In the opening two episodes of WandaVision, which premiere Friday, Jan. 15, on Disney Plus, are the first bits of Marvel Cinematic Universe storytelling that fans have tasted since Avengers: Endgame. Due to complications with the coronavirus pandemic, MCU devotees never saw Black Widow (now due in May), Eternals (bumped to November) or The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (which finally wrapped production for a mid-March release). The void makes the eventized hype surrounding WandaVision’s debut even more intense — Marvel is finally back. And the ending of the fast is all on top of the promise by franchise mastermind Kevin Feige that WandaVision directly ties into the upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (due to hit theaters over a year from now) and the direction of the MCU’s Phase 4.
Phew! That’s a lot of pressure. WandaVision’s premiere episodes do not deliver on that promise. Nor do they need to, as the actual pledge of the series, written by Jac Schaeffer (The Hustle) and directed by Matt Shakman (Game of Thrones), is to do for the history of sitcoms what Captain America did for the war movie, Guardians of the Galaxy did for the space opera, and Black Panther did for spy movies. The secret sauce of every Marvel movie is the way filmmakers stuff cinema-history vegetables into a swirl of cotton candy.
WandaVision is exactly that in TV form, indulging in the quirks of situation comedy while peeling away at its conservative husk with a sprinkle of (somewhat literal) dark magic on top. The show may culminate in explosive echoes of Wanda and Vision’s Avengers: Infinity War scenes — we don’t know yet. But these early half-hours are a gift to actors Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany, who flex every farcical bone in their bodies. The choice to just make WandaVision a funny sitcom with a surreal tinge is sure to frustrate anyone scrutinizing scenes for theory-fueling clues.
[Ed. note: This story contains minor spoilers for the first two episodes of WandaVision.]
Judging from the 23 films Kevin Feige has made in the MCU, he isn’t overly invested in the Marvelness of Marvel. He understands how a series’ continuity builds stakes, and how post-credits teasers pay off, but his priority is genre. The luxury of Marvel’s eclectic superhero pantheon is that he can make Star Wars or a James Bond in his own toy box. While nostalgia fuels the decisions, Feige’s strength is in deconstruction — he can take the movies he loved as a kid, deconstruct them until he knows how they work, then hire workhorse directors and True Movie Star actors to rebuild them with trademarked characters. When it came to developing TV for Marvel, it’s no surprise that Feige, a New Jersey kid of the 1970s who likely caught episodes of The Jeffersons on channel 5 after school, turned to his favorite sitcom reruns and The Twilight Zone for inspiration.
WandaVision is a delight because at this stage, it isn’t much more than that exercise. Like ABC’s recent re-stagings of All in the Family and The Jeffersons, which cast Woody Harrelson as Archie Bunker and Jamie Foxx as George Jefferson, the pleasure is in seeing Schaeffer and Shakman revive a retired format. And while the sitcom was considered lowbrow 50 years ago when it was on every night, Olsen and Bettany’s antics play with theatrical whimsy alongside the comedy-but-not-really comedies that now litter FX, HBO, and the streamers.
As a loving couple trapped in a world they don’t understand, Wanda and Vision play their roles to a T, fluffing each other with lovey-dovey banter, making small talk from across their chaste, separated twin beds at night, and calling each other during the workday. It’s true parody, down to the botched dinner with the boss that only Bettany’s squeaking rendition of “Yakety Yak” can distract from.
In true Marvel fashion, the two opening episodes of WandaVision both end with some mystery dangled in front of the audience. Eventually, we’ll learn how Wanda and Vision wound up in this simulated, TV-based reality. But the in-universe twists come in the form of comedy; the characters are very much Wanda, a telekinetic superwoman, and Vision, an all-powerful, vibranium-clad AI powered by the Mind Stone. So when Vis winds up at his desk job, his head-spinning situation-comedy moment has less to do with deadlines or boss rants, and more to do with not having a clue what humans do for work — even though he does it extremely well.
“Since you’ve gotten here, productivity has gone up 300% … you’re like a walking computer!” his co-worker says. Vision snaps: “I am mostly certainly not! I am a regular carbon-based employee made of organic matter just like yourself!” Later, in a real Captain America: Civil War line reading, Bettany suggests that if a work dinner doesn’t go just so, “This could be the end.”
Olsen winds up with more of the straight-person role, true to Elizabeth Montgomery in Bewitched. Whether she’s accidentally surprising Vision’s boss while wearing lingerie, mistaking him for her husband, or dealing with the nosy uber-housewife next door (played to frightening perfection by Kathryn Hahn), Wanda is both on top of the magical escapades and in over her head. Her magic is causing everything to go haywire — combining Samantha’s wackier witch moments with Legion’s psychic meltdowns. But by never wavering from Olsen’s three-camera-sitcom performance, WandaVision maintains the entertaining pastiche of old TV while letting a feeling of dread creep onto the screen.
If things seem out of the ordinary, Olsen dials up the Stepford Wife mannerisms. If another dimension is leaking into her own, a good chore or two becomes a useful distraction. The sensation creates a feeling of absolute dread. Only in 2021 is it clear how much eldritch terror was lurking off-camera in a show like I Dream of Jeannie.
Shakman’s precision of shooting and recreating the classic sitcom makes it chilling when WandaVision does break the form, through a close-up, a warbled music cue, or the occasional rack focus. The same choices have a rousing effect, too. In a break from the traditions of the ’50s and ’60s, the faux-sitcom vehicles of the first two episodes go out of their way to cast people of color, and to poke at the blatant misogyny that turned shows like Leave It to Beaver into symbols of a bygone era. When actress Teyonah Parris pops up in episode 2 as one of Wanda’s new neighborhood pals, Geraldine, WandaVision has its cake. Old shows never had Black women playing this type of role to chipper perfection, but “Geraldine” clearly knows she isn’t supposed to be there. (And considering that early rumors suggested she was playing Monica Rambeau, the grown-up daughter of Maria from Captain Marvel, Geraldine may know she isn’t even Geraldine.)
The one thing to know about WandaVision is that, at first, it isn’t an Endgame sequel, a bridge to Doctor Strange 2, or a TV series cast from molten Marvel lore. And unlike the MCU movies, which have the luxury of keeping butts in seats for two hours and explaining themselves in a single breath, this story is chopped into pieces, leaving plenty of room for unfulfilled expectations. A sitcom is lightweight. A Marvel story might need to be something else. But not in this case — WandaVision is WandaVision, and if you can watch it for what it is, it’s satisfying television.
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