As a TV series that mixes the spectacle of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with homages to classic sitcoms, the Disney+ series “WandaVision” seems like a perfect escapist fantasy. Each of the seven episodes aired thus far has placed Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and her husband Vision (Paul Bettany) from the “Avengers” films in comedic farces based on sitcoms such as “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Bewitched,” and “Malcolm in the Middle.”
But the series’ tone abruptly shifts in episode three. In the middle of a romp inspired by “The Brady Bunch,” involving Wanda’s whirlwind pregnancy and an obtrusive stork, the White main character turns to her Black neighbor and says, “I think you should leave.”
Up until that point, neighbor Geraldine (Teyonah Parris) has been a welcome new addition to the suburban town of Westview. But when lost memories suddenly return to Geraldine and she begins talking about Wanda’s late brother Pietro (who died in the movie “Avengers: Age of Ultron”), our protagonist gets uncomfortable. Clearly confused, Geraldine tries to make herself useful to Wanda, offering to watch her newborn twins while she rests. But Wanda feels threatened and scared. She turns to the apologetic Geraldine, her face hardening to her neighbor’s explanations, red light emanating from her hands.
The next thing we know, Geraldine is gone and Wanda watches lovingly over the babies, safety once again restored. The episode ends with Geraldine being launched through the sky and landing outside the neighborhood.
Suburbia Beyond the Sitcoms
Later episodes explain Wanda’s actions in terms of superhero intrigue. We learn that Geraldine’s real name is Monica Rambeau and that she was sucked into this alternate reality while investigating an invisible field separating Westview from the rest of the world. Once inside, her memories disappeared and she became Geraldine, a kooky neighbor in a world seemingly under Wanda’s control.
But for anyone with a tangential understanding of the history and present of American suburbia, the sight of a Black woman being blasted out of a neighborhood carries significant weight. Starting with the 1947 creation of the Levittown subdivision in Long Island, New York, suburbia has been ground zero for the battle over the American Dream. Government and business forces used the suburb as a place to realize their “ideal” American: capitalist, Protestant, nuclear, and White.
Racial discrimination has always been a part of the American suburb. Even after racial covenants explicitly banning people of color were ruled unenforceable, White homeowners still found ways to restrict their neighbors to people who looked like them. Some of these methods were legal, such as the policy of redlining or “War on Drugs” strategies that congregated Black people in inner-city housing while moving White people to suburbs outside of town. Others were not, including pressure by neighborhood associations (see Mr. Lindner’s speech in the Lorraine Hansberry play “A Raisin in the Sun”) and outright violence in places such as Detroit and Boston.
Even today, the racist narratives that motivated white flight in the seventies return to justify the murder of unarmed Black people. Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others memorialized on the Say Their Names List were killed because White residents felt uncomfortable about Black people in their neighborhoods.
In light of these facts, the scene from “WandaVision” cannot be dismissed as an exciting scene in a superhero story. The scene, and the show as a whole, becomes a means for rethinking the violence we perpetrate on one another.
Intentionally or not, “WandaVision” does identify the source of this real-world violence. So often, those who flee the cities, put gates around their neighborhoods, and murder unarmed Black people in their midst justify their actions by centering their fear.
When Wanda removes Geraldine from her neighborhood, she does so because she’s scared, troubled by the traumatic events of her past. In her appearances in the last three “Avengers” movies, Wanda has suffered experimentation at the hands of Nazis, manipulation by the homicidal robot Ultron, the destruction of her home country Sakovia, the death of her twin brother Pietro, and the death of her husband Vision (his method of return from the grave has not yet been revealed). Wanda comes by her mistrust of humanity honestly.
But the series also shows how that hurt harms others, as well as Wanda. In pursuit of safety, to protect herself from experiencing any more pain, Wanda has essentially conquered Westview, brainwashing its residents and forcing them to participate in her sitcom pastiches. In the sixth episode, we follow Vision, suspicious of his wife’s actions, as he walks through the neighborhood. He finds suburbanites doing standard daily activities, hanging up decorations and caring for their lawns with mechanical stiffness. Later, Vision finds people standing frozen outside of their houses, as if waiting for further instructions.
In her dread, Wanda has negated the humanity of her neighbors. For the sake of safety, she has exchanged the richness of reality for the pallor of control.
Fear Not, For God is With Us
In a way, the Christian message can be summarized in the reassurance the angels give while announcing the birth of Jesus: “Do not be afraid.” Throughout the Gospels, Jesus teaches that, alongside “love the Lord your God,” there is “no commandment greater” than “love your neighbor as yourself.” 1 John 4 expounds upon this point, instructing believers to “love one another” because “for love comes from God.” This love — from God and for others — leaves no room to be afraid, because “perfect love drives out fear.” Simply put, “The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
As these scriptures demonstrate, Christians have no justification for harming their neighbors. We imitate a God who forsook self-defense and died as an act of love for humanity. We cannot let our inability to deal with hurt and uncertainty rob us of the abundant life God promised, a life that can only be realized by living in community with other people.
The later “WandaVision” episodes illustrate this point by showing the diminished life that Wanda lives in her “perfect” reality. Her need for control has not only made automatons out of her neighbors and alienated her from Vision and her recently resurrected brother Pietro (Evan Peters), but it has exposed her to greater evil.
At the same time, Monica Rambeau is emerging as the series’ hero, precisely because she overcomes her fear and fights out of love for others. Monica has suffered her own catastrophic loss, including a five-year absence from the world and the death of her mother. But rather than let her pain remove her from others, Monica sees it as a chance for connection. In an inspiring scene from episode seven, Monica ignores warnings that re-entering Westview will kill her and pushes through the invisible field (gaining the powers of her comic-book counterpart in the process).
Monica enters not to take Wanda down in an epic battle, but to talk to her and relate to her. Referencing her own loss, Monica begs Wanda not to give in to her worst impulses. “I can’t control this pain anymore,” she admits before declaring, “And I don’t think I want to. Because it’s my truth.” Monica uses her pain, not as an excuse to control her neighbor, but to love her neighbor as herself.
Just like her expulsion, Monica’s return to Westview draws our attention away from superhero fantasy and toward the real world. But it has the opposite effect. Instead of showing us the way anxiety has led to evil in suburbia, the episode helps us imagine the good we can do in this same space. We can welcome others, care for those who live among us and those who are just passing through. We can let our fear and pain be more than excuses to control others. We can follow Christ’s example and love our neighbors.