*Spoiler Warning for WandaVision finale and also The Rise of Skywalker negativity warning because I am salty*
Not all-powerful women in media have a one-size-fits-all narrative arc. No matter how similar things may seem on the face, their stories are handled, and more importantly, the context they are told, which truly matters. Unfortunately, this is the part that is often overlooked.
This once again rose to prominence following the finale of Marvel’s wildly successful WandaVision, where some wished that Wanda’s story was the kind of arc that Rey, the lead of the latest Star Wars trilogy, should have been given – particularly in The Rise of Skywalker – while others felt that the two arcs were in fact the same, and served the same purpose for both heroines.
If you’ve ever heard me talk about either or both of these stories and these characters in particular, then you know I fall into the first category.
Why Wanda and Rey's Story Arcs are Not the Same, Actually
I will begin by saying, it is not my intention to tell someone they’re wrong for finding meaning in the conclusion of Rey’s arc, where she takes on the name of Rey Skywalker. I do know individuals who found meaning in character choosing a new name for herself and a new family to belong to, as it in some way reflected their own situation. And in isolation, that scene removed from the context of the rest of Rey’s story works just fine. But this is an entire character arc, not a four-panel comic strip. Context does matter, and it’s why I find the comparison to be simplistic at best and thoroughly missing the point at worst.
Though Wanda Maximoff has been a consistent presence in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since 2015’s Age of Ultron (or, technically, her mid-credit appearance in 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier), she was never really given a chance to shine until WandaVision was released this year. This is no fault of the character, of course. Being dropped in the middle of the Avengers second team-up movie as a lackey of the villain who switches sides halfway through and then becoming one of several supporting characters in an already overstuffed ensemble is not an ideal scenario.
But when she did have a role to play, it was a significant one. Her actions in Lagos during Captain America's events: Civil War became one of the driving factors behind the Sokovia Accords. She was the only one capable of destroying the Mind Stone when Thanos sought to take it, and she almost succeeded too (stupid, pesky Time Stone ruining everything). Though she is not given a solo film to establish her powers, there is no question in the minds of either the audience or the characters on screen that they are significant.
Her powers are, on her first introduction, attributed to the Mind Stone. A result of Hydra experimentation. This assumption goes unchallenged for the majority of the time we see her. She does not fully understand the range of what she can do, which WandaVision unpacks quite well.
Wanda’s “Hex,” the idealized suburban lifestyle she creates for herself in her grief, is far more widespread than she’d ever intended. She controls upwards of 4000 people without realizing it, managing every detail of their lives with only the occasional glitch. Even she, by her own admission, does not know how she is managing it.
Enter Agatha Harkness.
Originally appearing to be Nosy Neighbour Agnes, a staple of the sitcoms Wanda’s fictional world is emulating, Agatha is actually a witch drawn to the town of Westview due to the powerful magical signature that Wanda’s spell is giving off. She is convinced Wanda has engineered all this on purpose and is determined to learn how.
Once she grows tired of waiting for Wanda to slip up, she reveals her own true identity as a witch, and in the penultimate episode of the series, finally reveals the truth of Wanda’s powers to her: the Mind Stone did not give her her powers. It only enhanced what was naturally there, to begin with.
However, Agatha does give Wanda a title, calling her the “Scarlet Witch,” a magical being with no coven and more power than the Sorcerer Supreme. Feeling that Wanda is undeserving of the intense power she has, Agatha does her best to goad her into giving up her powers so she can take them, calling Wanda “undeserving.” She repeatedly tries to control Wanda’s narrative, only for Wanda, in the end, to declare, “You don’t get to tell me who I am,” before fully embracing her power and coming into the role of Scarlet Witch.
So how does this tie back to Rey? Unlike Wanda, on Rey’s first introduction – The Force Awakens released, funnily enough, the same year as Age of Ultron – it takes a while for the breadth of her power to become apparent to the audience. She is a highly capable scavenger and pilot for half the film, before learning she has some connection to the Force in Maz Kanata’s castle, which is furthered while she is being held in captivity and discovers the power to infiltrate the minds of others while keeping Kylo Ren out of hers. She fully comes into her own as a Force-sensitive individual when she calls Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber to her hand as it bypasses Kylo, the grandson of its original owner.
The mystery of her identity is left hanging. How could a seemingly nothing girl be so powerful? There was no convenient Mind Stone explanation, so this mystery followed both the characters and the audience into the second installment, The Last Jedi. Up to that point, Rey’s fixation had been wanting to find her family, the family that abandoned her, or at the very least learn who they were and why they left her behind.
It is then, at the lowest point in her story, just as she realizes she’s not going to succeed in bringing Ben Solo back to the light, that she is also hit with a one-two gut punch: her family is dead, having abandoned her on purpose, and worse still because of their unimportance to the galaxy at large, Rey has no place in the larger story.
