Sunday, June 14, 2015

Season of the Witch

No, the title of this post isn't a reference to recent inane statements by Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone about gender identity and paganism.

Rather, it's a fun little tribute to and celebration of my favorite Marvel superhero, the Scarlet Witch, who I'm happy to report recently made her official big screen debut in Avengers: Age of Ultron, played by Elizabeth Olsen.

As a fictional superhero created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the Scarlet Witch (Wanda Maximoff) first appeared in X-Men #4 (March 1964). In this particular story she and her twin brother Pietro are (half-heartedly) part of the Brotherhood of Mutants, a supervillain team lead by their father Magneto and devoted to mutant superiority over normal humans. Soon, however, both Wanda and Pietro (Quicksilver) see the error of their ways and join the Avengers. The Scarlet Witch has since starred in two self-titled limited series with husband the Vision and appears as a regular team member of the Avengers.

A mutant with certain witch-like powers, the Scarlet Witch can, with any number of gestures, "summons the earth power that is hers to command" (Avengers #153, November 1976). In this same Avengers issue, the Scarlet Witch muses on her abilities to alter reality:

When Agatha Harkness taught me to harness my power as witchcraft, she brought me to an understanding of myself. Yet every time I see the violence I can cause, I'm frightened! It sometimes seems I have so much power – and so little self-control!

"Like nothing the Avengers have seen before"

In writing about the Scarlet Witch's presence in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Nick Ramono offers an insightful perspective not only on this particular character but on female superheroes in general.

Scarlet Witch is one of the most powerful beings in Marvel comics. The chaos magic she wields allows her to make the most unlikely events happen, and she’s been known to alter the very fabric of reality. Wanda even has her own famous story arc, called House of M, which sees the repercussions of willing some of her Avengers out of existence, re-structuring the world to fit her image, and virtually wiping the mutant race off the map. In short, she’s got everyone, hero and villain, trembling in their spandex.

. . . [T]he character makes her first appearance on the silver screen in Joss Whedon’s highly anticipated Marvel follow-up Avengers: Age of Ultron. Though, the filmmaker has taken a few liberties with her abilities. While Scarlet Witch maintains an air of untamable power, she has traded in her limitless reality-warping abilities for more finite ones: telekinesis, mind control and telepathy. She’s still able to render Earth’s Mightiest Heroes mere puppets dangling from her strings, but it’s her strength – and how it's portrayed – that helps us make a compelling case to include more faithful adaptations of these strong female characters in Marvel movies.

Now, by "strong female character," I’m not referring to more well-rounded, relatable and prominent figures, as that phrase is commonly used. I’m referring more to their powers, as these are the real victims in the adaptation process. The issue with many female comic book characters – from Scarlet Witch and Jean Grey to Storm and Invisible Woman – is that their abilities pose a unique obstacle for filmmakers. Unlike their steroidal counterparts, their powers don’t usually consist of hacking and smashing. They are more elaborate, and based in visual effects. So how can they be created on screen in a way that’s believable to audiences? Reality warping is a difficult power on which to impose cinematic boundaries of what can and cannot be rendered on screen – which, perhaps, explains why Scarlet Witch is a newly minted psychic.

Scarlet Witch does not suffer from the constraints of VFX, but rather those of an overly populated film, perhaps. Age of Ultron has to serve many different roles, including: Avengers sequel; Captain America: Civil War prequel; Black Panther and Infinity War teaser; and an origin story for the Maximoff twins, Ultron and Vision. (Whew!) But even amidst all this clutter, Scarlet Witch still shines as one of the more enjoyable and, dare I say it, badass characters in the Marvel Comics Universe. Aside from Black Widow, she’s one of the better adapted female super-powered characters of the Marvel universe, and the fact that they are few and far between better served her purpose.

While on the press tour for Age of Ultron, both Joss Whedon and Elizabeth Olsen teased that Scarlet Witch is like nothing the Avengers have seen before. And, for that matter, neither have audiences. In terms of women who are almost as powerful or just as powerful as their comic book counterparts, and therefore their male teammates, Wanda is a rarity.

