‘WandaVision’ is Thrilling and Wonderfully Bizarre

Courtesy of Marvel/Disney

In the interest of driving clicks and that all-important internet ✨engagement✨, today I’m going to be talking about the newest Marvel Cinematic Universe project! We’re finally back to talking about Marvel again after a blissful year without it. Apparently in 2021, audiences will see four (4)(!) new Marvel movies as well as a whole bunch of stuff on Disney+ that will also need to be watched if the viewer hopes to keep up with the MCU. I’m happy we had the break, I could do with it being a bit longer, but today’s topic was never appointment television that felt like homework to me. Unlike most of what the MCU has given us over the last ten years, the first Disney+ original Marvel series WandaVision was never afraid to try new things, and give us a weird, funny, twisted, daring and emotionally perceptive experience week after week. In fact, I enjoyed it more than I have most Marvel movies in the last ten years.

Spoilers to follow. I’m going to try to keep this vague, but bear with me.

When we begin, we find Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) living in what appears to be a 1950s sitcom, think I Love Lucy or The Dick Van Dyke Show. They live in suburban Westview, and they deal with typical sitcom problems, like Vision’s boss coming over for dinner, and the two of them trying to make a good impression, and their struggle to hide their superpowers from the neighbors, especially Agnes (Kathryn Hahn), who is consistently and hilariously all up in their business. And in the second episode, we move to a more Bewitched-style 1960s sitcom, and by the end of the first or second episode, we see someone behind a desk, watching this in a kind of control center.

As we move through the rest of the series, we see sitcom tributes to every following decade, including homages to The Brady Bunch, Malcolm in the Middle and Modern Family, but we slowly begin to receive answers about why Wanda and Vision are trapped in this sitcom world, whose decision this was and what’s keeping them there. We’re also following the agents of S.W.O.R.D., who are trying to get to the bottom of this anomaly. We find some characters we know from the MCU – Darcy (Kat Dennings) from the Thor movies, and Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) from the Ant-Man films. They enlist the help of Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), who we met as a child in ‘90s-set Captain Marvel, and it’s clear before the end of WandaVision that Monica will be a force to be reckoned with in the MCU moving forward. We also have lots of in-universe fake commercials that serve as clues to what’s really going on.

Attempting to give a summary of the WandaVision plot seems like such a chore, since there is so much going on here and most of the fun of it is watching how all of these events unfold. And ultimately, I think WandaVision maybe tried to do a little too much – by the end of the finale, there are so many loose ends to tie up, it feels like the show’s going through the motions – but I think it handles all of this rather nicely. It doesn’t feel like the very specific central story is ever betrayed or sidelined.

WandaVision is essentially a story about Wanda’s struggle with post-traumatic stress and the places her grief takes her to after Vision is killed during the events of Avengers: Infinity War. There’s a great episode where we go on a journey through Wanda’s childhood as we hit several key points in her childhood and in her life before we met her in the MCU – moments that shape who she is as a character and inform the decisions she makes.

I’m making WandaVision sound like the boring, introspective character study version of a big, splashy, fun MCU project, and I would say maybe yes and no? The bulk of why WandaVision works is because of how absolutely stunning Elizabeth Olsen is here, and how much she brings to the role, in Wanda’s journey of grief. Wanda was never a character I cared about very much in the MCU before this, and now she’s one of my favorite characters in the series and I can’t wait to see what happens with her next. She brings such emotional depth and nuance to this performance, and by the time it’s all over we have a deep appreciation for Wanda and her personal journey. I hope Wanda gets her own movie when all of this is said and done.

Olsen’s chemistry with Paul Bettany is great, and he kind of has less to do, but you barely notice it as we move through the series. In the earlier sitcom episodes, Bettany is having a ton of fun with the pratfalls and gags of a laugh-track sitcom. I don’t remember Bettany ever being a particularly strong comedic actor, so this was a nice surprise.

I don’t want to say much about Kathryn Hahn’s character, since there’s a reveal involving her character, and I’m sure everyone reading this already knows what I’m talking about, but I’m still not saying it here. I will say that I really hope the MCU makes room for Hahn moving forward. It certainly seems like we haven’t seen the last of this character. Her presence even in the early episodes before we even know what her deal is, is so enjoyable and the viewer really savors every moment they spend with her. Kathryn Hahn is a national treasure and must be protected at all costs.

As the other performances go, I was impressed by Teyonah Parris, who seems like she has a lot to offer the MCU in future installments, and I can’t wait to see what she’s got in store for us. Randall Park and Kat Dennings are having a lot of fun expanding upon the roles they already established in the past films, both kind of playing comedic relief sidekicks. They both have more to do here, which is nice.

We also see Evan Peters, arriving at one point, seemingly as a version of Wanda’s deceased brother Pietro. Evan Peters played the character in the Fox X-Men movies, and everyone has been excited for Marvel to open up the quote-unquote Multiverse now that Disney and Fox have merged. And this was kind of just grade-A trolling on the show’s part. While we kind of wasted Peters, who doesn’t have a lot to do, his very presence definitely threw a lot of people off. Speaking as someone who wasn’t invested in various fan theories in the weeks in between WandaVision episodes, I think it’s kind of hilarious how this drove fans insane.

WandaVision is an exciting route for the MCU to take, simply because it’s so weird at every step of the way and it only gets dragged down when it remembers it has to tie into the next thing. It’s also very distinctly not a film, it’s a TV show that looooves TV. We have so many loving homages to the golden age of television, including lots of aspect ratio switches between the 4×3 format used on TV until the 90s, the 16×9 in modern television, to the widescreen of the world outside of Westview. We also have lots of fun with elaborate opening credits sequences, where great attention to detail is paid.

WandaVision also reminded me how great weekly episodic television can be. With the binge-watching model popularized by Netflix, I think that’s what a lot of viewers have become used to consuming a unit of entertainment all at once, and I will argue this is bad for TV. When every viewer who wants to see the episode of TV watches it all at once, people don’t need to worry about spoiling something on social media or ruining the secret of episode 8 for someone who’s only on episode 5. I think we should go back to week-to-week episode releases for streaming TV shows, for everything, even Netflix. Think I’m wrong? Well, how would you explain the fact that the Disney+ servers crashed at 3am every Friday when the new episode would drop, because everyone was trying to watch this all at the same time? And also, it’s pretty telling that WandaVision remained a trending topic on Twitter for the entire weekend after airing. This allows for kind of a communal viewing experience that we’re pretty starved for these days.

The execution of the WandaVision story is a bit clumsy towards the end where we’re seemingly rushing toward a finish line (what I’m saying is the show should have been longer), and it would have been truly impressive if this all didn’t culminate in a giant climactic CGI fight scene. It would have been great if WandaVision didn’t feel like a Marvel movie at all, but I will admit there’s a lot introduced here that could turn into something really exciting in the franchise moving forward. And there is so much going on at every moment that is equal parts funny, dramatic, sweetly romantic, occasionally terrifying, and devastatingly emotional. The weekly release format helps the show, but I can’t wait to binge WandaVision from the beginning again, probably multiple times. WandaVision is a very strong start for the MCU on television, and I hope the series that follow are this willing to take chances and make it weird. WandaVision is a triumph – thrilling, wonderfully bizarre and kind of a work of genius.

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