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* Note: in order to discuss the series in some detail, this review will contain spoilers.
Chances are you’ve probably heard of Marvel’s WandaVision, the studio’s first foray into the realm of television, which began streaming on the Disney+ network in mid-January 2021. A strange mash-up of classic sitcom formulas and large-scale superhero action, served up as a J.J. Abrams-type puzzle-box mystery, WandaVision is a peculiar beast. Centered around MCU regulars Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) who are now living as a couple in idealized suburbia, the series goes to places few ever thought Kevin Feige would take the Marvel Cinematic Universe by dealing with heavy themes of grief and accepting one’s destiny. Helmed by Matt Shakman (director of all nine episodes), the series isn’t perfect but remains engaging throughout thanks to an excellent production, strong work from both Olsen and Bettany, and a ripper finale.
The show begins in monochrome and in a ratio of 4:3, where Wanda and Vision are the stars of a faux 1950s series à la I Love Lucy (1951 – 57) or The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961 – 66), named ‘WandaVision’. Having just married, the couple has settled down in the burbs in the sleepy town of Westview. Although Vision is an android and Wanda has telekinesis and other powers, the pair are madly in love and are attempting to ‘blend in’ with the locals, Vision working a nine-to-five job at a company called Computational Services Inc., and Wanda navigating life at home as a housewife (as is typical for the era being depicted), keeping her nosey neighbor Agnes (Kathryn Hahn) at bay. While life for the newlyweds seems hunky-dory, it quickly becomes apparent that something is off, and we start to realize that all is not what it seems.
As the show progress, the time period moves forward, ‘WandaVision’ hopping through various sitcom eras — the production team does their best to re-create and capture the distinct aesthetics and directorial styles of each. Episode 2, ‘Don’t Touch That Dial,’ jumps a decade or so to the days of I Dream of Jeannie (1965 – 70), complete with an animated opening. The ideas here of a ‘witch’ trying her best to seem normal in a squeaky-clean America also mirror that of Jeannie whose protagonist is a magical genie, this episode cleverly using a talent show for the kids of Westview (who are strangely absent) to frame the comedy and drama.
We eventually move to color T.V., where shows like The Brady Bunch (1969 – 74), Family Ties (1982 – 89), the original Full House (1987), Malcolm in the Middle (2000 – 06), and Modern Family (2009 – 20) are referenced, and Wanda and Vision start a family of their own, having twin super-powered boys, Billy (Baylen D. Bielitz and Julian Hilliard) and Tommy (Gavin Borders and Jett Klyne), who grow up abnormally fast. Moreover, we get a nod to the good old ‘Halloween Episode’ titled ‘All-New Halloween Spooktacular!’ where Wanda and Vision ‘dress up’ in their original outfits from the early days of Marvel comics — this episode even features one of those hyper-crazy Claymation ads that were all the rage back in the nineties (think the YoGo ads) for a fictional product, Yo-Magic yogurt.
WandaVision, however, is not a sitcom based in the MCU, as we often cut back to the ‘real world,’ where a counterterrorism and intelligence agency known as S.W.O.R.D. (Sentient World Observation and Response Department) are trying to figure out why Wanda has all of Westview trapped inside a red digital dome referred to as The Hex, its citizens forced to live as fictional characters in her made-up world. Although S.W.O.R.D. Director Tyler Hayward (Josh Stamberg) is running the operation, he’s joined by astrophysicist Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) — last seen in Thor: The Dark World (2013) — FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) — Scott Lang’s former parole officer — and S.W.O.R.D. Agent Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) — the daughter of Air Force pilot Maria Rambeau from 2019’s Captain Marvel.
The team eventually learns that Wanda has created the television show as a means to escape her pain after losing Vision; their goal is to get Wanda the help she needs and save the townsfolk in the process. At the very least that is the purpose of Woo, Lewis and Rambeau, as Hayward’s motivations are somewhat less noble. Alas, there’s another evil manifesting in Westview, which slowly gets revealed over the course of the series, eventually forcing Wanda to relive her traumatic past and confront her dark destiny as a powerful witch who possesses something known as Chaos Magic.
