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The tragic history of Scarlet Witch, who will make her film debut in Avengers: Age of Ultron

Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch, in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch, in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Marvel

In Avengers: Age of Ultron, the Avengers will take on one of the most powerful beings the Marvel universe has ever seen. This being has decimated supergroups, wiped out wide populations of people, and, in some circles, is one of the most hated characters ever created. And this individual has, in the comic books, the power to cause utter devastation.

We're not talking about Ultron.

Her name is the Scarlet Witch, a.k.a. Wanda Maximoff (played by Elizabeth Olsen). She'll be making her big cinematic debut in AOU, some 51 years after her first appearance in Marvel comic books.

That long delay between print and film isn't because Wanda is boring. Indeed, it's the opposite.

Her origin is as complex and bizarre as any you'll find at Marvel. She was abandoned at birth and raised, at various points, by a sentient humanoid cow, gypsies, and Magneto, the villainous master of magnetism. Her powers — being able to alter probability and tap into chaos magic — are strange, too, and seemingly difficult to depict in a movie.

In fact, there's enough to the Scarlet Witch's story that it could easily fill three Avengers movies.

The Scarlet Witch is one weird character

Uncanny X-Men no. 4 (Marvel)

Uncanny X-Men No. 4. (Marvel)

The first thing you'll notice about the Scarlet Witch is the way her costume looks like a strange crown-mask hybrid. It frames her face, making her look like an evil queen from a land of bizarre geometry.

That's the work of comic book legend Jack Kirby, who had a penchant for giving his villains strange headpieces that toed the line between silly and majestic.

The outfit dates back to Scarlet Witch's first appearance in Kirby and Stan Lee's Uncanny X-Men No. 4 (1964). The cover is classic Kirby. Magneto, with his band of villains called the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, flexes his arm and grits his teeth, looking like he's going to crush the X-Men with his clenched fists. But Scarlet Witch and her brother, Quicksilver — a.k.a. Pietro Maximoff — look uninterested in being there.

That's the story of the issue in an image.

Wanda and Pietro aren't Magneto's typical henchmen. They're disdainful of their colleagues, though not without reason. Toad is disgusting, and Mastermind is a persistent creeper:

(Marvel)

Please take a moment to appreciate Pietro's insistence on manners. (Marvel)

Lee and Kirby don't paint the Brotherhood as a serious force embodying Magneto's ideologies. Hence the attention paid to Toad's lack of manners and Mastermind's lack of chill:

(Marvel)

Mastermind is a creeper. (Marvel)

Lee and Kirby drive home this idea when we find out that Wanda and Pietro aren't fully convinced of Magneto's ideology of mutants being superior and humankind being their slaves. They're reluctant members of his cause.

Pietro is only there because he loves Wanda and will go wherever she goes. And Wanda is only there because she feels like she owes Magneto something after he saved the two of them from an angry European lynch mob (a recurring theme in both Marvel comics and Scarlet Witch's origin story). When a man tries to sexually assault the Scarlet Witch, she defends herself and incurs the wrath of the village. Magneto stops the villagers in the nick of time:

(Marvel)

Sometimes it's better to die than to owe Magneto something. (Marvel)

Wanda burning down the village is a brief taste of an unwieldy origin story involving Magneto, a concentration camp, that sentient humanoid cow, and infants switched at birth. But this scene also establishes Scarlet Witch and Magneto's disparate personalities.

Magneto holds the rescue over Scarlet Witch's head like a loan that's impossible to repay. She, wanting to do the right thing, wants to make right with Magneto. In fact, in her initial appearance, Lee writes Wanda as a calm people-pleaser — constantly deferring to others, putting up with Mastermind, and talking Pietro down from fighting other members of the team. (Comic book stories from this period reflected and were imbued with the sexism of the times. And female heroes were often marginalized.)

