When I was 22 years old and fresh out of college, I did something wild. I went to my hairstylist and asked her to hack off all of my hair. It wasn’t a hasty decision, but one borne of the desire to metaphorically shed the last four years of university. This haircut would usher in the next stage of my life. It would symbolize all I was leaving behind. With a simple gesture, I could control and fundamentally alter my own perception. When my mid-back-length hair was fashioned into a crisp, sheared short cut, I felt physical relief. The metamorphosis was complete.
Hair is a means of expression for everyone, as it’s one of the easiest things to control about our physical appearance. We can color it, craft it, chop it, braid it. We can shave it off entirely. There are wigs and caps and extensions. Basically, with hair, there are countless ways to signal to the world around you who you are and what you represent. In fictional worlds, hair can also help tell a story. That’s something I noticed long ago with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And it’s something that recently came to a head in the Disney+ series WandaVision.
Hair serves a major function in the MCU. For men and women, it signifies growth and development. Thor boasts a head of golden locks in his first two solo films, then a close chop for Ragnarok, where the character received a rebranding. By Endgame, it’s long again, signifying Thor’s depression. When he rediscovers his worth, his hair braids itself as he prepares to battle Thanos; a symbol of strength and reclamation. Likewise in Black Panther, the characters’ Afrocentric hair speaks to hierarchy and power. As Crystal Martin wrote for TheNew York Times, the world of Wakanda “is animated by visual references to African cultures, combined to sumptuous effect. The hair, in particular, punctuates character and plot.”
For the women of the MCU—especially the ones developed over the course of multiple films—hair serves a vital function. Think of Carol Danvers, with her shoulder-length style in her first appearance. By Endgame, years after her Captain Marvel origin story and well into her tenure as a galactic hero, it’s short. Carol seems more confident in the film—in her abilities and her place in the Avengers—and her hair speaks to this.
And if there’s one character who truly knows the ins and outs of “hair as character development in the MCU,” it’s Black Widow. We’ll get into Wanda’s Scarlet Witch hair story in a moment, but first, let’s take a look at Black Widow—and see how she laid the groundwork for this mode of visual storytelling in the MCU. Storytelling that reached its apex in WandaVision.
Black Widow’s hair journey
Natasha Romanoff has been through a lot. She’s the most oft-appearing and essential female character in the MCU to date. (This despite a controversial send-off in Avengers: Endgame and a years-too-late solo film that keeps getting pushed back.) And it’s easy to chart her appearances based on her hairstyles, which change rather dramatically from film to film. But her hair isn’t just a way to chart her visual progress. It also says a lot about where she’s at mentally in each installment.
We first meet Black Widow in Iron Man 2, her long red locks dark and tightly curled. She’s a bit of a femme fatale in the film; secretive and seductive. Her curls don’t reveal her identity so much as they obfuscate it. This is a Natasha Romanoff poised to infiltrate and spy on Stark Industries at the behest of S.H.I.E.L.D. Her hair is a mask of sorts; tightly wound to constrain her hidden identity.
By The Avengers, her hair is shorter, lighter. Natasha has shed the secretive skin she wore in Iron Man 2 and is fully herself and part of Team Avengers. She’s a bit more carefree and honest, and her bouncy ‘do reflects this. We next see her in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, where her hair is longer and super-straight. In a revealing conversation with Steve Rogers, Natasha—whose colored past as a spy haunts her present—admits that, “When I first joined S.H.I.E.L.D. , I thought I was going straight.” Her hair in the film demonstrates this: acting as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent to straighten out her checkered history. (Tellingly, the Rogers conversation scene comes after they’ve learned about the Hydra infiltration; in this moment, her hair is wet and wavy.)
Black Widow’s hair continues to morph and change through each film. It’s temporarily blonde in Avengers: Infinity War, until her red roots grow in during Endgame. That two-tone look reflects her mental state post-snap. She’s barely holding it together, split between a desire to give up and the part of her that needs to soldier on. By the time she reaches her ultimate moment of commitment and sacrifice, her hair is fully red again, her braid reflecting unity among the Avengers.
The metamorphosis of Wanda Maximoff’s hair
Natasha’s hair sells her arc, and also paved the way for an even more interesting hair story within the MCU. Wanda Maximoff has one of Marvel’s most fascinating on-screen journeys. We meet her briefly in the Winter Soldier credits and more formally in Avengers: Age of Ultron. The Sokovian was a willing test subject for Hydra—along with her twin brother Pietro—where her natural witch powers were amplified by the Mind Stone. In Ultron, she is something of a villain, joining ranks with the eponymous android. She stands in opposition to Tony Stark, blaming Stark Industries for her parents’ deaths. Eventually, she swaps sides and becomes an Avenger—and her hair signals this transition.
In Age of Ultron, Wanda has brown hair. It lightens a bit and goes almost auburn in her next appearance, Captain America: Civil War. By Avengers: Infinity War, her hair is a bold red. There are many ways of interpreting this change. It could be reflective of her journey towards assuming the role of Scarlet Witch. (More on that in a bit.) Or it could denote her closeness to Vision; she’s in a relationship with him by Infinity War, and Vision’s costume is red.
Regardless, the red appears to be her signature hair color going forward. Especially as evidenced by the end of WandaVision.
What Scarlet Witch’s hair tells us about the character
WandaVision is really an exercise in visual storytelling. Wanda Maximoff, in full-blown grief after Thanos murdered Vision, flees to the New Jersey town of Westview. It’s where Vision bought a plot of land in hopes of settling with Wanda. In a fit of sadness, Wanda blankets Westview in something called the Hex; a bubble of distorted reality that renders the town and its inhabitants in various eras of TV sitcoms. It’s all an elaborate coping mechanism for Wanda, who uses her Mind Stone abilities to “resurrect” a version of Vision. They play house together, Wanda using her love of sitcoms to color each week’s episode. There are tributes to The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Brady Bunch, Family Ties, Modern Family, and more.
It’s beautiful, but terrifying. Wanda is holding an entire town captive because she can’t let go of Vision. To make matters more complicated, a powerful witch named Agatha Harkness visits the Hex to figure out the extent of Wanda’s powers. The two wander into the past and reveal that Wanda is actually an ancient entity known as the Scarlet Witch, a “Harbinger of Chaos” with universe-destroying abilities. Wanda and Agatha eventually duke it out, and Wanda is able to render Agatha powerless thanks to some handy rune magic. In the process, she also absorbs Agatha’s head of wild hair as she accepts her role as Scarlet Witch.
Wanda’s hair is absolutely key to WandaVision. Not only does it represent each era of television, but it reflects Wanda’s mental state throughout. It’s curled and coifed in the 1950s intro episode, when things are just beginning. And it gradually lets loose and lengthens until it’s a shaggy mess by the Modern Family tribute. But when Wanda comes fully into her Scarlet Witch powers, it is a fierce mane of wavy red flame, evoking her Chaos Magic. She is wild, untamed, powerful—and rather dangerous. She may be a villain going forward, and her untethered witch hair suggest this.
Just like I once cut off my hair to take control of my identity and presentation, so does Wanda throughout WandaVision, and now as Scarlet Witch. The MCU harnessed a very real-world mode of expression and made it plot-relevant. It’s one of the many amazing things about this fictional universe. And it will be fascinating to see how they utilize this trick going forward.