Dramatic and unforgettable

I was first introduced to the Scarlet Witch when I was about 8-years-old. One of the superhero comic books we had in our home was Avengers #114 (August 1973). I dare say my older brother, Chris, had bought it. From the time I first became aware of it, and for years afterwards, its cover was a mystery as it had been accidentally torn-off and discarded. What I do vividly remember, however, was it's dramatic and unforgettable opening page, one that depicts the Scarlet Witch standing at a window and a monstrous shadow on the wall outside.

Years later in the U.S. I located this comic book – no mean feat when not knowing its cover! And so here is its opening page and the illustration that served as my introduction to the Scarlet Witch all those years ago. It's accompanied by the two panels that immediately follow it . . .

In retrospect, it's not that surprising that I would have been drawn to the character of Wanda/Scarlet Witch. As a young closeted gay boy growing in awareness that I was different, I identified with Wanda's plight; with her sense of being misunderstood (even at times by herself); her experience of being an outsider, even to those closest to her.

I also resonated, though in ways I was unable to articulate at the time, with Wanda's willingness to wrestle with difficult questions of identity and meaning. And I appreciated the fact that despite her journey having its share of missteps, she always endeavored to be true to herself – her authentic "different" self

Again, none of this should be surprising. After all, like the various mutants in superhero comics and films, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons are considered by many as not only “different,” but freakish and potentially dangerous.

Gerard Jones, author of the book Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book, observes that when Marvel's superhero comic books first rose to popularity in the 1970s (interestingly, the same decade as “gay liberation”), they set a new precedent with regards to how superheroes interacted with the world around them. For one thing, comic book superheroes were no longer compelled to uphold “protective dualities of public and private selves” – as in the case of, say, Superman and Clark Kent.

Yet not only did the superheros of the '70s not have secret identities, says Jones, “they wrestled openly with the challenges of their mutant ‘otherness.’ Their stories were not about keeping secrets, but about creating family and identity with the help of other oddballs.”

The creating of my identity as a gay man would come much later for me, but I like to think that the Scarlet Witch, as depicted in the comic books I read as a child in the '70s, played a part in my journey of self-acceptance, my journey home to my true self.

Pietro and Wanda

Now's probably a good time to note that Wanda's brother Pietro (aka Quicksilver) also appears in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Like Wanda, he looks much younger than depicted in the '70s-era comics. He's also not depicted as a "fanatic" – though, admittedly, his character isn't given much time to develop into much of anything.

Above: Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as the Scarlet Witch in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Says Taylor-Johnson about his Quicksilver character:

He's very agitated because everything runs too slowly for him. He's quick at everything. He's quick to lose his temper. It's more about Pietro and Wanda together, a yin/yang where he's very physical and very protective of her and she's very internal and always mothering him. Pietro doesn't . . . trust anybody. The only one he cares for and, at the end of the day will jump in front of a bullet for, is his sister Wanda.

Taylor-Johnson is actually the second Quicksilver on the big screen in less than a year, following Evan Peters in X-Men: Days of Future Past. About this, Taylor-Johnson says:

That was already out there before I even signed the contract. If I'd cared that much, I would have said no. It didn't phase me for one minute. What I knew of it was that Evan Peter's Quicksilver was set in the '70s, and it was different. I didn't watch any of it while making Avengers but I did see it recently, and it was fantastic.

"Something new to this panoply of heroes"

In his insightful review of Avengers: Age of Ultron for the indispensable website Ferdy on Film, Roderick Heath notes the following about Wanda and Pietro:

Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his sister Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) . . . are, of course, mutants (or “enhanced” as [director/screenwriter Joss] Whedon calls them, to avoid stepping on turf currently locked down by Fox): Pietro, better known as Quicksilver, provided the best scene in last year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, albeit with a different actor in the part. Pietro and Wanda in Whedon’s take are a pair of orphaned Russians with a gripe against Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) because some of his weaponry killed their parents. Now their talents have been honed to a dangerous edge by Hydra [the evil organization of fascist futurists founded by Captain America’s old Nazi antagonist Red Skull.] Pietro attacks the Avengers and leaves Hawkeye injured, whilst Wanda unleashes her psychic power to give Tony a vision of what he fears is the future, where all his pals are dead and the Earth decimated.