Wanda doesn't seem to enjoy being powerful. She only uses her power — an ability to "hex" people and objects — to protect her brother:

(Marvel)

It's unclear whether Wanda Maximoff is a UT fan. (Marvel)

In introducing the ominous-sounding Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, Kirby and Lee also lay the foundation for Scarlet Witch's transformation into a hero.

Misunderstood and afraid of what her powers can do, Wanda wants to protect others. And people hate her for reasons beyond her control — thus, she has more in common with an X-Men character like Jean Grey than she does with Magneto. It's no surprise that she and her brother eventually defect from the Brotherhood.

Welcome to the Avengers, Wanda

(Marvel)

TIL: superheroes can write cover letters too. (Marvel)

Wanda and Pietro's origin stories — being hated by humans, having immense power, and having the desire to control those powers — fit the civil rights themes so prominent in X-Men.

But in Avengers No. 16, Lee and Kirby reveal that Wanda and Pietro don't want to be reminded of their mutant origins.

"The Avengers might accept us without caring we are different — without always reminding us we are mutants!!" Pietro tells Wanda.

Wanda, the slightly co-dependent people-pleaser that she is, lets him call the shots.

"I shall do as you wish, my brother," she replies.

In one of the cutest moments in Marvel history, they write the Avengers a letter expressing interest in becoming members. It's this choice — between the X-Men and the Avengers — that best exemplifies the difference between the two supergroups. The universally loved Avengers are celebrities — the glamour squad. Meanwhile, the X-Men are heroes hated by the people they want to protect.

There was also a logistical reason for adding the Scarlet Witch to the squad. At the time, Lee was diligent about continuity. Some Avengers were off doing things in their own comics, and to keep stories lined up, Lee would have them disappear (temporarily) from the Avengers' adventures. Thus, he needed new characters to keep the Avengers from feeling empty.

When Scarlet Witch joined the Avengers, writers began fleshing out her story. Roy Thomas came up with a romance between Wanda and the sentient humanoid android Vision that would be explored in emotional, painful waysShe was given a more defined power set by Steve Englehart, who wove the idea of demonic chaos magic into her abilities.

Finally, in 1979 — some 15 years after Wanda's creation — her backstory is told in Avengers Nos. 185–187In those issues, she's drawn by John Byrne, who made her more glamorous and traditionally romantic. Her eyes were more expressive. Her cheekbones were sharpened. And her lips became full and pouty:

(Marvel)

Artist John Byrne put a lot of glamour into the Scarlet Witch. (Marvel)

From a sentient cow named Bova the Midwife, we find out that Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch were born at a place called Wundagore Mountain. Their mother, Magda, had come to the mountain pregnant and looking for help, and Bova was there to assist.

Magda ran away because her husband, Max Eisenhardt — a.k.a. Erik Lehnsherr, a.k.a. Magneto — destroyed an entire village of angry rioters (European lynch mob number two in the Scarlet Witch's origin) who fought him and didn't allow him to save their daughter (Pietro and Wanda's older sister) from a fire.

Magda left the twins under the care of Bova:

(Marvel)

Bova the Midwife being awesome. (Marvel)

When life presents you with children you can't care for and a husband you want to hide from, leaving your twins with a cow named Bova the Midwife seems like a good idea.

Bova's boss, a being called the High Evolutionary, eventually places Wanda and Pietro under the care of the Maximoffs, a family of Roma gypsies:

(Marvel)

When the High Evolutionary says you adopt, you listen. (Marvel)

Years later, the Scarlet Witch's powers start manifesting themselves. Her "hex" powers accidentally start a fire that burns her adopted mother to death, and a third angry mob drives Pietro and Wanda out of town. To be clear, this isn't the same angry mob Magneto stopped — that happens while they're on the run from the mob that witnessed the apparent mom-killing:

(Marvel)

Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch flee one of the three European lynch mobs in their history. (Marvel)

There's a lot of meat in these stories. They don't just establish Wanda's origin story. They also tackle stories of discrimination and European sociopolitics, particularly with references to the Maximoffs' adopted ethnicity. To this day, Roma discrimination exists in Europe. When Elizabeth Olsen was cast as the character, there were fans who believed going with a blonde-haired blue-eyed actress would be abandoning the character's roots.

