what ways her mental health has been impacted by her teammates, her family, and her lovers, the routes she's utilized to maintain control over her actions, and the paths she might take to help herself from here on out.