In the bleakness of the 21st century entertainment landscape, discussions of art and business are totally inseparable. Nowhere is that more true than when talking about any new entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Disney-owned behemoth that has grossed over $8 billion theatrically and irrevocably changed the movie business. Marvel Studios has taken “brand loyalty” to a new level, turning theatrical films into a sort of appointment television where you dare not miss it opening weekend or risk getting spoiled ahead of the next, tangentially-related release. They’ve kept fans satisfied by maintaining a standard of watchability and predictability, but at this point, with an all-but-guaranteed audience, they have nothing to lose by putting their label on something weird.
Enter WandaVision, the first of Marvel Studios’ upcoming parade of streaming “event series” on Disney+. WandaVision stars Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany reprising their film roles as the telepathic and telekinetic Wanda Maximoff (a.k.a. “Scarlet Witch”) and the sentient android Vision (a.k.a. “Vision”) in a bizarre mashup of classic sitcom and eerie mystery that’s totally unlike anything else Marvel Studios has produced. The characters are unknowingly trapped in some sort of illusion mimicking classic domestic sitcoms, with the genre conventions advancing forward in time with each episode. Wanda and Vision retain watered-down versions of their superpowers and vague memories of their past, but are otherwise poured into the mold of the “average” (read: white, middle-class) suburban American couple, keeping their extraordinary nature a secret. Two episodes in, and there is no action-adventure plot to be found, just a mystery that intrudes into the comedy world and then vanishes.
There’s pretty much no such thing as a gamble for Marvel at this rate. They’re no longer a player, they’re the house. Still, WandaVision is the wildest bet they’ve taken to date and, so far, it’s engaging and fun.
We’re All Thinking It — Are They Gonna Do Full House?
The first episode of WandaVision is a black-and-white 1950s comic misadventure a la Ozzie & Harriet, (actually shot multi-camera before a live studio audience) while the second updates the fashions, format, and photographic sensibilities into the early 1960s. Each episode has a unique theme song and opening credits sequence appropriate to its era. In each episode, there are moments when the illusion breaks and reality tries and fails to break through, and then the sitcom episode continues. There are even false commercial breaks cryptically advertising fake products (or offering clues?) in the style of their respective eras.
What makes WandaVision work — so far as the two episodes that were released this week are concerned — is that it’s a charming, earnest, and legitimately funny sitcom. Olsen and Bettany throw themselves into the role of a too-sweet, too-clever couple from the golden age of television, and the hackneyed low-stakes plots are executed with a wink rather than a roll of the eyes. The jokes are actually good, just a half century out of style, and since the show will imitate more contemporary sensibilities week by week, the series shouldn’t have to lean on any one set of tropes for too long. The graduating style parodies also clearly make WandaVision television, rather than just a long movie spread out over several weeks.
The commitment to the authenticity of each of its settings is impressive, from cinematography to costuming to the slight changes in the actors’ accents and delivery between episodes. Showrunner Jac Schaefer (Captain Marvel) and her team have so far evoked antiquity while updating the pace and sharpness of the comedy just enough to work in 2021. Director Matt Shakman has worked on a wide variety of scripted TV from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to Game of Thrones, and knows how to instantly shift from sitcom mode to Twilight Zone. The immersive nostalgic experience helps to put the viewer at ease just enough to throw you off balance when things get weird.
The unsettling moments in which the idyllic television artifice is cracked are, so far, brief and isolated. In the first episode, everything is peachy keen until Vision’s overbearing boss, Mr. Hart (Fred Malamud, A Serious Man), starts choking at the dinner table, raising the stakes beyond the parameters of the story in such a way that no one knows what to do. Vision freezes. Hart’s wife (Debra Jo Rupp, That ‘70s Show) keeps repeating “Stop It.” The camera setups change, and the set appears to tilt slightly off balance. Only Wanda can shake off the spell for a moment and instruct Vision to save the man’s life, after which everything immediately picks back up as if nothing’s happened. The episode closes with the show-within-show being monitored by an as-yet-unknown full color figure in a control room.
