If you distill the superhero genre down, what remains is an eternal struggle of good vs. evil.
To most comic book fans, these roles are extremely black and white: the heroes are the good guys and the villains the bad guys. But as the Marvel Cinematic Universe grows and evolves, these definitions get a little fuzzy. Now we have to think about what makes us consider actions as "good" and "evil." (Like holding an entire New Jersey town hostage in order to escape trauma.)
WandaVision not only created a world without one true villain, it openly discussed the metaphysics of identity using the complex thought experiment of Theseus' ship. While philosophy has long been lurking below the surface of the MCU, this show has brought it to the surface and used it in an incredibly surprising way that could reshape the future of Marvel Studios.
The Avengers and Ethics
All Avengers are "good." They're superheroes, that's their entire deal. But the reason for interpersonal conflicts between these many characters is because they each have different priorities and definitions of what makes an action "good." In the book Avengers and Philosophy, philosophy professor Mark D. White describes Tony Stark's behavior in the comics as classically utilitarian.
Utilitarianism is the pragmatic definition of "good" in that whatever does the most amount of good for the most amount of people is the morally best choice, regardless of the initial cost. This is exhibited in Tony Stark's final sacrifice in Avengers: Endgame, where the only way to save the world is to lay down his own life. It isn't the best option for his happiness, but for the world at large. In the universe's biggest trolley problem, Tony steps onto the tracks.
Diametrically opposed to Stark in Civil War is Steve Rogers, who takes his title of Captain America incredibly seriously. White describes his morals as deontology, which is the practice of prioritizing duty above all else, regardless of consequences. Basically, deontology is doing what's "right," while utilitarianism is doing what's "good."
This is all over Captain America's dialogue even from before he became Captain America. Scrawny Steve Rogers says "There are men laying down their lives, I got no right to do any less than them." Most philosophical Captain America soundbites include the word "right." Classic deontology.
Then there's the strange case of Thor Odinson. Thor doesn't live by a formal code of ethics like patriotism or duty, nor is he as pragmatic as the utilitarians. He lives by his own virtue ethics. Apparently, growing up an Asgardian gives you a deep sense of trust in yourself. And while this can lead to impulsive behavior (like perhaps post-Blip weight gain) it goes to show just how strong a conscience it takes to live outside of a formal ethical system.
All three of these are valid forms of ethics that work extremely well for superheroes, but they're all wildly different. So while it may seem that philosophy was just introduced to the MCU in WandaVision, it's always been present. In fact, it's probably the entire reason we had Captain America: Civil War. These clashes of principles are what create conflicts that are later fought out in battle. But there's another way philosophy can be used in Marvel — the way we saw it used in WandaVision.
Identity Metaphysics in the MCU
Identity is a huge issue for superheroes. "Take away that suit of armor and what are you?" asks Cap to Tony, questioning his identity outside of his own creations. There's the issue of secret identities, like what Peter Parker deals with hiding his powers from his classmates. But for Vision in WandaVision, the question isn't "Who am I without my powers," but, "Who am I at all?"
Vision explains the paradox to White Vision through the Ship of Theseus, asking whether either of them are even Vision if they've both been replicated in ways that deprive them of personhood — if they even had that at all.
Dating back to Ancient Greece in the time of Plato, the Ship of Theseus problem supposes there was an ancient ship kept in the harbor as a museum piece. As its boards rot, they're replaced by new ones. After many years, every board is replaced. Is that ship still Theseus' ship? What if all the rotten boards were miraculously removed of their rot and reassembled? Would that ship also be Theseus' ship?
In this thought experiment, Vision is the replaced ship. While no part of him is the "original" Vision, he's the one who has replaced him both in Wanda's eyes and ours. White Vision is the reassembled ship, as he was miraculously repaired and brought "back," but is still missing a key part. There's no real correct answer. What makes a ship a ship? What makes a person a person?
Philosophically, the term "person" is hard to define in the MCU. After all, Thor isn't technically human, but he is in fact a person. If humanoid aliens can be called a person, why can't humanoid Synthezoids? And if Vision is considered a person even created through Wanda, then surely White Vision is too.
In fact, the scene with Vision and White Vision is philosophically interesting in a number of ways. In WandaVision Episode 8, Vision explains how he's always been alone. Now, he finally gets to be with someone who understands the sheer loneliness of being a synthezoid. So of course he's going to try to find a non-confrontational way of dealing with him — it's the first time he's been able to talk to someone who understands.
The Future of Philosophy in the MCU
Hopefully, WandaVision is only the first step in more blatant philosophical conversation in the MCU. In fact, there could be another identity issue in only a handful of weeks in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier: With Steve Rogers out of commission, what defines a "Captain America?" Is it just the shield? The costume? The inherent sense of duty? That's something Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes will have to tackle together.
But while that may cause tension between the two, WandaVision showed that evoking philosophical differences isn't always just a tool to create conflict. Through conversation and exploration of these big questions, characters can actually bond and come to terms with each other. It may mean less punching, but Marvel has enough of that to go around. Smart de-escalation and mediation can be its own superpower.
And with Wanda on her own study retreat for the time being, we don't know if she'll face consequences for her chokehold over the entire town of Westview or if she'll be forgiven because of the sheer amount of trauma and grief she was under at the time. How do you prosecute the world's only user of chaos magic? Maybe this isn't something that can be classified as good or bad in the eyes of the law, but in Wanda's own personal guilt.
So, Marvel fans, grab your Locke and Descartes, because not only is the MCU only going to get more and more philosophical, it's been philosophical under our noses the entire time.
Correction: An earlier version of this article confused some of the details of Avengers: Endgame. We regret the error.