There is a lot to WandaVision. But it’s a little frustrating that viewers don’t really get the ‘full picture’ up until around episode eight, when the narrative becomes clearer by defining how Wanda came to Westview and why. Anyone who is up on the first phase of the MCU knows that Vision indeed perished during the events of Avengers: Infinity War (2018), and part of the mystery has been uncovering how he is alive in WandaVision at all. Given that there are only nine episodes in the series (that run for about 30 to 50 minutes maximum), showrunner Shakman and head writer Jac Schaeffer, The Hustle (2019), spend too much time mucking about in the sitcom world, playing up the mystery elements instead of telling this story properly — this can chiefly be felt in those middle chapters, which are largely wasted by slow exposition and misdirection. What’s more, big reveals function as cliffhangers rather than the central focus of an episode, while crucial bits of information appear in mid-credit stingers, aiming to get the Twitter-verse talking about what’s in store next.
But while these are undoubtedly sizable issues, WandaVision is still wild enough to retain one’s attention. It’s got such a unique look and premise that fans outside of the MCU should find things to enjoy as well. For example, Episode 1 was shot in front of a live studio audience to mimic that old-school sitcom feeling, while period-appropriate camera lenses, lighting, and live/era-appropriate FX were used throughout the show to complement each sitcom period.
Additionally, the series is chock-full of Easter-eggs and references to the MCU and pop culture in general: Wanda’s twin brother Pietro returns, but he’s been re-cast by Wanda as Evan Peters from X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), etc.; there are commercials for things such as Hydra Soak bath powder and a Stark Industries ToastMate 2000 toaster oven; we see a car number plate with Stan Lee’s Birthdate (122822); and there’s also a ton of stuff taken from Tom King’s 12-issue comic series The Vision (2015 – 16), which clearly served as an inspiration for the series. My favorite, however, is Dr. Stan Nielsen (Randy Oglesby), who appears in Episode 3, a cheeky nod to Nielsen television ratings.
Up until this point, Wanda and Vision have served as secondary characters in the MCU or plot devices. Thankfully they’ve been given time to shine here with Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), and Paul Bettany, A Knight’s Tale (2001), standing as the show’s greatest assets, the pair breathing real life into these characters. Throughout the series, Olsen is able to perfectly imitate several sitcom performances from yesteryear while building on Wanda, adding more dimension and layers to the character. By the time we see her in her glorious ‘final costume,’ it’s clear that this is a role she was born to play, and I, for one, can’t wait to see what’s next for the Scarlet Witch. Similarly, Bettany has generally played Vision as more of a cerebral being, so it’s great to see him finally let loose here and display some of his comic chops, the highlight being when Vision gets drunk on chewing gum which gets clogged in his system. Apart from portraying Vision like a bit of a bumbling fool, Bettany also gets some truly emotional moments and delivers some of the show’s most touching lines.
Support players are similarly good, despite having less to do and rightfully so as this is Olsen and Bettany’s show. Teyonah Parris, Dear White People (2014), isn’t bad as Monica Rambeau, even though her arc feels incomplete; in Episode 4, ‘We Interrupt This Program,’ we get to see some of the anarchy post-Snap, and Monica discovers that she’s lost her mother while she was away, but all of this gets sidelined and is hardly referred to again. However, as the series is connected to the next phase of the MCU, Rambeau does get given some interesting abilities from her time in and out of the Hex which will pay off in her future appearances in the universe.
Kathryn Hahn, Bad Moms (2016), is a hoot too, mainly when the show breaks away from its sitcom formula and leans back into your traditional MCU territory. Hahn is able to embody all the cliches of the sitcom world with aplomb and Agnes is very believable as Wanda’s neighbor. It’s also nice to see Randall Park, Always Be My Maybe (2019), and Kat Dennings, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008), back on the payroll after their roles in the Ant-Man films and Thor films respectively.
As a whole, WandaVision, is a solid accomplishment, an engaging, character-driven piece that stands on its own two feet and works as a part of the wider MCU. Sure, there are missteps along the way, but WandaVision pulls through, finishing off on a satisfying and exciting note. I can’t wait until we see more of Wanda, as she’s slowly becoming one of my all-time favs. Next up, we’ll see how Marvel does with the upcoming The Falcon and the Winter Soldier — based on the quality of work here, though, I’m sure it’ll be a zinger.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Mr. Movie