‘WandaVision’ Is Finally a Marvel Project For People Who Hate Marvel
The ever-expanding (and ever-oppressive) Marvel universe has become inaccessible to casual superhero fans. But Disney+’s sitcom-tinged mindmeld is finally something for us to love.
Last week’s buzzy episode of WandaVision ended with a game-changing twist when it comes to the Marvel universe and its superheroes. A big twist! Huge! Nothing in the Marvelverse will ever be the same!
I did not understand this twist in any way, shape, or form. But, oh boy, did I love it anyway.
As an entertainment force, Marvel is overwhelming. Intimidating, even. There’s so damn much of it. There’s so much passion and devotion in its fanbase. As the years go by, the content churn intensifies, and the existing fan engagement deepens. What is ostensibly one of the biggest mass-market franchises in entertainment has become increasingly inaccessible to those with a more casual relationship to all things Avengers.
That’s all a naval-gazing way to say I have come to not really like the Marvel universe. Yet, I love WandaVision.
Is the Disney+ series, which filters a complicated mystery surrounding two of its marquee characters—Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff and Paul Bettany’s The Vision—through the prism of classic TV sitcoms through the decades, finally a Marvel project for people who don’t like Marvel?
This week’s sixth episode, which borrows from the early-aughts family sitcom Malcolm in the Middle, showed off more mastery of that complicated tight-rope walk. The series is continuing to bait Marvel fans with the promise of consequential twists and reveals. But simultaneously it is opening up the appeal of what can become a very insular form of storytelling—and doing so through this heady, diverting, and, frankly, fun sitcom conceit, its own ball of yarn to pull at and untangle.
The smartest thing WandaVision did was take three full episodes to seduce viewers and establish the game before unleashing its master plan. (In other words: All the Marvel nonsense.)
That’s a risky move. Three full episodes without introducing a main plot can be alienating or, to some viewers, seem pointless. But I found those episodes to be a delight, each one imagining what it would be like for superheroes to exist in the meticulously created sitcom worlds of The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bewitched, and The Brady Bunch—all of which play with society’s expectations of nuclear-family order and decorum.
The homages were loving and playful, and the whole gimmick raised big questions that you assumed would, if not be answered, then at least be validated at some point: Chiefly, why is this happening and what does this have to do with the Marvel universe?
In that regard, the series shrewdly borrowed from a major hallmark of those classic shows. Those early episodes lull you into a sense of genial comfort, the same sensation the classic series it sends up were created to provide. When things start to short circuit, you learn more about the circumstances behind Wanda’s masterminding of these sitcom episodes and the world opens up to more Marvel-y mysteries. The ways in which the show uses sitcom structures to upset that comfort and joviality become all the more thrilling.
Take last week’s big reveal. After a handful of haunting incidents that disrupt the law and order we have come to know from lifetimes of watching family sitcoms on TV, there’s a ring at the door bell.
She’s astonished. The “studio audience” gasps. The camera angle switches to show who this surprise guest star, to use sitcom-speak, is. And it is...well, I have no idea!
Again, as a non-superhero person, I was not aware that Evan Peters was playing Wanda’s brother Pietro, aka Quicksilver, who is supposed to be dead and supposed to be played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, but who is played by Peters in an entirely different cinematic franchise. (I needed to toss back a handful of aspirin after just writing that sentence.)
But I did know three crucial things: This person at the door was Pietro, Pietro was supposed to be dead, and this is not the Pietro anyone expected to see, dead or alive.
I also knew this was a big deal, thanks to the show’s clever sitcom tropes (the studio audience’s stunned reaction) and its meta Marvel ties. Kat Dennings’ Darcy Lewis, who is watching this all unfold on TV also gasps: “She recast Pietro?!” Juicy stuff! Juicy stuff that I only vaguely understood, but the point is that I knew it was juicy.
Sure, it took a Google search after the episode to learn the full significance of Peters being the actor recast as Pietro, and what the repercussions could be for the wider superhero multiverse to have his version of Quicksilver/Pietro appear on a Marvel property. But who cares. We’ve watched eight seasons of Game of Thrones and three of Westworld; we’re no strangers to having to Google after an episode of TV ends to figure out what the hell just went on.
It’s undeniably cool—to use what may be the lamest adjective—that Marvel has found a way to detonate such reveals without alienating those not in the know...the people like me.
That juggling act continued to impress in this week’s Halloween episode. You have, on the one hand, the casting of Hollywood Goddess Kathryn Hahn as Agnes. Involving pop-culture fans’ favorite underappreciated actress in this new show is like an olive branch to anyone who ever questioned Marvel’s taste.
Hahn is giving an astonishing performance as Agnes, a character who is no doubt pivotal to the mystery of the series. For armchair fans like me, we’re just curious to see who this nosy neighbor turns out to be. For Marvel diehards, there’s a rush to figure out her identity within the comic book universe. After this episode’s fantastically acted car scene, a little Googling could give you clues to that latter question. But if you don’t care, the harrowing nature of what happened wasn’t all lost on you.
There’s been a lot of debate surrounding WandaVision about what people want from this show, which I find interesting because so much of what bothers me about the superhero genre (and the Marvel universe in particular) is how much of the storytelling is bogged down by fan service.
These stories sometimes maintain a monotone of excitement, which creates a plague of predictability. A genre with all the opportunity for zigs, zags, and boundless creativity (we’re talking about superheroes, for Peter Parker’s sake!) instead tends to flatline everything from the visuals to character development to narrative risks in order to fit within a larger, established framework.
Certainly, there is fan service abounding in WandaVision. Even a layman Marvel consumer like myself gave a little gleeful gasp at the exchange between Pietro and Wanda about their accents suddenly being gone. And I assume Wanda and Vision’s Halloween costumes were a nod to the original comic designs. But, in this project versus so much of everything else that happens in Marvel properties, these things don’t ring as that important.
The whole sitcom thing in WandaVision is a gimmick, and gimmicks are interesting, even if they sometimes flop. But I’m still stunned by how much that gimmick enhances the storytelling here.
There are rules of the Marvel universe, yes, but there are also rules to each week’s sitcom genre. Those two parameter sets are in constant interplay as the SWORD team tries to determine the severity, let alone the logistics, of what Wanda has done to create this sitcom land. If you miss a twist or turn related to one framework, you might catch it as it pertains to the other.
All the talk about that big Pietro reveal in episode five skips over what might be, for the rest of us non-Marvel plebeians, the most astonishing part of the episode: What happened right before that fateful doorbell ring.
Vision is spiraling, expressing a trauma about not knowing how this world he’s in works and what his wife’s role is in trapping him there. The stress and discord is too much for Wanda to handle. That’s not what she wanted when she manifested this haven from her grief, however she did it. So she throws up the episode’s closing credits.
In the world of sitcoms, that stops the narrative. We’re shielded from the ugliness, the consequences, and the harm that might befall these characters when they’re not performing for our laughs. That’s the escapist fantasy of these shows. Even for a woman as powerful as Wanda, there’s an appeal to that.
But the closing credits don’t stop Vision from arguing with her, nor do they stop the unexpected arrival of Pietro. There’s something fascinating at play there about the tension between the desire for control, especially emotional control, and grief’s ability to force its way through even the safest barriers to find you: a fortified energy wall around a fake town you created, or your sitcom fantasy escape.
For the first time in a long time when it comes to the Marvel universe, escaping is the last thing I want to do.