TV: WandaVision (Miniseries)

At last, the first of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s long-awaited television shows is out from Disney+. While WandaVision delivers many unexpected pleasures, ultimately it’s everything one would expect from the MCU: colorful, entertaining, funny, full of flashy spectacle, and casually problematic. Its increasingly conventional shape ultimately renders it disappointing, but it’s still a refreshing change of pace for a Marvel property, with an unpredictable early build, plenty of the requisite Easter-egg lore, and a welcome focus on character.

This one picks up in the wake of Avengers: Endgame, with Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) now living…in a 1950s television sitcom that resembles The Dick Van Dyke Show? Something weird is obviously going on, even moreso because Wanda’s synthezoid love the Vision (Paul Bettany) is still alive. As the season unfolds, the truth is gradually revealed: Wanda, whose grief for Vision’s death in Endgame has amplified her powers, has taken over the small town of Westview, New Jersey, warping its reality into a perfect, storybook life for herself—one in which the Vision is alive and well. The mystery is gradually unraveled by a small team of responders outside the town that includes S.W.O.R.D pilot Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), and astrophysicist Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings). But it’s also solved from within, by Wanda and The Vision, who eventually come to terms with the consequences of what their sitcom existence is doing to the people of Westview.

The early stages of WandaVision are delightfully strange, especially in the context of a notoriously risk-averse cinematic universe. It’s easy to ignore the fact that Wanda’s love of sitcoms is a retcon contrived to enable a room full of TV-loving writers to gleefully explore the evolution of the medium. It’s simply a fun, clever conceit pulled off with considerable panache, providing an opportunity for Olsen and Bettany to play amusingly warped versions of their Avengers personas. Wanda and Vision’s home-life speeds through Bewitched, The Brady Bunch, Family Ties, Malcolm in the Middle, and The Office-like iterations, and the journey gives the actors—especially Kathryn Hahn, an inspired casting choice as nosy neighbor Agnes—a chance to cut loose, recreating bygone eras of TV tropes. The conceit isn’t just window-dressing, though; it connects thematically with Wanda’s struggle with trauma. In all the chaotic spectacle of the Avengers films, it’s easy to forget how much loss Wanda has experienced: not just the Vision, but her brother, her family, her entire homeland. WandaVision also touches on the aftermath of “the Snap,” and its release comes hot on the heels of the norm-shattering horrors of the Trump administration and the ongoing tragedy of the pandemic. This makes it a perfectly timed series, tying one character’s personal grief into greater reckonings with loss, within both its fictional world and its viewership: loss of normality, of political norms, of consensus truth, of the taken-for-granted comforts of day-to-day existence. The MCU has developed a remarkable expertise for commanding attention, but the Marvel factor isn’t the only reason WandaVision has generated epic buzz. It’s very construction kind of touches a nerve of the American zeitgeist.

By and large, then, I was onboard for the show. But I also found it wanting in certain, key respects. In the canon, I’ve always found Wanda to be an awkwardly utilized character, potential never quite realized. WandaVision does a commendable job adapting Scarlet Witch/Vision lore to the screen, drawing from sources such as Tom King’s terrific Vision miniseries (from which it derives its amusing suburban tone) and John Byrne’s long-ago run on Avengers West Coast (where the ghostly, robotic Vision first appeared, and where Wanda’s children originated). Unfortunately, Byrne—in an attempt to explore the untapped vastness of the Scarlet Witch’s power—went the villain route, a track with which WandaVision flirts dangerously. Baked into the scenario, here, is the unspoken implication that Wanda is too emotional to control her powers, so much so that she loses her mind and causes untold harm. Yes, WandaVision is mining Marvel canon in this regard—in both her capacity for villainy and her inability to rein herself in—but it’s still a tired-ass, sexist trope. The show dances along the edge of this problem, ultimately letting her off the hook because she’s a popular superhero. Her villainy is offloaded to more conventional targets. So, as usual in the MCU, there’s no accountability for the heroes, whose actions, for all their good or understandable intentions, create untold physical and emotional destruction.

WandaVision also pulls back from its early promise, starting in a really interesting, different place, but eventually evolving into something rather by the book. As usual, it ends with the spectacle of bludgeoning superhero combat, that requisite MCU ingredient that almost invariably sucks the character and heart out of the final act. If it’s possible to master formula to a fault, Marvel seems to have done so; in the end, WandaVision‘s more unique edges are filed off in favor of shaping yet another Marvel property.

“Yet another Marvel property” isn’t entirely a bad thing, mind you, especially if you grew up on the books and have a long-standing fondness for them. Being in that camp, I therefore enjoyed most of the journey. I liked its strategic continuity with assorted solo franchises, bringing in Monica from Captain Marvel, Woo from Ant-Man, and Darcy from Thor. Drawing in Evan Peters from the X-Men films as a pseudo-resurrected Quicksilver was a terrific touch. Ensembles like this are assembled to speak to long-time Marvel fans, and there’s a reason it works on us. It also pleases me to no end that Kathryn Hahn, a delightful actress I never would have pictured in the MCU, has found an interesting place in it. If you like the original comics and generally like the films, there’s plenty to recommend WandaVision, which also has thoughtful themes and occasional interesting things to say. Ultimately, it doesn’t elevate itself much from the genre it squarely inhabits, which is a shame, since it had the potential for that. But it’s still a broadly entertaining part of the MCU saga, and I enjoyed it on that score.

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