When it comes to main casts in major franchises, by default there are none bigger than the Marvel Cinematic Universe. At this point, it feels like there are few actors working today who hasn’t at some point popped up in an MCU project, a sentiment that director Taika Waititi shared when discussing casting Christian Bale in Thor: Love and Thunder with IGN: “We always want good actors in these roles and, for Marvel, they’ve gone through all the actors. There’s hardly anyone left.” Out of the hundreds of actors who have starred in the various MCU installments, the core cast of recurring heroes, supporting characters, and (occasionally) villains has generally been regarded as the series’ greatest strength. Yet one member of the main cast has stood out from the pack: Elizabeth Olsen, who plays Wanda Maximoff, aka the Scarlet Witch.
While always considered a positive addition to the ensemble, Olsen has enjoyed immense critical praise and audience adulation in her most recent Marvel projects: as the lead of the Disney+ show WandaVision, and as the main antagonist of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. There is a different tinge to the way she’s discussed in these projects compared to her peers, with many reviews and reactions considering her MCU work “next level,” and she even holds the distinction of being the first actor to receive a major award nomination for her performance in an MCU project, garnering an Emmy nom for WandaVision (a distinction she shares with co-star Paul Bettany) for Lead Actress in a Limited Series.
So what’s going on here? To use online parlance, is she just “built different?” Why is she getting praise and accolades that her colleagues in the franchise aren’t? Let’s take a look.
Portrait of a Lady in Distress
Elizabeth Olsen’s first major role was as the lead in the 2011 film Martha Marcy May Marlene, where she plays a young woman named Martha who escapes from a sexually abusive cult and weathers the psychological aftermath at a lake house owned by her sister Lucy and Lucy’s husband Ted. The movie was a box office success relative to budget ($5.4 million on a budget of 1), and the reviews coming out of its Sundance premiere heavily praised Olsen’s performance. Roger Ebert referred to her as a “genuine discovery” in his review, saying “she has a wide range of emotions to deal with here, and in her first major role, she seems instinctive to know how to do that.” While Olsen missed out on nominations at the major film award shows that year, Marcy May both put her on the map as one of the most talented up-and-coming actresses at the time and established a throughline for her career that she’s been building on ever since.
As far back as her initial work in Marcy May, Elizabeth Olsen’s bread and butter as a performer have been her portrayals of distressed and grief-stricken women. It’s a well she has returned to in the 2012 horror film Silent House, the 2013 Thérèse Raquin adaptation In Secret, the 2018 Facebook Watch series Sorry For Your Loss, and most importantly, it’s been the core foundational element of her take on Wanda Maximoff ever since her (proper) debut in 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. Obviously, this isn’t every project she’s a part of, but it’s been a recurring enough motif for her as an actor to cement itself as a pattern, and to watch her choices in her early work, particularly in a role as difficult and multi-faceted as Marcy May, is to see Olsen sharpen herself into the actor who would eventually become the MCU’s secret weapon.
The balance in the type of characters Olsen excels at is threading the needle between a character the audience will instinctively believe deserves either peace or protection, while also being just off-putting enough for the audience to understand the hesitance of the sort of people who might be ready to provide that. Martha is inherently a sympathetic figure, yet she’s also one who says and does things because of her traumatic experience that lead Lucy and Ted to breaking points of exhaustion and frustration. The movie succeeds because Olsen’s patient and understated turn finds that razor-thin line, never turning the audience against any of the central characters. That said, if Olsen had merely replicated it in her later projects, she wouldn’t be receiving this kind of response. While Marcy May may have been her starting point, Olsen’s real achievement is that she’s used it as a springboard to challenge herself ever since.
Multiverse of Maximoffs
The paradox about the core MCU cast that has become more and more clear as the series has gone on and started to rotate out some of its major members in favor of fresh blood is that although they are great at playing these parts, rarely are they also in the conversation when it comes to discussing the best actors working today. If anything, and this is said with no disrespect to any of them, the likes of Robert Downey Jr, Tom Holland, Paul Rudd, the assorted Chrises, etc. have had their contemporary careers almost purely defined by their association with the Marvel brand. They are great Tony Starks, Peter Parkers, Scott Langs, Thor Odinsons, etc., but within the confines of this franchise, the question becomes: are they still truly challenging themselves as performers?
To be absolutely clear, all of the actors just mentioned have done great work within this series. They have connected with a global audience as these characters for a reason. However, there is an asterisk hanging over them where they are not commonly discussed for their choices as actors outside of a general strong affinity for whichever character they’re playing. The praise for their work can often feel more predicated on their consistency than true growth or evolution in the part. Some of that is by design; the MCU films as written and directed often want these characters to be recognizable, and too much of a shift from film to film can be jarring to the global four-quadrant audiences the franchise is aiming for. There are notable exceptions, such as RDJ’s great take on post-Avengers PTSD in Iron Man 3, the Guardians of the Galaxy crew’s development across the two James Gunn films, and Chris Hemsworth’s shift into full-blown comedic mode with Thor: Ragnarok.