The Maximoffs are one of the big new items on this ticket, with Wanda about to evolve into Scarlet Witch, one of the key Avengers and also one of the most fractious. It’s an old adage about genre fiction, and action cinema above all, that character should be revealed in action, and the intensely mutually reliant nature of the Maximoffs defines them repeatedly throughout the film without requiring much dialogue to underline – and also provides a tragic jolt late in the film. Taylor-Johnson and Olsen, who played husband and wife in the tepid Godzilla (2014), have more chance here to show off their charisma even in more limited roles. Olsen is particularly good, plummy Slavic accent and all, in handling the switchbacks of her character, bringing something new to this panoply of heroes, insofar as she suggests a vengeful, dead-eyed confidence in her powers and the lurking spur of neurotic pain (and indeed, given the character’s instability in the comic books, menacingly so). Wanda and Pietro change sides in the conflict according to an essential, bitterly imposed awareness of the brutality in the world and their own motivation to counter it.

A (possible) tribute, a deleted cameo, and the real thing

Okay, indulge me a moment longer as I share a couple more panels from that rather instrumental Avengers comic book from my childhood . . .

I share these panels, the last one in particular, to show how in last year's X-Men: Days of Future Past, "Ms Maximoff" (right), the mother of "Peter/Quicksilver" (and thus Wanda), looks very similar to the Wanda/Scarlet Witch of the 1970s comics! Of course, this isn't that surprising as the scenes featuring Ms Maximoff (Zehra Leverman) are set in 1973. I like to think that this is a special little creative and loving tribute to the Scarlet Witch of the 1970s . . . to my Wanda!

Wanda, herself, doesn't get a mention in X-Men Days of Future Past, although a little girl listed in the credits as "Peter's Little Sister" is seen at one point sitting on Peter's lap watching TV (left).

Apparently, somewhat of a cameo mention of the Scarlet Witch was intended but cut from X-Men: Days of Future Past. According to International Business Times entertainment reporter Tanya Diente:

[One] scene that was inevitably deleted in the final screening . . . was an appearance by Quicksilver's twin sister the Scarlet Witch. [Writer Simon] Kinberg had toyed with the idea of bringing the Scarlet Witch into the mix.

"Actually, there was a little scene that we shot that we ended up cutting out of the movie that alluded to her. It was sort of an interstitial scene that didn't push the movie forward and so it ended up being cut," Kinberg explained.

The characters of Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch as played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, do, however, make a cameo appearance in a mid-credits scene in the 2014 film Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Both characters are briefly seen exploring their superhero abilities.

"More like a dancer than a fighter"

Okay, I'll close this special tribute to the Scarlet Witch by relating something I think is very cool, given my interest in and love of dance.

According to Elizabeth Olsen in an interview in the April 2015 issue of Empire, dance played a part in creating the physical movements of her character. Here's what she says:

The coolest thing about Scarlet Witch is, because you've never seen her, we got to create how she moves. [Director] Joss [Whedon] was really inspired by dancers, and so he knew that he wanted to change visually how she moves, to be more like a dancer than a fighter. I didn't really have to do much stunt training. Instead I trained with a dancer, Jenny White, which was its own kind of soreness, but it wasn't what I thought it would be.

Related Off-site Links:
Why Avengers: Age of Ultron Needed Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch – Adam Holms (Cinema Blend, April 2015).
Scarlet Witch's Powers in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Explained – Eric Eisenberg (Cinema Blend, March 2015).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
What the Vatican Can Learn from the X-Men
The New Superman: Not Necessarily Gay, But Definitely Queer

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