In 'WandaVision' and 'Falcon and the Winter Soldier,' Trauma Is the Villain

From Wanda’s grief to Bucky’s guilt, Marvel is using Disney+ to give its heroes extended therapy sessions

Disney/Marvel

After “WandaVision” took Wanda Maximoff through the five stages of grief, Marvel’s next Disney+ series “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” will force Bucky Barnes to unpack his decades of being a brainwashed assassin. Marvel heroes need therapy too.

“If you just take the reality of Marvel Cinematic Universe, Bucky is 106-year-old-man. People have messed with his brain over all those decades, and he’s gone from one fight to the next,” Malcolm Spellman, head writer for “Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” told TheWrap. “But now that we had the breadth of six episodes, we were like: ‘We’re gonna make him confront that and we’re going to make him deal with it.’”

Even though Marvel’s first two Disney+ series feature villains like Agatha Harkness (Kathryn Hahn) and Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), the real adversary their heroes have to defeat is the one inside their own heads.

To this point, Marvel has only dabbled with examining its heroes’ mental health. In “Iron Man 3,” Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) was wracked with PTSD following the Avengers’ victory against Loki (2012’s “The Avengers”) in the Battle of New York. “Avengers: Endgame” saw Thor (Chris Hemsworth) suffer a mental breakdown, gain a ton of weight and become an alcoholic over his failure to stop Thanos (Josh Brolin) from snapping half of all life out of existence in “Avengers: Infinity War.”

“It’s a completely different kind of storytelling,” Spellman said. “Features are all about compressed time and urgency and writing toward one event. The rhythm to which relationships play out, and the rhythm to which characters evolve, is all dictated by that.”

Stark seemingly conquered his panic attacks in the span of two hours and continued fighting as Iron Man over the course of five more movies. After a talk with his mother while in the past in “Endgame,” Thor accepted his own shortcomings and charts out a life of his own choosing. Those movies dictated that resolution because there were bad guys to defeat and worlds to save.

“Two-and-a-half hours is not a lot of time in a movie, especially when you’re trying to save the world and doing it with a large team of people,” “WandaVision” director Matt Shakman said. “Going deep and having those intimate moments that a larger movie doesn’t allow the time for, it’s much more like a long comic run. You’re really able to learn who these people are.”

With its first handful of Disney+ series, Marvel is choosing to spotlight characters that have mostly remained on the sidelines in the movies. “WandaVision” finally drove into Wanda’s (Elizabeth Olsen) tragic backstory and her loss, following so many deaths of her loved ones — the most recent being her lover, Vision (Paul Bettany). The end result was to finally make her the fully-formed Scarlet Witch from the comics.

Sebastian Stan as The Winter Soldier in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (Marvel Studios)

While “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” has its share of world-saving plots and action set pieces befitting a Marvel film, Spellman also gets six episodes to probe the mind of the former brainwashed assassin during a rare moment of quiet for Sebastian Stan’s Bucky. After all, there are only so many explosions one can have (not without blowing a hole through your budget).

“It’s not just about extending a story because that won’t work. It becomes tedious. The character’s journey has to have a completely different rhythm to it. But it does allow you to go way, way deeper,” Spellman said, teasing that Bucky’s story will hit on his decades as The Winter Soldier. “All the stuff he’s gone through is personified in this one story and whether or not he can make it work is going to determine whether or not he can heal and evolve.”

Bucky’s story, like Wanda’s, is defined by trauma.

A childhood friend of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Bucky is thought to have died while fighting alongside Captain America in “The First Avenger” after he falls from a train. But as we find out in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” he somehow survived the fall (he was earlier experimented on by Hydra scientists), though loses an arm. Hydra finds him, gives him a vibranium arm and turns him into the brainwashed killer known as The Winter Soldier. He would spend the next seven decades carrying out various assassinations (one of them being Howard Stark) while being kept in cryostasis when he wasn’t needed. He eventually runs into Captain America, who goes to great lengths to save and protect his friend, which eventually leads to a fall-out with Stark that temporarily breaks up the Avengers.

Bucky then gets his mind “fixed” by the Wakandans just in time for him to join the fight against Thanos, which ends up with him turning into dust after Thanos wins. He’s brought back in “Endgame,” though he now, like Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson, has to deal with a post-Blip and post-Captain America world.

“We’re able to go so deep into their, not just backstories, but just who they are, and force them to confront emotional things and be real human beings,” Spellman said. “They get the treatment of a decade’s worth of Marvel movies.”

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