‘WandaVision’ Is Unlike Anything Marvel Fans Have Seen Before
The new Disney+ series, featuring the Avengers’ Vision and Scarlet Witch, is “a daring sharp right turn for Marvel,” writes Nick Schager.
Following the record-breaking success of Avengers: Endgame, Marvel could have played it safe as it moves its sprawling interconnected superhero franchise into its forthcoming “phase four” (minus its bedrock stars Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans, although his future is up in the air). Yet instead, WandaVision, the first of the studio’s numerous planned Disney+ TV series, and its maiden venture since shattering box office marks in 2019—thanks to the pandemic-related delay of last year’s theatrical Black Widow, now due later in 2021—is a thoroughly unconventional venture in just about every respect. Expanding the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s serialized narrative to television in surprising and cheeky ways, it’s a daring sharp right turn for Marvel, and suggests that the future of blockbuster superhero stories won’t necessarily resemble their ancestors.
Or, perhaps, WandaVision (premiering Jan. 15) is just a unique one-off that begins crazily before segueing back to more familiar good-vs.-evil terrain; since critics were only provided with three of the series’ nine episodes, it’s not yet clear where, precisely, this half-hour affair is headed. Nonetheless, on the basis of those initial offerings, creator/writer Jac Schaeffer and director Matt Shakman’s show is definitely not your average Marvel adventure, formulaic only insofar as it apes the styles and conventions of TV sitcoms through the ages. That conceit is a clever nod to the franchise’s own shift to the small screen. It’s also an intriguing structure for what amounts to a superhero mystery masquerading as a laugh track-embellished comedy. Because if Vision (Paul Bettany) is dead—the victim of Thanos, who murdered him for an Infinity Stone at the conclusion of Infinity War—then how, precisely, has he wound up in a wholesome network-TV fantasyland as the cheery husband to wife Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), aka Scarlet Witch, a central member of the Avengers?
[Minor spoilers follow]
WandaVision keeps its cards close to its vest during its early going by thrusting viewers, without contextual explanation, directly into a black-and-white episode of “WandaVision,” a 1950s riff on I Love Lucy. Happy homemaker Wanda is still blessed with magical powers, and goofy office worker Vision remains a robot in disguise, but their secret identities are merely another layer to what amounts to a traditional sitcom plot in which the duo can’t remember what special event—denoted by a heart on their wall calendar—they’re supposed to be celebrating. Confused domestic goofiness ensues, amplified by Wanda’s interactions with nosey next-door neighbor Agnes (Kathryn Hahn), and Vision’s dealings with stern and demanding boss Mr. Hart (Fred Melamed). The couple’s dueling silly storylines come to a head at a dinner party, during which mistaken assumptions and magic conspire to create the sort of hilarious hijinks that were Lucy and Desi’s trademarks.
At the same time, though, WandaVision’s sitcom writing—and its protagonists—are more than a bit self-aware of this situation’s inherent artificiality; for example, a repeated joke involves Vision asking his coworker, and boss, about the nature of his vague corporate employer (Computational Services). That self-consciousness is also found in the cast’s performances, which ever-so-slightly exaggerate the style of ‘50s sitcom acting, as if to hint that there’s something knowingly fake about this imitative world, which, of course, there is—a fact underlined by the series’ second and third episodes, which retain some of the debut’s characters and dynamics, but transition the action forward in sitcom time, so that Wanda and Vision suddenly find themselves in scenarios modeled after, respectively, Bewitched (the mid-to-late ‘60s) and The Brady Bunch (the ‘70s).
WandaVision replicates those distinctive TV comedy forms via faithful set, wardrobe and hair design as well as sharp 4:3 cinematography (which evolves from three-camera setups to multi-cam productions). The show’s homage to TV’s yesteryears is infused with affection, not to mention a sense of racing toward the present—a path that, it’s implied, may involve stops at the Diff’rent Strokes ‘80s, Seinfeld and Friends ‘90s, and Modern Family 2000s. It’s also, however, laced with an undercurrent of menace, since the more Wanda and Vision navigate this cheery simulated environment, the more cracks begin to materialize in its façade, first through offhand lines of dialogue (small towns are “so hard to escape”; “We are an unusual couple, you know”) and then through incidents that are cancelled out by rewinds and second takes, all courtesy of what the debut episode’s final moments infer are the handiwork of a shadowy master manipulator.
WandaVision’s sporadic phony commercials (for the likes of Strücker watches and Hydra Soak bubble bath) offer clues to the villainous forces at play here, although by the end of its third installment, it’s unclear if Wanda and Vision’s predicament is the result of exterior adversaries or Wanda herself, who may have constructed this illusion to flee from the traumatic grief of losing Vision. What is certain is that Bettany and Olsen make for an amusing pair, he good-humored, bumbling and stiff, she wide-eyed, sweet and flummoxed (if Aaron Sorkin is serious about going through with a Lucille Ball biopic, Olsen is an ideal choice for the part). Also apparent is that Wanda and Vision’s delusional ordeal will eventually tie back to the larger world of the MCU, meaning that Hahn’s Agnes and Teyonah Parris’ Geraldine—who’s introduced as the duo’s friend in episode two, but whose true identity may not yet have been revealed—could have import that extends far beyond the confines of this synthetic sitcom milieu.
As is increasingly the case with all things Marvel, WandaVision’s accessibility to those not immersed in the soap opera-ish MCU will be limited; even trying to grasp the basics of its plot requires a good deal of knowledge about the events that preceded it. Destined to function as an integral piece in the studio’s larger superhero puzzle, the show likely won’t bring many newbies into the fold—especially once its fantastical sitcom-tribute device is shattered by the emergence of MCU “reality.” Yet even if its ultimate target viewers are those wholly invested in the fate of the Avengers, it manages to put a fresh (and small-scale) spin on what has become a world-conquering franchise behemoth—and consequently intimates that the studio’s post-Endgame future won’t be what anyone is expecting.