It was never meant to begin this way.
Marvel’s true first foray into expanding their immensely successful cinematic universe beyond the realms of the big screen was not originally designed to start with an MCU take on Pleasantville; a surreal dreamscape inversion of two relatively important but not marquee characters in the Marvel tapestry, yet WandaVision leading the charge thanks to the continued preponderance of Covid-19 could well turn out to be unintentionally inspired. There is a boldness to having audiences tune in to such an unusual and decidedly ambiguous concept as their first salvo of the much-hyped MCU ‘Phase Four’.
The project, from newcomer Jac Schaffer (also boasting a story credit on the upcoming Black Widow movie), directed by Matt Shakman, certainly in the first two episodes at least, is rooted in the kind of pop cultural reference points Marvel have built an entire screen universe around. There will scarcely be an era or artistic style the MCU hasn’t adopted when the day is done, and WandaVision very clearly takes a cue from the classic American sitcom of old – The Dick Van Dyke Show or Bewitched – which encapsulated safe, charisma driven family friendly comedy. In a way, this almost feels like Marvel in on their own joke, having strived to develop a storytelling universe that caters both to hardcore, decades-long comic lore nerds and the common or garden punter.
WandaVision plays up to those accessible reference points with a sense of playful glee, a joy available only to a well-established universe with adaptable rules, an easy going confidence, and an understanding of the tropes it has adopted.
You can understand why Marvel super producer Kevin Feige intended The Falcon and the Winter Soldier to kick off Phase Four on television over WandaVision, though.
Even before Covid-19, Marvel had long been expanding with the advent of Disney+ and the corporate mono cultural dominance of their content on that platform. Those edgy Netflix takes on classic Stan Lee/Jack Kirby creations? Shut down. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a series which very quickly ran away from MCU continuity after being born directly from it – brought to an end. Marvel pulled the curtain down on everything that had been developed out of house on television before the grand unification, before the climactic beat of Avengers: Endgame gave them the opportunity to both clear the slate, and find alternative ways to develop the huge roster of characters on the board. Hence Disney+. Hence one-shot TV projects. Hence WandaVision.
Yet do you start such an endeavour, a widening of audience expectations within this universe, with a somewhat strange and quirky take on Wanda ‘Scarlet Witch’ Maximoff and the Vision? It’s a gamble. A straightforward action thriller in which Falcon and the Winter Soldier deal will the legacy of Captain America is a clear line from the big screen to small screen properties. You don’t even have to watch that series to largely understand what you’re likely to get, taking nothing away from what could well be a fine show. But you can’t quite parse WandaVision in the same way. TFATWS is a blockbuster semi-sequel to Captain America: Civil War, it appears, while WandaVision is… what? A riddle wrapped in a cultural artefact enigma? It’s a daring place to start.
What it does is display Marvel’s continued range and brio. One of the reasons the so-called ‘superhero bubble’ has yet to burst is precisely because Feige understands the superhero genre, and specifically the Marvel legacy, extends way beyond our cultural perceptions of a superhero story. Each successive Phase has challenged those ideas more and more to the point Infinity War and Endgame were a confluence of science-fiction, action and fantasy genres rolled into one, and they managed to make them work. The MCU can be almost anything with a Doctor Who-esque elasticity for storytelling. 2021 and beyond’s content looks set to prove that as Marvel bounces from one unique, one-shot concept to the other, capitalising on characters with story threads yet to pull on, or players who have lacked their moment in the sun.
It brings us to Black Widow. It brings us to Loki. It brings us to Wanda and Vision.
The question is whether WandaVision, or any of these shows, work on their own terms.
Would anyone watch this series without an interest in Marvel or the MCU? If they did, would they be confused? Probably. But then we all are, whether invested in comic book lore or not. Disney+ have even created a series of catch-up bite size recaps for each character in these upcoming shows called Legends, just in case the audience needs a refresher about, in this case, Wanda and Vision’s steady love affair from Civil War through to Vision’s untimely death at the hand of Thanos the Mad Titan in Infinity War, a death that appears set in canonical stone. We’re all meant to be confused so, on that basis, WandaVision can be judged fairly as an independent construct, certainly in these opening episodes which are designed to throw you into the situation (comedy) and leave you to flounder.
