It makes sense that Marvel—a studio that makes movies like television, telling connected stories over a series of feature-length episodes with a rotating cast of core characters—would make its first sitcom be about television itself. WandaVision, out January 15 on Disney+, is a show within a show that plays with the tropes and formulas of the medium to create…something. An exploration of the American nuclear family in the nuclear age, perhaps? I can’t be sure where the story is headed from the first three episodes, which were made available to review, but there's potential for greatness. Charming and a little romantic, WandaVision is a delight to watch.
You don’t need to know every in and out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to follow the show, but I’m not sure it makes much sense unless you understand the basics of the two main characters, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany), so here they are: Wanda is the Scarlet Witch, a telekinetic/magical Avenger from the former USSR who was experimented on along with her twin, who also had powers but died. Vision used to be Jarvis, an artificial intelligence that Tony Stark created, but thanks to some sort of technological event (possibly alien?) he became a man of sorts. He doesn’t eat and he has a crystal in his head that, in one of the Avenger movies, is removed by the villain, which kills him. (Apparently Vision’s “return from the dead” will be explained in a future episode.) Wanda is a witch; Vision is her robot lover. Let’s get to it.
WandaVision introduces us to the two as happy newlyweds moving to the suburbs in 1950s America. Visually and tonally, the first and second episodes replicate I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners, though plot-wise hew closer to ’60s-set Bewitched as the couple’s secret powers threaten their efforts to assimilate into the neighborhood. It’s classic sitcom shenanigans: Vision brings his boss home for dinner on the night Wanda thought was their anniversary, then gets drunk (from chewing gum) on the day they’re supposed to perform at the local talent show.
What I found the most impressive is how they played with sitcom tropes without mocking them. At work Vision doesn’t know what his company does, only that it has to do with data. It’s a send-up of post-war America, when a generation of men returned home to find that while they’d been trained to save the world (Vision too has performed heroic functions), they were now expected to be pencil-pushers in gray suits. Wanda clocks the oldest fake in the sitcom book—a married couple that sleeps in separate beds—and remedies it with a wave of her hand. I was glad to see the sitcom in all its formulaic glory embraced here. More than that, I was delighted that Wanda and Vision really love each other. The Marvel universe is rife with neg-heavy banter, quasi-couples, and barely there marriages that exist mostly offscreen to motivate the avenging spouse. How nice it is to spend time with a happy and mutually supportive couple. This half of the show even manages to have that rarest quality in superhero stories: It’s funny!
Of course, there’s another side of the coin. Hanging over everything in WandaVision’s town of WestView is thinly veiled Cold War anxiety. The neighborhood is suspicious of anyone unconventional, and mid-episode “commercials” tell us military giant Stark Industries and crypto-Nazi spy society Hydra both exist in this universe. A mysterious symbol—a sword in a circle—crops up again and again, as do flashes of red, often tied to something vaguely militaristic or technological. By the end of the first episode, we know Wanda and Vision are being observed.
Then, in the third episode, the aesthetic jumps to a Brady Bunch–like late ’60s, Wanda’s hyper-speed pregnancy (another TV trope, as is covering her stomach with a series of enormous coats) somehow the catalyst for bringing the full Technicolor spectrum into their world. The sitcom hijinks are even more infused with moments of “something is not right” mystery building. The surreality of their situation starts penetrating their consciousness: Maybe the doctor’s car didn’t just happen break down as he was trying to get out of town…maybe this is a town you can’t leave.
I should mention that while WandaVision is quite a departure for Marvel, it isn’t exactly unexplored territory. Much like Stranger Things, another nostalgic mashup about a small town brushing up against the supernatural side of the military, WandaVision borrows heavily from meta-sitcom texts like Pleasantville and The Truman Show. I add this note only because I’ve seen the show described elsewhere as “trippy,” to which I gotta say…sure, but only compared to the hyper-literal Marvel canon. Storytellers have been playing with framing devices for a long, long time.
But the framing device wasn’t what I found most engaging anyway. When the always-great Teyonah Parris showed up as Monica Rambeau, daughter of Captain Marvel’s BFF Maria Rambeau, I didn’t make the connection at first. And I’ve never fully understood what Hydra is supposed to be. I could read the comic books to find out, but I don’t want to. What I want is more Kathryn Hahn as gossipy neighbor Agnes. More Stephen Tobolowsky, more Debra Jo Rupp. The cast is crackerjack. The mystery is a little square.
Still, the tie-ins to the franchise are inevitable and well-paced. While I don’t usually go for deeper meaning readings of Marvel fare, one of the core themes it returns to a number of times is how the past envisioned the future. The promise and limitations of an America built primarily by the Defense Department is at the heart of the Marvel storytelling (slash military propaganda) machine. When Captain America wakes up in that little ’40s-style room SHIELD built for him…well, that’s WandaVision in a nutshell.
So, speaking of the future, what does WandaVision’s success mean for the Marvel series? Will Loki, also boasting an incredibly charming lead, be as fun? Will that Hawkeye series work? Should you get excited for Falcon and Eagle-Man or whatever? I don’t know! I don’t super care. WandaVision is asking us to remember television and entertainment in the pre-blockbuster days, and I’m happy to comply. Elizabeth Olsen is a gem. Paul Bettany is a sweetheart. I can’t wait to see what those crazy kids get up to next. It doesn’t matter if they save the world or not. I’m already rooting for them.
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