My first impression after watching “We Interrupt This Program,” the fourth episode of Marvel’s live-action drama series Wandavision, was a strange combination of melancholy and déjà vu. The revelation that Wanda Maximoff (a.k.a. Scarlet Witch) and her husband Vision’s misadventures as suburban newlyweds was all in fact an elaborate fantasy conjured into being by Wanda’s own powers was an effective twist, but the implied motivations behind Wanda’s hoax are what struck me so deeply.
I felt sympathetic to her unwillingness to live in a Post-Blip world without anyone left in her life to confide in or rely on, and I was horrified by the implications of what her powers were doing to the minds of all 3,892 of Westview’s hapless denizens. But another thought crossed my mind: There was definitely an episode of the Justice League cartoon that did this exact same thing.
And yes there was. In “Legends,” a season 1 episode of the 2001 animated Justice League series, John Stewart, Hawkgirl, J’onn J’onzz aka The Martian Manhunter, and the Flash are caught in the reactor explosion of a giant Evangelion-esque robot. They awake to find themselves in Seaboard City, a 1950s-esque town à la Pleasantville, that exists in an alternate dimension from their own. J’onn is distrubed by images of a nuclear blast when he attempts to telepathically contact Batman and Superman, but that’s swiftly forgotten as the League inadvertently clashes and subsequently teams up with the Justice Guild of America, the town’s resident superheroes.
The superheroes are familiar faces: They’re all John’s Stewart’s favorite childhood comic book characters, in addition to the Guild’s plucky young mascot and honorary member Ray Thompson. Each of the members are a pastiche patterned after DC Comics’ own classic version of the Justice League, the Justice Society of America. Tom Turbine stands in for the Atom, the Streak for Jay Garrick/the Flash, Cat Man for Wildcat, Black Siren for Black Canary, and Green Guardsman for, of course, the Golden Age version of Green Lantern.
But underneath the placid campy exterior and low-stakes encounters with pun-obsessed cornball “supervillains” is something more sinister. Hawkgirl and Green Lantern discover a cemetery with gravestones for the Justice Guild. The town library is full of books with nothing but blank pages, there’s a solitary ice cream truck whose driver refuses to stop for fear of some terrible unknown force, and a 40-year old newspaper referencing an impending war lies buried beneath the ruins of an abandoned subway station.
John and Hawkgirl confront the Guild and their teammates with these discoveries, wherein J’onn reveals what he has suspected since they arrived here. This “reality” is not real at all, but an illusion created by none other than Ray, the Justice Guild’s kid sidekick. J’onn telepathically dispels Ray’s disguise, revealing his true form as a mutant psychic who, disfigured and empowered by the irradiated blast that decimated his world nearly half a century ago, has warped the nuclear ruins of his former hometown into a portrait of Rockwellian idyllicism to retreat from the horrors of the real world. The “citizens” of Seaboard are survivors slave to his whims and psychic projections of the heroes he worshiped in his youth. The Justice Guild were blissfully unaware that their heroics were all in vain, and that their real-life counterparts, and most of the world, died a long time ago.
While at first, WandaVision and “Legends” might appear radically different in their comparable scale and stakes, both Ray and Wanda are immensely gifted psychics who, rather than confront the pain of their respective traumas of their present, isolate themselves in self-made fantasy worlds. They’ve both fashioned their alternate realities after the aesthetics of post-war America, and have wrapped all those around them up in their effort to dissociate.
Ray survived the nuclear fallout that decimated human civilization and was granted immense psychic powers through exposure to nuclear radiation, but was rendered horrifically disfigured for the experience. Wanda lost not only her brother Pietro during the Battle of Sokovia in Avengers: Age of Ultron, but was later faced with the burden of destroying the Mind Stone, and essentially killing her own lover, in order to thwart Thanos’ plot to kill off half of all life in the universe. After following through on that terrible choice, she was forced to watch helplessly as it was rendered moot. Thanos simply used the Time Stone to resurrect Vision and pluck the Mind Stone from his forehead, killing him in front of her a second time. That’s all on top of the trauma of having been snapped and subsequently resurrected during the climax of Avengers: Endgame.
It’s reasonable that both characters regressed further into the comfortable assurance of their powers, into the safety of an in-grown fantasy where they are the self-appointed godheads of an idealized past. While the origins behind Ray’s powers are made clear by the end of “Legends,” it’s yet known what (or perhaps even who) is responsible for Wanda’s heretofore untapped wellspring of psychic powers, let alone what drew her specifically to the town of Westview.
Another crucial point of comparison is that, while Ray is the (albeit sympathetic) antagonist and villain of “Legends,” Wanda is unquestionably one of, if not the protagonist of Wandavision. Ray’s appearance as a one-off character in “Legends” made his villain reveal feel plausible yet inexplicable, while the equivalent of that revelation in Wandavision is arguably more surprising for the fact that we had already spent four episodes alongside her as a character. It begs the question: If Wanda was suppressing the truth behind her and Vision’s life from both her husband and the “audience” (both Darcy Lewis and Agent Woo and ourselves), what else might she be withholding — or rather repressing — from herself? Is Wanda the true “villain” of this story, or is there some other yet unseen force moving behind the scenes, subtly compelling Wanda to focus her energies on this particular town? Just what is so special about Westview, New Jersey?
In “Legends,” the members of the Justice Guild know that if they help the Justice League defeat Ray, then Seaboard City as they know it — along with themselves — will cease to exist. And they do it anyway. “We died once to save this Earth, and we can do it again,” The Streak tells his teammates as they charge to the League’s rescue. In WandaVision, it’s become clear that Vision’s dawning realization regarding the true nature of their lives in Westview is a brewing tension between him and Wanda. The pair seem headed for their own explosive confrontation, one where Vision himself might have to choose once again to sacrifice his own life for the sake of a future without him.
Justice League is currently streaming on HBO Max
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