WandaVision is a Charming, Confusing Big Swing for the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Posted on January 15, 2021

WandaVision, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s return to our lives and the launch of its long-awaited post-Endgame Phase Four, is dropping today on Disney+. It’s a bit… difficult to describe. Or rather, it’s so deceptively simple to describe that it clearly has to be about …well, more than what it’s about. Look at it this way: if you understood and got excited by roughly 75% of the first sentence in this review, that’s half the battle toward understanding the rest of it.

When last we saw the titular Wanda, she was more or less mourning the titular Vision at the end of Avengers: Endgame, after the villainous megalomaniac Thanos killed him in order to take possession of the Soul Mind Stone that fueled Vision’s body and gave him life. Yes, we did read that sentence out loud after we wrote it and we’re delighted by how nonsensical it sounds. If you are too, then you might just be delighted by WandaVision, although the first three episodes that were available for review (the first two dropped today) make it clear that, stylistically and thematically, this TV series doesn’t feel remotely like the blockbuster adventure films from which it was spun off.

Instead of serving as Avengers and superheroes in the present day, Wanda and Vision, now married, live in the world of sitcoms circa 1960, complete with laugh tracks, domestic bliss, wacky neighbors, and the kind of 1-2-3 simplistic plotting that has always made classic sitcoms so comforting. At the end of every 30 minutes, a lesson is learned, usually about themes like love, family, and cooperation, while the previous 29 minutes were filled with misunderstandings, double entendres, suspicion and deception. Wanda and Vision occupy a pastiche world owing mostly to The Dick Van Dyke Show and Bewitched in its first two episodes (things go a little Brady in the third one), and the previews make it clear that a trip through every decade of sitcomdom is to be expected going forward. The work done to recreate the feel of these shows, right down to the ever-evolving living room sets, costumes, musical stings and other stylistic conceits, is dead-perfect in every way – except one, which we’ll get to in a minute. WandaVision simply looks fantastic and Elizabeth Olsen in particular is doing a deceptively masterful job evoking every sitcom wife from Lucy Ricardo to Laura Petrie to Carol Brady. Her main inspiration, to no surprise, is Elizabeth Montgomery’s Samantha Stevens and Olsen is wonderful managing to straddle a fine line between pure mimicry and a more nuanced homage as she picks up the gauntlet laid down by Montgomery’s iconic work in Bewitched and plays an updated version of the suburban white witch facing a string of wacky scenarios, overbearing neighbors, and the ever-present threat of being found out. Paul Bettany is fun tapping into his inner Darrin Stevens/Rob Petrie and Kathryn Hahn is simply amazing as the pushy, sarcastic next door neighbor with no boundaries.

This is all impressively strange on its own, considering it’s part of the same universe in which Captain America beat up Thanos with Thor’s hammer. To WandaVision‘s immense credit, director Matt Shakman doesn’t just use the classic sitcom as a backdrop or a mere stop on the way to the presumed pyrotechnics and superheroics to come; he dives all the way into it. Whatever this strange world is, it’s fully realized and for the first several episodes at least, the show rarely and barely lets the mask slip to reveal something larger, deeper and more sinister than any laugh track will allow. Unfortunately, this admirable commitment ties into our one criticism of the show so far. If roughly 27 out of every 30 minutes of your superhero show is devoted to a meticulous recreation of classic sitcom plots, it sure would have helped things if they’d managed to come up with good sitcom plots. Given the show’s dedication to loving recreations, we don’t think this was intentional, but the first two episodes give the impression that all classic sitcoms were, well… kind of dumb.

It seems to us if you’re going to mimic two of the most sophisticated sitcoms of the 1960s (The Dick Van Dyke Show and Bewitched), you’d want to steer away from plots and characters that seem more like something from Gilligan’s Island or The Munsters, two of the, shall we say, less erudite shows of the era. In the first several episodes, the sitcom plots go on a little too long, with stretches of mugging and weird staging with nary a laugh to be had. It seems strange to complain that a Marvel project starring two Avengers isn’t funny or witty enough, but if they’re going to take such a hard left turn into this world and do such an amazing job of recreating the experience of watching it, we just wish we’d been treated to something that felt like a real sitcom of the era instead of a poor parody of one.

Of course, when the series really takes off is when it allows for those brief moments where it acknowledges its own weirdness and hints at something much larger and more sinister. Tom, a lifelong comic nerd, watched the series with Lorenzo (a lifelong no such thing) and noted how virtually none of the various Easter Eggs and callbacks to Marvel lore registered with him. The show is deceptively dense with hints about what’s really going on (pay attention to the commercials especially), but we fear for the first few episodes, most of this will be charming but very confusing to the average viewer.

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