In the second episode, the intrusion seems to come from outside of Wanda’s bubble. Early in this chapter, she finds an anachronistic and inexplicably red (“really red,” in the Pleasantville sense) drone crashed in a shrub in front of her house, but her wacky and lovable neighbor Agnes (Kathryn Hahn, Parks and Recreation) pulls her back into the plot before she can put too much thought into it. Later, during a moment of panic incited by Alpha Housewife Dottie (Anna Caulfield Ford, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), a voice breaks through a poolside radio that’s ominously playing The Beach Boys’ “Help Me, Rhonda” and calls out to her by name. “Who’s doing this to you, Wanda?” the voice asks again over the very end of the episode, after a mysterious beekeeper ascends from the manhole in front of their house, shocking Wanda and Vision before their memory of the event is erased.
The nature of the illusion is still very much a mystery at this point, but there are some early indicators as to what it may or may not be. For one thing, despite being one half of the central couple of the sitcom fantasy, this world is not about Vision. While the audience follows Vision on his own misadventures separate from Wanda, making them both viewpoint characters, the illusion only ever bends or breaks around Wanda, not around Vision. Vision may be just another part of the illusion, and that makes sense because, as you might remember from 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, Vision is quite dead.
Here’s the part where you may want to quit reading if you’re sensitive about spoilers or want to continue watching the show without playing the metagame. There are details about the production of the show — casting announcements, what comic book storylines were used for inspiration, and tidbits from cast and crew interviews about the overall themes of the series that, if I’m being totally honest, I wish I did not know, and if you don’t want to, either, now’s the time to punk out. As the series progresses I’ll continue to backload this type of commentary in my reviews out of consideration for non-smartasses.
If you’re going into WandaVision without knowledge of Marvel Comics lore, it’s likely you’d assume, as the series so far has implied, that Wanda is the victim of some experiment, being used towards someone else’s nefarious ends. But if you’re familiar with Scarlet Witch from the comics, then you know that one of her most famous characteristics is a capacity for self-deception that, through her reality-warping powers, extends into the physical world. In the 2005 House of M crossover, Wanda remakes the entire world into a utopia in her father’s image. The show’s TV-inspired dreamland could be a refuge of her own making, a place to build an idyllic life with her dearly departed Vision. Episode 2 ends with Wanda spontaneously finding herself pregnant, and being very pleased about it. In the comics, Wanda magically conceives a pair of twins to raise with Vision.
I’ve written on Fanbyte before about how I’m not in love with “puzzle box” television, and that I don’t think that the point of a long form story should be trying to solve the mystery before the storytellers want you to. However, the idea that this entire series is a coping mechanism that the main character is desperately trying to maintain makes every episode potentially more interesting to watch. If Wanda is more or less writing the show, what does she want to get out of it? Why does each, slightly different fantasy appeal to her? It gives meaning to what otherwise is just a fun gimmick.
This may not be the direction that WandaVision is going. The MCU mines heavily from the comics, and more faithfully than most other superhero comics-to-screen adaptations, but sometimes they throw us a curveball. (Remember Trevor Slattery?) There is evidence against this theory: Who’s in the control room? What’s with the crashed drone? Was that the S.W.O.R.D. logo on the beekeeper’s outfit? We are only two episodes into a nine-episode series. There are a lot of directions this can go. But if the source of this nostalgic TV fantasy turns out not to be our main character, I hope it is something at least as interesting.
One should not expect Marvel Studios to produce anything truly challenging or groundbreaking on any level other than scale. They are a content factory, a perpetual motion machine in which every product is designed to put over the next product. Even WandaVision will seed characters and story threads for Captain Marvel 2 and Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. But WandaVision is still refreshing in that, unlike the above products, it feels like something that a mass audience might not necessarily watch if it didn’t have the Marvel name attached. It is using the colossal power of their brand to do something that feels experimental. And if we must live in a world in which massive corporations endlessly recycle intellectual properties, where the studio’s name has more value than the director’s and where nothing new stands a chance at the box office, then at the very least we are owed something imaginative every once in a while.