All that having been said, the shifts that Elizabeth Olsen has been able to pull off in the role of Wanda Maximoff are quite simply astonishing. This is a character who started as a traumatized teenage anti-villain, morphed into a more heroic and romantic lead, took on classic era 50’s and 60’s sitcom conventions, and broke down into a deranged camp supervillainess, and Olsen has somehow managed to find the emotional throughline between all of these shifts in tone not just within the same genre but within the same performance as it exists over the course of this series. What makes all of this actually work is that each step along Wanda’s evolution is working from the same basic framework Olsen established for herself from before she ever signed the dotted line on a Marvel Studios contract.
Someone you want to care for, but also someone you’re put off by.
Watch Out For That Witch
Wanda started off as a situational antagonist in Age of Ultron before turning to the good side when she couldn’t go along with Ultron’s extremes, an arc that mirrors her original appearances in the comics as a member of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants working under Magneto. Although she was a hero and card-carrying Avenger in her next three appearances, her two biggest roles are in Phase Four’s WandaVision and Multiverse of Madness, which essentially form a Wanda-focused duology that chart her path back to the dark side after undergoing even more tragic personal loss. Both of these stories are about a woman who has matured in her power but regressed in her worldview, fully embracing her past as a villainous witch as she retreats into nostalgia and solipsism in her attempts to find some kind of solace for her pain.
And I do mean both, because the greatest trick Elizabeth Olsen ever pulled is convincing a sizable portion of the audience that Wanda was acting in any way virtuous in WandaVision. To be clear, Olsen’s portrayal of Wanda in the show is captivating and heartbreaking in equal measure. Her charm effortlessly fills up the screen in the early sitcom episodes, and her portrait of grief in the show’s back half was well worth the Emmy nomination. That versatility is what makes the moments where the mask slips, when she becomes aware of encroaching threats to her little pocket paradise, all the more tense and unnerving. Even with all the praise Olsen’s received, especially from her dedicated online fanbase that is still talking about WandaVision over a year later, it’s an aspect of her performance in the show that is rarely discussed.
Wanda Maximoff enslaved a town, psychologically tortured thousands of innocent people, and created a construct of her dead lover all to avoid dealing with the anguish of her situation. Elizabeth Olsen played this so well that many in the audience came away thinking that just because she released her thralls and gave up her (imaginary) family, she had made adequate recompense. Olsen made the grief-stricken Wanda so understandable that people were on her side even after all the harm she caused. This is what makes her dark spiral in Multiverse of Madness both so distressing to watch and perfectly in-character. Wanda hasn’t truly learned or changed as a result of the Westview incident, so doubling down on her worst tendencies (especially with an evil book in tow) wasn’t just inevitable, it’s a story and character decision that is honest about who Wanda truly is at this point in her journey.
Olsen eats up the supervillain version of Wanda, pivoting into camp horror mode in a way that feels in absolute sync with director Sam Raimi’s sensibilities. It’s a tragic devolution for her character and the perfect platform for Olsen to weaponize her persona. What we essentially have in Multiverse of Madness is a villain who the audience is desperate to see as anything else. We’ve seen Wanda go from antagonist to superhero, we’ve seen her lose everyone she loved, and we’ve seen the inner workings of her psychology as she tried (and failed) to process her grief. So to follow that up with her fully embracing her dark destiny as the Scarlet Witch is harrowing for an audience that had so recently fallen in love with her in WandaVision.
Even by the end of the film, Wanda is sympathetic. She’s someone who we believe deserves to find peace and love after everything she’s gone through. She’s also a frightening monster who slaughtered numerous people in pursuit of that goal. Olsen pulls off both in equal measure by playing against herself in the final scene at the Maximoff house, where her 838 self (who appears to be the devoted mother that our Wanda desperately wishes to be) gently touches her 616 self and expresses empathy instead of contempt, by saying her sons will “be loved.” To see the totality of Olsen’s work in this series culminating at this moment is to see an actor who, quite frankly, the MCU needs far more than she needs it. If this franchise wants to be taken seriously from an artistic standpoint, it would do well to keep Olsen in the loop and give her even meatier dramatic work in the future.
All that aside, what is most fascinating about the ending of Multiverse of Madness is that even all this time later, Elizabeth Olsen’s greatest strength is still the same one she had in Marcy May.
Walking the razor-thin line.