By: Prabhnoor Singh
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has always been bold. Despite its frequent reliance on formula, its very existence – a series of storylines told across more than a decade’s worth of multiple interconnected movies – is unlike anything else. It should come as no surprise, then, that WandaVision is also bold and experimental. And yet surprise it does: the MCU’s first true venture into television constantly morphs between surreal sitcom, puzzle box mystery, and superhero dramatics, indicating that Marvel’s confidence in a post-Endgame world remains strong. Free to write its own rules, WandaVision goes to places few would have expected the world’s biggest popcorn franchise to explore, and more often than not, its themes of the grief and love between Wanda Maximoff and Vision help it find its footing.
This is evident from the very first shot of the series. Filmed in monochrome, the opening chapter of WandaVision looks like a recovered relic from the 1950s instead of glossy superhero cinema. Rather than deal with explosive conflict, WandaVision places its ever-loved duo – Elizabeth Olsen’s magic-wielding Wanda and Paul Bettany’s sentient android Vision – into loving homages of classic US sitcoms such as I Love Lucy and Bewitched. With each successive episode, the time period advances, recreating the aesthetic and directorial style of shows like The Brady Bunch and Family Ties. From multi-camera, live-audience set-ups to the energetic format of modern favorites, most episodes sport their unique look and feel and tap into nostalgia for the classics – even among those of us who’ve only seen reruns.
This is an unusual choice for Marvel, especially considering the importance of young audiences among its demographic, but the concept plays out successfully. Aside from creating a genuinely unique approach for both the MCU and TV in general, it provides WandaVision a new delivery format for its all-important humor that allows for fresh interpretations of similar jokes in each episode. While knowledge of the original shows does help make those jokes more successful, the humor generally manages to transcend the homage. Episodes set in earlier decades can come across as charming more than laugh-aloud funny, but there’s always something to admire, even if it’s just the replication. Most importantly, though, all this creates a sharp tonal contrast with the other half of WandaVision’s design.
You see, WandaVision is not a sitcom set in the MCU. The homages are merely a mechanic to deliver – and often disguise – its true intentions. WandaVision is an exploration of grief, acting as an extended epilogue to the trauma experienced by both Wanda and Vision during the events of Avengers: Infinity War. This emotional darkness plays off against the wholesome sitcom comedy, creating frequent moments of turbulence. This manifests in numerous different ways but starts in earlier episodes by delivering a sense of unease through dramatic irony, as the audience understands Vision to be dead, despite his seemingly very much alive on-screen actions.
On a week-by-week basis, as WandaVision was originally delivered, this fluctuation of the familiar and odd could be confusing. It was difficult, especially in the first handful of weeks, to assess what the show truly was, with the tonal balance occasionally feeling out of equilibrium. But, seen as a whole, WandaVision makes sense. It’s not a formulaic show, and so, therefore, does not need a formula for each episode to adhere to. In fact, in hindsight, some episodes must be imbalanced. While there is conventional logic in its overall storyline, showrunner Jac Schaeffer and her team of writers plot out the individual episode journeys on their terms. This lack of guaranteed consistency from chapter to chapter is what makes each installment feel like a genuinely new adventure. This is in direct contrast to the MCU-adjacent shows, such as the procedural Agents of SHIELD, and even most of the MCU’s movies. There’s very little out there in mainstream television that’s quite like this, and that demonstrates Marvel’s absolute confidence in both the production talent and the audience.
That’s not to say WandaVision won’t lose some people – even some who expected to like it – along the way. Its experimental nature means it is juggling many ideas at once, and the half-hour format means there’s much to deal with in a very short amount of time each episode. Furthermore, this isn’t just a show about Wanda and Vision; as the story expands we’re introduced to a whole new Marvel government agency – SWORD – and a secondary protagonist in Teyonah Parris’ Captain Monica Rambeau. There are links to other Marvel storylines as well, with the presence of Ant-Man’s Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) and Thor’s Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), along with WandaVision’s new original supporting cast, spearheaded by Kathryn Hahn’s nosy neighbor, Agnes. WandaVision does an admirable job of supporting these multiple threads, but very often something has to give. Sometimes this has long-term repercussions; a character that is a vital part of the final episodes is mostly sidelined for the first two-thirds of the show, and one villain, in particular, is given so little growth that they come off incredibly cartoonish by the finale.
With a life of tragedy behind her and the death of her beloved Vision fresh in the memory, there’s also a more emotionally brutal side to Wanda. And when it’s called for, Olsen delivers the heft required. This often comes across as desperate and barely clinging onto control, which helps solidify the conflict within Wanda. It also makes for a character who isn’t always sympathetic in the ways that she deals with her problems, bringing legitimate questions as to who the real villain of the story might be when you take a step back from it. That WandaVision is not afraid to truly question its protagonist’s actions on occasion is one of its most notable strengths.
Vision also gets his fair share of heft, with Bettany delivering some rather beautifully written lines in the character’s more traditional moments. While WandaVision will likely have an uphill battle against TV’s most prestigious dramas come awards season, the couple’s most emotional and tender moments are a good reminder of how far the MCU has elevated popcorn writing standards.
It’s only right that Olsen and Bettany have the lion’s share of the good stuff, but it does mean that many other interesting characters don’t get to shine quite as brightly. Kathryn Hahn, for instance, is a comic delight as Agnes but is all too often relegated to a bit part. Despite this, across the whole series, we do get to see her range, with a darker side to the performance shown as the show skews away from its sitcom replicas and back into more traditional MCU territory. Meanwhile, Teyonah Parris stays almost entirely in the more familiar side of this universe, and as such her, Monica Rambeau provides a more classic comic book hero to root for. This means her role is not quite as unusual and thus memorable as the other front-and-center stars, but Parris nonetheless feels perfectly at home.
Talking of the wider universe, WandaVision has a few ties to other parts of the MCU in terms of both its continuity and some Easter eggs but does largely stand on its own beyond Wanda and Vision’s stories. The most important link is Monica Rambeau, who was first seen as a child in Captain Marvel. But even though she has enough screen time to be considered the show’s secondary protagonist, by the conclusion it feels as if she has been included to set up a new character to be used in another show or movie, rather than get a whole story here. As such, her arc feels notably incomplete, and the payoff for her evolution across the series is weak.
That’s something that affects the finale as a whole; many plot threads are left dangling, excused by the fact that nothing in the MCU is ever ‘finished’. While this promises excitement for the future, it comes at the expense of a truly satisfying conclusion to all of WandaVision’s numerous stories.
VERDICT It would be natural and easy to assume the MCU’s ascension to the status of the biggest movie franchise on the planet would rob it of the courage to take risks. And yet Marvel’s first Disney+ television show is arguably its riskiest endeavor. Almost devoid of action for most of its run and nearly impossible to fit neatly into any specific genre box, WandaVision triumphs in being entirely character-focused, exploring the feelings and motivations of its heroes in a compelling manner kept aloft by Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany, who provide a fantastic amount of life, wit, and emotion. While its puzzle box format does sometimes cause the emotion to get lost in its sleight of hand, it pulls through for a largely satisfying result. And if this wasn’t enough, WandaVision does all this while maintaining an entertaining sitcom homage that is neatly and logically woven into the heart of the story. These many elements combine for not just a delightful watch in its own right, but also hopefully a promise of what other unconventional stories the MCU has in store on Disney+ with its upcoming The Falcon and The Winter Soldier and Loki shows.