March 5, 2021
Stars Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Kathryn Hahn, Teyonah Parris, Randall Park, Kat Dennings, Josh Stamberg, Julian Hilliard, Jett Klyne, Evan Peters.
The way it plays out, WandaVision could leave viewers both glad to welcome the return of the Marvel Cinematic Universe after a year-and-a-half hiatus, and cautiously optimistic about its future following the events of Avengers: Endgame.
However, it’s definitely a fitting choice for Marvel Studios’ first direct foray into television with MCU content (previous shows such as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Netflix “Defenders” group were supposedly set in the MCU as well, but they were produced by a different studio division and their canon-status has fallen into doubt).
Due to the pandemic, the last MCU release before this was Spider-Man: Far From Home in July 2019. Since then, Marvel has been preparing a slate of Disney+ shows, but its schedule has been rearranged a bit, most notably the delay of the Black Widow movie for more than a year.
Thus it is that “Phase Four” of the MCU kicks off with WandaVision on the small screen.
WandaVision embraces its television origins, as several episodes pay homage to classic sitcoms of the past. Right off the bat, viewers are treated to what sounds like a typical 1950s family sitcom theme song, revealing that Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and The Vision (Paul Bettany) of the Avengers are now married and moving into a house in the suburbs. This of course raises many questions, as Vision died in Avengers: Infinity War.
In fact, the first three episodes are devoted to parodying the sitcom format, from the 1950s in episode one, to the 1960s in episode two, and the 1970s in episode three, complete with bespoke title tunes and elaborate credit sequences. There are hints of the outside world trying to break into whatever reality we’re watching before we finally get a sense of what’s happening in episode four. It’s a slow burn, but worth it. Heck, the stylings of classic TV should be enough of a draw, especially for viewers who enjoy identifying all the tropes on display and guessing where the show’s creators drew inspiration. My favorite is the 1980s-style in episode five, particularly the pitch-perfect ’80s-style theme song.
For the rest of the nine episodes, the limited series slips back and forth between TV parody and the outside world trying to figure out why an energy field has turned a small town in New Jersey into an evolving sitcom. The team trying to figure things out involves a number of established MCU characters, from Randall Park as FBI Agent Jimmy Woo from Ant-Man and The Wasp, to Kat Dennings as Darcy Lewis from the “Thor” movies, and Teyonah Parris as the grown up Monica Rambeau from Captain Marvel.
The show will likely take a few rewatches for fans to truly appreciate it, especially when placed in the context of the future movies and TV shows it sets up. Some mixed reaction after its finale probably stems from the usual debate over releasing streaming shows for bingeing or week-to-week. As with all its shows, Disney+ released WandaVision as a weekly over the course of two months, allowing the mystery to build up and the audiences questions to mount as so many plot twists and revelations episode-to-episode fueled fan speculation about what was going on and who the new characters would turn out to be. Given the rabid expectations that had been built up for the ending, what turns out to be a low-key finale may not have sated the appetites of hardcore fans, and leaves a few questions hanging. Maybe they will be addressed when this story supposedly picks up in the next “Spider-Man” and “Doctor Strange” movies over the next couple of years. Maybe not. But there is no doubt that the show’s craftsmanship is impeccable.
I suspect those bingeing WandaVision going forward will not have the same issues with the slow buildup, since they won’t be waiting the whole week for answers, and the show will play more like a five-hour movie.
Still, the show is a trove of references to previous MCU movies involving Wanda and Vision, and the comics on which they are based. The performances are uniformly excellent, particularly Elizabeth Olsen as the heart of the series, both the sitcoms that seem built around her and WandaVision itself. She does a great job playing to each period while also bringing depth to her character at those times when the illusions are broken, as Wanda starts to learn the true limits of her powers, which may not have originated from where the audience has been led to believe.
Kathryn Hahn is a delight as Agnes, Wanda’s nosy neighbor who keeps popping up and opportune times and turns out to be more important to Wanda’s fake reality than it seems. And Evan Peters, who played the “X-Men” movies version of the speedster Quicksilver, Wanda’s brother (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson in the MCU) provides what could have been Marvel’s most meta cameo ever had the show pushed the implications of it to their natural storytelling conclusions rather than walking it back a bit with subsequent revelations.
And then there’s Paul Bettany, the veteran character actor who took on a small voiceover role as Tony Stark’s computer system in the original Iron Man, which blossomed into one of the key characters on the Avengers, to the strange but satisfying offbeat superhero love story of WandaVision. It just goes to show you never know where the smallest decisions could lead when you’re making it up as you go along. But that’s the kind of thing the MCU excels at, constantly.