At the same time, however, WandaVision does not front load every frame with bizarre, distracting clues and arcanum. First and foremost, Schaffer works to genuinely place Wanda & Vision in the framework of a traditional black & white, half an hour sitcom environment before an unseen studio audience, replete with laughter track. Wanda, here a ‘50s housewife newly married to the office working Vision, thanks to a poised and charming performance as ever by Elizabeth Olsen, plays into the conventions of an era that reinforced the ‘nuclear family’ while spinning it out into farcical comic situations. The opening episode pivots entirely around a classic misunderstanding over the phone which turns entertaining Vision’s boss and his wife (played by comic veterans Fred Melamed & Debra Jo Rupp, a vestige of the underrated That ’70s Show) into a super-powered game of cloak and dagger, as Vision and Wanda strive to maintain the facade using their heightened abilities to prevent the evening collapsing.
WandaVision injects these classic comedy tropes with recognisable MCU inflections.
Bewitched feels like the chief inspiration here, with Paul Bettany (always great) channeling a bit of Dick York while Olsen very much takes a cue from Elizabeth Montgomery, crinkling her nose, magically waving her hand & changing costumes, while the music and production design aids the magical romantic fantasy of the entire construct.
And it is a construct. We as the audience are one step ahead. We know this is some kind of fantasy. We know Vision is dead. We see cracks through the facade before Wanda begins to notice – a mysterious screen playing the WandaVision show, a colourised kids helicopter in the bushes displaying a symbol (one known to fans of the lore), and the chilling moment where Wanda, unconsciously, almost murders Vision’s boss Mr Heart before imploring Vision to help, in the only moment of lucidity from the Wanda we know yet visible. We don’t know the context but as a mysterious voice asks through static “who is doing this to you, Wanda?”, the reality of the fiction is clear.
That’s the point, of course. WandaVision is a homage to beloved, comforting television tropes in American history while operating as a narrative mystery at the same time. What’s the deal with Kathryn Hahn’s suspiciously invasive neighbour Agnes? Who is the weird Beekeeper who appears out of a storm drain? Are the commercials referencing Stark & Strucker more than just fragments of Wanda’s past articulated in this era-specific manner? And, crucially, why is this happening specifically it seems to Wanda? A betting man might suggest Wanda is creating a series of fantasy worlds in her mind based on constructs she has absorbed about American cultural history, in the framework of a romantic life with Vision, as a means of coping with his death, but there is likely to be more than just this underlying character beat. There will be an antagonist. There will be a literal conflict. There will almost certainly be a set of traditional Marvel tropes that WandaVision, across the next seven episodes, plays into.
The joy of this one is to savour the road to those answers.
If WandaVision’s move to colourisation suggests Wanda will project a set of different sitcom styles across these incoming episodes, that could make for a quite wonderful homage to beloved shows and ideas many of us grew up savouring, especially if they are written with the wit and care displayed in these first two episodes. Colourisation suggests complication, and we could well see the homely, happy and traditional comic structures of American life of the ’50s and ’60s challenged as Wanda’s situation worsens, as potentially might her ‘marriage’ to Vision. The possibilities are genuinely fascinating and could quite wonderfully chart the evolution of the romantic American sitcom through the ages via this intriguing setup.
WandaVision’s journey is tantalisingly uncertain at this stage, and that feels rare. That feels like a treat in the making, a series you cannot quite figure out where it will end up in two month’s time. If the journey continues to be so riven with winks, nods and direct plays on American cultural comedy, we could end up with a minor triumph not just of Marvel’s expanding scope, but a unique confluence of genres and concepts.
It was never meant to begin this way.