Granted, this is partially an attempt by Kylo Ren to flip her to the Dark side, tapping on the innate darkness in her that was born of a troubled and tragic childhood. It is at this point that her arc changes. As far as anyone knows, she is the last of the Jedi, and it is for her to find a place and significance in the story.
Then midway through the last chapter in her arc, the stakes are retroactively rewritten. Once again, she is reset to zero, longing for her family and clinging to the parental figures in her life. How convenient, then, for her to be handed a brand-new place in the story: she is the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine!
Now her arc has suddenly become a struggle to reject the darkness of a family she knew nothing about, and that didn’t seem to affect her in any real way. Her defeat of Palpatine in the film’s final moments doesn’t even really pay this off. If it has been stated that he killed her parents, virtually nothing about their interaction would need to change. Certainly, nothing about her motivations in that moment would.
So to return to the point of “you don’t get to tell me who I am,” this could absolutely have worked with the Rey Palpatine thing if it had been established from the get-go rather than very obviously shoehorned in in an attempt to recreate the “I am your father” scene.
However, the context and narrative arc did not need this. It would also have worked if Rey had been permitted to identify herself and her place in the story on her own terms, rather than on the terms the writers felt would appease a segment of the population that wasn’t going to like Rey either way.
This is where people bring in “Rey Skywalker,” and I am constantly made to feel guilty for rejecting this entire decision. In isolation, it’s fine. In the context of Rey’s arc as a whole, it’s absolutely ridiculous.
It’s enough to give the audience whiplash, for Rey to proudly declare to Palpatine that her parents were “good people” (who still handed over their toddler in exchange for cash – this plot point remained hilariously intact), but for her then to reject their name in exchange for the name of someone she barely got along with. And it isn’t as though she had any time to bond with Luke’s Force Ghost since it’s made clear that Leia is her new Jedi master.
It’s not even an attempt for her to honor her new master, since Leia is extremely clear in the novel Bloodline that she was never easy with the idea of Anakin Skywalker, even though Luke is, and that she considers herself an Organa. In bending over backward to frame Rey’s choice as one that makes sense for her and ties her to Leia, the one Original Trilogy character she is actually close to, everyone actively chooses to ignore the choices Leia made for herself simply because of who her biological father is.
Wanda’s story is not actually over yet, and Rey’s is, at least for the moment. Wanda is being given the space to see her own arc through, to come into her power on her terms, to reunite her family, now that the hurdle of her all-consuming grief has reached the “acceptance” stage.
Rey, however, spent the final act of her story seeing through other character’s journeys: she completes Leia’s Jedi path for her (which is a whole other level of rage-inducing nonsense that I don’t have time for today), she is suddenly a pawn in Palpatine’s designs, and it becomes about him and his wants, her sole desire regarding him is to not give in to whatever he wants.
Her “you have the power; you can do it” pep talk with Force Ghost Luke culminates in the triumphant lifting of the X-Wing out of the sea by…Luke Skywalker. Who is not the person who doubted their own ability. So even the pep talks she receives are meant to pay off a perceived slight to someone else’s story.
Wanda’s wants and needs when she is first introduced – revenge, a way out of Sokovia, a better life – are not her wants and needs by the end of WandaVision. By this point, they have dramatically shifted. Now what she wants is her new family to be together again and understand her rapidly growing powers and what it means to be here in this new world. But Rey’s wants at the start of her arc – her family – remain the same at the end of her arc.
She is still clinging to the idea of an older, more adultier-adult to give her a place in the galaxy, and she does so by taking the name of the one adult in her life that shares her skillset. Her mid-story desire vanished to find her place in the overall story when the writers decided to hand her a convenient one, pushing her back to her starting point, giving her a baffling resolution, and pretending that it is somehow narratively satisfying.
Here’s what would have made Wanda and Rey’s arcs the same to put this in perspective. It would be if Magneto descended from on high (or via the Multiverse) to reveal at the 11th hour that Wanda is, in fact, his daughter and that she doesn’t just have power. She has his power and was, in fact, a powerful mutant all along.
Wanda would then have to spend the remainder of the series not really dealing with this, having a big climactic battle with Magneto where this is not mentioned at all, before looking into the middle distance in the final shot of the series and proudly declaring herself to be “Wanda Barton,” because she and Hawkeye talked for a minute and got along, I guess.
All this to say that the two arcs appear to be the same on its face: a superpowered woman rejects the assessment of her made by the villain and chooses to define herself on her own terms. But when you actually truly look at the story, we see one narrative that gives the character space to flesh out her own arc and another made into a self-insert vessel by the writer and director at the last minute.
And though this is by no means a universal assessment, I do find it worth noting that the men who see no problem in deeming both arcs to be the same within my circle. Simultaneously, the women mourn the lack of Rey being allowed to flourish without bad-faith last-minute decisions made for her character that are so jarring they always read as a director or writer decision rather than a legitimate character decision.