I couldn’t have been the only person who drew a pained intake of breath when Marvel announced that they would be churning out multiple TV series on Disney Plus as a large chunk of their Phase 4 slate. Pause for a second and think of any Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) character who hasn’t had a solo movie outing…they’ve got a series now! And yet most things the MCU have woven together have ranged from good, to great, to superb. WandaVision is the first of these to debut so the vital question is, does the quality stay high?
Think you know the MCU style? Think again. WandaVision has stars Elisabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany reprise their roles as Wanda Maximoff and Vision respectively. Last we saw of these two characters was the Avengers: Infinity War / Endgame movies and, at the risk of spoiling these juggernaut releases that surely all Marvel fans have seen, not all was fine and dandy for 50% of this duo. So to have them not only back, but apparently acting out life in a black and white 50s sitcom is such a huge swerve from Marvel you can hear the laugh track screeching in a handbrake turn.
Even if you have only a passing knowledge of Marvel’s output you will be just as thrown by the brave tonal shift WandaVision presents. Wanda and Vision try to hide their powers in order to fit into a distinctly 50s style universe. That comes complete with black and white visuals, the overly friendly/nosey neighbour next door, and the comedic stress that an unexpected dinner date with the boss generates.
Cue laugh tracks, ‘aw shucks’ style gags, and a mildly confused Wanda and Vision acting out the idyllic life of a married couple new to the neighbourhood. Except they can’t quite remember getting married…
It would take a person much better versed than me in 1950s American sit-coms to cite all the references in Episode 1, but certainly stylistic and visual comparisons can be drawn to shows such as The Dick Van Dyke Show, and Bewitched to name a few. As Episode 2 rolls over the style subtly shifts to a 60s era aesthetic, and similarly a dramatic shift to colour just before the credits roll hint that Episode 3 will pay homage to the 1970s. The ‘well, golly!’ structure of such old sit-coms hardly brings modern laughs, but WandaVision keeps things engaging because of the sheer commitment both Bettany and Olsen provide.
Bettany is clearly having the time of his life. His slapstick physical performance is delivered with gusto. Of particular delight is his ‘drunk’ acting (caused by an accidentally swallowed piece of gum clogging up Vision’s robotic innards) at a town magic show. There he blithely reveals the extent of his superhero powers, only for a flummoxed Wanda to deftly explain away each element to the delighted crowd.
The chance for Olsen to dig deeper into her character separate from movies that treated her as a side plot is one to look forward to. Even if the period sit-com stylings grate a little, Olsen and Bettany keep you on side.
As I just mentioned, although very little is given away there are hints that something is very wrong. The pair are unable to provide any details of their lives under the scrutiny of Vision’s gruff boss. When Vision's boss chokes on his dinner the camera work alters to close-ups and slanted angles for a brief period; the illusion of a sit-com shattered temporarily. The slow emergence of a very anachronistically dressed person in a biohazard suit ominously surrounded by bees is met with a confused “No,” from Wanda, only for the moment to be blipped out of existence. And who is the apparently modern person watching the TV show ‘WandaVision’ (complete with jolly animated intro and theme song)?
Such teases are very few and far between for now, but their presence bleeds a very surreal David Lynch style twist into this American suburbia. Even the ad breaks, complete with amusingly condescending sexism, have subtle touches that elicit a feeling of discomfort. Utopia is rarely without cost… WandaVision is absolutely not the approach anyone could have expected from Marvel, which is remarkably praiseworthy in itself.
As a first look, Episodes 1 and 2 could polarise viewers as they stick very rigidly to the sit-com format whilst simultaneously keeping the mystery of just what is going on very close to their chest. And yet I’m already in love with it. To take existing superhero characters and stick them in a setting so unfamiliar is something that not even Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D dared try, and that show was replete with alternate realities, time travel, and lost in space plot lines. As WandaVision slowly unfurls, I know that I will obey the instruction to not touch that dial.
Words by Mike Record