But these issues also establish that the characters can be heroes and good people even with all this ugliness in their lives. Their biological dad thinks he's the mutant messiah. Their biological mother abandoned them. Wanda accidentally killed her adopted mother, and the two watched as a village beat their adopted father to a bloody pulp.

Wanda is a plague — she obliterates everything she touches— and there's absolutely no reason she should be a hero or believe in humanity. In future issues, her powers would cause her to lose the love of her life and her children.

But even though she has every reason to abandon all hope, Wanda believes in the good of people and the good in herself.

The worst thing the Scarlet Witch ever did

The Scarlet Witch never enjoyed the spotlight some of the other female characters in the Marvel universe had. For better or worse, Wanda wasn't a sex symbol like Emma Frost or Psylocke. She didn't have the regal prominence of Storm. And among the Avengers, she was often outshone by characters like Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel), the Wasp, and Spider-Woman.

Much of that has to do with Wanda's powers — which are really strange. With a character like, say, Storm, readers know what they're getting. "Storm" sounds like she has something to do with the weather, and lo and behold, Storm can manipulate lightning, conjure up tornadoes, and, yes, control the weather. The Scarlet Witch, by contrast, is an aggressively unspecific code name.

In Kirby and Lee's initial portrayal, she had the power to "hex" people and things. According to Marvel, this means she can do many things:

The Scarlet Witch can tap into mystic energy for reality-altering effects; this power was formerly limited to the creation of "hex-spheres" of reality-disrupting quasi-psionic force to cause molecular disturbances in a target's probability field, resulting in spontaneous combustion, deflection of objects in flight, and so on.

Wanda's powers can change probability and, as we saw, make ceilings fall on people, though it isn't outright telekinesis (the act of moving things with your mind). And she can make things explode, but not in the way things usually explode (with application of heat).

This is incredibly vague.

What's even stranger is that a demonic elder god named Chthon was written into Wanda's storyline to give her magical powers that were even more more powerful and more vague:

(Marvel)

(Marvel)

Marvel's 2005 event "House of M" and its follow-up "Decimation" would define the Scarlet Witch for the next decade. In "House of M," we learn Professor X is trying to take care of Wanda as she's on the verge of a psychotic breakdown. What makes it worse is that her powers have increased and expanded so much that she can warp reality on a planetary scale.

Wanda's imminent break doesn't come out of the blue. It's the culmination of a life of heartbreak, pain, and fear. Her mental illness is a life's worth of trauma realized.

Because Wanda becomes a giant threat, the Avengers and X-Men assemble to argue whether to let her live as a threat to humanity or to kill her and save the world from a potential disaster:

(Marvel)

Emma Frost is stone cold.  (Marvel)

This eventually results in the Scarlet Witch creating a utopia where superheroes and mutants are adored. When everyone realizes what's happened and confronts her and Pietro (who talked her into this whole mess), Wanda commits one of the most devastating acts in Marvel history:

(Marvel)

Oh man. Yes, she did just do that. (Marvel)

With those three words, Wanda de-powered more than 90 percent of the Earth's mutant population. In doing so, she became one of the most hated characters in the Marvel universe. Fans were upset some of their favorites had no more powers. Many of those characters were subsequently written off, either sent home because they were de-powered or killed off. Editorially, certain X-Men, like Rogue, grew to hate and distrust Wanda for what she did.

This event, known in the comic books as "M-Day," drove a wedge between the Avengers and the X-Men. Though some wounds have healed, there's always a reminder of what Wanda did and what life could have been if she had been killed.

Wanda's reality warping is in line with her character's history. She has always used her powers to protect her brother, and she's accidentally harmed the people she's loved most with her gifts many times. She wants to set things right. What makes this particular act so defining is that we finally see how human Wanda is — after a life of being a martyr, an outcast, and a victim. And humans can have moments when they're selfish and impulsive.

