DIRECTED BY: Matt Shakman
FEATURING: Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Kathryn Hahn, Teyonah Parris, Randall Park, Kat Dennings
PLOT: Sorceress Wanda Maximoff and her husband, the strong and flight-capable synthezoid Vision, settle down in the idyllic burg of Westview. However, their peace and comfort are regularly disrupted by nosy neighbors who are constantly seconds away from discovering their secret, outside forces threatening their safety, and the fact that their reality is constantly changing to reflect the evolution of the American situation comedy over several decades.
COMMENTS: For their debut on the Disney+ streaming service, the bigwigs at Marvel Studios bypass their usual flights-and-punches formula in favor of parody, satire, and psychological paranoia. “WandaVision” turns the mystery of what is happening to our protagonists on its head by filtering the drama through the pastiche of laugh-tracked comical antics. So it’s not quite what you might expect from the box office wizards at Marvel. On the other hand, it’s still mainstream entertainment, and the patient will soon be rewarded with explanations for all that transpires.
When last seen on the big screen, Wanda Maximoff (AKA Scarlet Witch) was doing battle with purple mega-Malthusian Thanos, while Vision was dead at selfsame villain’s hands. For those who have diligently followed the Marvel Cinematic Universe through 24-or-so big screen adventures, the sight of the pair crossing the threshold as (1) married, (2) very much alive, and (3) stepping onto the set of an ersatz “Dick van Dyke Show” must surely provoke a cocked eyebrow.
But if you’ve been paying any attention at all, you’ve noticed that part of Marvel’s success has derived from its willingness to borrow beats and tropes from other genres to keep the overall superhero vibe fresh. You’re as likely to get touches of 70s paranoid thriller (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) as you are an 80s macho-buddy flick (Thor: Ragnarok). Sometimes the films even shift tone within their own running time (see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’s lurch from heist comedy to haunted requiem). So the left-turn into sitcom territory is not totally off-brand.
Considering that they’ve been reduced to mere cameos amidst the cinematic cavalcade of superheroes, Olsen and Bettany seem to relish finally getting the spotlight to themselves for a little bit. Their chemistry, teased out in stolen moments in the big-screen omnibus, is genuine, and if their transformation into broad comedians still feels awkward, it’s not for lack of trying. The same Vision who triumphantly hoisted Thor’s hammer in the cinema is here reduced to belting out “Yakety Yak” as a wild distraction—but the spirit says to just go with it.
That’s surely why “WandaVision” is on our radar. It feels wrong. These characters shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing, these comedic styles should not be on our TV screens in the 21st century, and for three episodes, the show resolutely refuses to explain just what the heck is going on. Of course, this puzzle box is part of what draws viewers here in the first place. Something strange is going on is Heroville, and we’re gonna try and figure out what.
And sure enough, episode 4 begins to unpack the mystery, as agents from the “real world” try to understand the mysterious goings-on. It’s hardly a coincidence that FBI agent Jimmy Woo is scribbling down the very questions that are in our own heads: “Why hexagonal shape? Why sitcoms? Same time & space? Is Vision alive?” For any viewers shaking their heads and despairing at the many unanswered questions, the plot cops are here to sort things out.
“WandaVision” represents an interesting attempt to incorporate some different flavors into the Marvel mix. Director Shakman and creator Jac Schaeffer fully commit to their odd premise, with credit sequences, theme songs, and commercial breaks to match each new setting. (In particular, episode 5 ends in a wild twist that manages to riff on sitcom tropes and inside-baseball Hollywood at the same time.) In other words, it’s weird and it knows it. But the show also wants to reassure you that everything’s going to make sense in the end; it’s weird for a reason. When you’re a multibillion dollar content factory, you probably don’t want to leave that kind of thing to chance.
Roger Ebert famously summarized the shortcomings of 2010, the belated sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, by quoting the verse of e. e. cummings: “I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing / than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance”. Similarly, “WandaVision” soars when gleefully vivisecting expectations for a comic book adventure series, but the needs of the franchise, and the demands of mainstream entertainment, keep it firmly tethered to the ground.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The best parts of the first three episodes are when WandaVision unapologetically leans into its weirdness… the more unexplained moments the show throws at us, and the more it pushes up against what feels like horror, the more it allows the sitcom device to really hammer home its uncanny artificiality. The result is that the sitcom beats feel even stranger, maybe even more menacing — in a way that goes beyond “these characters sure are acting unnaturally.” It makes you realize the intense desperation for these characters to be “normal,” and the tragedy that “normal” is the one thing they’ll never be able to be. When the characters sink back into their comedic shtick, then, it feels even more unnerving.” – Alex Abad-Santos, Vox