How Avengers: Age of Ultron will change the Scarlet Witch

There is no easy way to explain the Scarlet Witch's powers without delving into a whirlpool of esoteric characters, plots, and explanations. That's why screenwriters and director Joss Whedon streamlined and simplified the character in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Whedon stated in 2014 that her powers would be more along the lines of mind control or suggestion ("[She] can weave spells and a little telekinesis, get inside your head"). Gone are the hexes and mumbo jumbo about probability. Instead, the AOU trailers have shown the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) using mind control:

The Scarlet Witch messing with Black Widow's mind. (Marvel)

But she also uses her powers in energy blasts to take down some of Ultron's robot army (look for her at the bottom right of your screen):

Pew. Pew. Pew. Look at Scarlet Witch go.  (Marvel)

Because of the way film rights work, Wanda's origin story will also change. Back in the '90s, Marvel, on the brink on bankruptcy, sold the film rights to many of its characters to film studios. Fox got the X-Men, along with the primary villains and characters in that universe. It would seem like the studio would have dibs on Wanda and Pietro — they are Magneto's kids, after all.

But here's the catch. Wanda and Pietro occupy a weird space in the Marvel universe, in that they appear in both Avengers and X-Men comic books. And with their appearance in Avengers: Age of Ultron, alongside Pietro's appearance in X-Men: Days of Future Past, it seems like both studios have rights to both characters — just in slightly different versions. (The legal agreement spelling out these rights is sealed.)

We won't see any reference to mutants or Wanda's comic book origin in Age of Ultron. But if the movie follows the Marvel comic book This Scepter'd Isle, a digital companion to the movie, we will see the twins' powers unlocked by Loki's scepter.

What the future holds for Marvel and the Scarlet Witch

During the Avengers media blitz promoting Age of UltronElizabeth Olsen confirmed she will be in Captain America: Civil War. That makes sense. It would be hard to create a movie about a civil war among the Avengers if the Avengers were only a six-person team. That's more like Captain America: Friends Disagree.

It's also about time the cinematic Avengers had more women in their ranks. The comic book team is filled with powerful (She-Hulk) and complex (Captain Marvel) female characters. In the comic books after M-Day, the Scarlet Witch has gone toe to toe with the Phoenix Force, one of the most powerful entities in the Marvel universe, and helped save the world.The Scarlet Witch's inclusion could also allow an avenue for Marvel to explore its magical universe with Dr. Strange.

But Wanda's story in the comic books is fascinating, too. During Axis, a Marvel event published in late 2014, readers learned Magneto isn't really the father of Scarlet Witch or Quicksilver when Wanda casts a spell to injure her family but Magneto is left unharmed:

(Marvel)

The Scarlet Witch has a Maury Povich moment. (Marvel)

This is what's known as a retcon, short for retroactive continuity — when writers and editors change up what's been written and accepted as canon. This dilemma is still being solved — Wanda and Pietro are in a comic book with the High Evolutionary (Bova the Midwife's boss), trying to make sense of their identities. (You could just as easily make the argument that Magneto being the pair's father was a retcon, too.)

The bigger question surrounding Wanda and Pietro is whether their comic book story is part of a bigger, company-wide strategy to better serve their studio. Marvel Studios had a rights problem with Pietro and Wanda being Magneto's kids — and they've now ostensibly "solved" it by altering the source material. And if that happened with these characters, what's to stop Marvel from altering other characters? Thanks to the sealing of legal documents, it's unclear what this means in regards to film rights.

What we do know is that for the first time, the Scarlet Witch that comic book fans have loved (and hated) in the pages of the Avengers and X-Men is making an appearance in a movie. Millions of fans get to see the character in action. If we're lucky, Marvel, Joss Whedon, Elizabeth Olsen, and everyone behind Age of Ultron will give this character the presence she deserves.

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