Nearly two years after Marvel Studios’ last addition to their ever-expanding cinematic universe (The MCU), our long-awaited fix comes not in the form of a big-screen, blockbuster spectacle, but instead as a televisual mini-series beamed directly into our living rooms. WandaVision isn’t Marvel’s first serial endeavour (as anyone who slogged their way through the Marvel-Netflix collaborations will know all too well) however, it is the first time that characters from the MCU have ‘crossed-over’ to the small screen with connective tissue still binding them to the larger universe. This may be a limited series, but it does not and should not stand alone. So if you want to stay up to date with every detail the MCU has to offer, then a Disney+ subscription is going to be essential because WandaVision is but the tip of Disney’s televisual iceberg…
This wasn’t intended to be the first of the MCU shows to hit our streaming devices, but global pandemics have a tendency to disrupt the even the best-laid plans and so Kevin Feige and co. had to improvise. Consequently, instead of the relatively grounded (emphasis on relatively) action-focussed The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, we got the emotionally complex, wonderfully abstract WandaVision. A bold move from Marvel, to herald their arrival on TV with a densely packed and, at times, utterly perplexing exploration of grief and morality. Where TFATWS would’ve been a familiar, gentler establishment of the MCU on the small screen, WandaVision is a far riskier approach. Fortunately, they nailed it.
The opening episode presents Wanda and Vision living a suburban life in Westview, New Jersey, caught up in what appears to be a 1950’s sit-com, complete with era-authentic antics, square aspect-ratio and a live-studio-audience laugh track… oh and by the way, it’s all in black and white. So if old-school sit-coms ‘ain’t your bag, well you probably won’t be too enthused. But luckily and deftly, writer Jac Schaeffer plants enough seeds of mystery to tug on your curiosity and lure you into episode two. In which, the aspect-ratio and colour pallet remain the same, but subtle adjustments to costume, set-design and theme tune re-position the show in the 60’s, with canned laughter dropped in to compliment the slapstick-heavy episode. Again, small moments of intrigue punctuate the show, this time a flash of colour pops out of the screen in beautifully stark contrast to the monochromatic backdrop. As a viewer, questions and theories start to form, dismissed as ludicrous as quickly as they come. When the final scene of episode two plays out, the aspect widens and colour sweeps across the screen to usher us into, you guessed it, the 70’s. By now you probably have an idea about where this show is going, at least in terms of format. As for what the hell is actually going on, you’re going to have to be patient, because the show is in no rush to give you answers.
Our two titular leads have both had limited screen time in the MCU, Age of Ultron providing the most concentrated dose of character development for them both. They crop up further in Civil War and Infinity War but again, they rarely take centre stage and even when they do, it’s fleeting. All this to say, the bond between them isn’t rooted in several films worth of gradual nourishment like Cap and Tony’s for example. Instead it’s fast-tracked, leaving WandaVision with the additional challenge of conveying their love without it jarring with what we already know. As someone who’s seen the whole series, I say mission accomplished. This show has an emotional intelligence and depth that we’ve not seen in previous Marvel instalments and, aided by the fact that the writer’s have 9 episodes in which to tease out the story, there’s ample time for us to sit with the lead characters and get to know their relationship on a more intimate level. The show-runners do a great job of handling the pace and allowing the scenes between Wanda and Vision just to simmer, gently informing us,. All the while, keeping us on our toes with regular plot-points, planting question marks and guiding the story along. In many respects Wanda has endured more trauma than any other character in the MCU and we finally get to see the toll it has taken on her heart and mind, her grief manifesting in unpredictable, chaotic and morally ambiguous ways. It truly is an adroit and masterful way to give Wanda and Vision the tight focus they have long deserved.
Equally masterful are the performances on display here. As I said, our leads have had moments to shine in the MCU but only moments. Now Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany finally get the spotlight, a chance to demonstrate why these characters are just as nuanced, just as complex and just as flawed as the Iron Mans and the Captain Americas of the world, and you can tell they are having the time of their lives. Bettany inhabits the logical yet sensitive Vision with a tenderness and grace, dominating the screen with his statuesque physique and often poignant dialogue. He handles the comedic aspects just as well though, shifting his performance delicately to synchronise seamlessly with the era in which they are residing that week. His chemistry with Olsen is palpably electric but never overtly so, the connection between them radiates from the screen with even the subtlest of looks. Olsen returns the favour with her best MCU performance yet, delivering a deeply troubled and broken Wanda, disguised as her usual commanding self, attempting to deal with her multiple traumas in dangerous and unhealthy ways. She glides between innocent sit-com Wanda and terrifying powerhouse Wanda with elegance, catching us off-guard several times throughout the series. Her presence on screen mirrors her character’s strength as arguably the most powerful character in the MCU and not for one second do you doubt her. After this show, Scarlet Witch may be my favourite character to date, or a close second behind Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel.
Speaking of Captain Marvel, Teyonah Parris joins the supporting cast as an all-grown-up Monica Rambeau, her younger self (played by Akira Akbar) featured previously in 2019’s Captain Marvel film and has taken on several personas throughout the comics, including the second incarnation of Captain Marvel herself. Monica is tasked by S.W.O.R.D. (basically the new S.H.I.E.L.D.) with figuring out the source of this strange sit-com world that Wanda and Vision have found themsleves in and for whether you know Rambeau from the comics or not, you’re in for a treat. Randall Park and Kat Dennings reprise their roles as Jimmy Woo and Darcy Lewis respectively as Monica’s rebellious allies, both delivering sterling turns and given well-deserved moments to kick ass and make us laugh, where past films have seen them a little sidelined as minor characters. To say too much about their roles in the show would mean wandering into spoiler territory and believe me, this is a slow burn that’s worth the wait. Among other solid supporting cast members such as Josh Stamberg as the shady-as-all-hell S.W.O.R.D. Director Tyler Hayward, is the lightning rod that is Kathryn Hahn’s self-appointed, nosey-neighbour Agnes. Arguably the performance of the series, Hahn’s ability to shift between era and her character’s various shades possibly eclipses that of Bettany and Olsen but again, to elaborate on this is a tempting but dangerous path to go down so I’ll resist.
With plenty of directorial credits to his name on shows such as Game of Thrones and Succession, although usually only a couple of episodes worth, Matt Shakman took the reins for all 9 parts of WandaVision. The complexities of putting together a show with such varying aesthetics while maintaining that long-established Marvel brand is hard to comprehend but Shakman and cinematographer Jess Hall (under the all-seeing eyes of Marvel’s executive producers) handled it beautifully. From intimacy to all-out-action, even down to the style and evolution of the sit-com jokes week to week, it all works and suits the feel of the show. However, without the exquisite production design and costuming led by Mark Worthington and Mayes C. Rubeo respectively, this show wouldn’t have been possible. Every detail is delicately precise and furthermore, it all has to change episode to episode to fit the decade they are depicting. So all the furniture is replaced, the layout of the houses change, the costumes, the hair, the make-up, the list goes on. The same goes for the theme-tunes, each time a different genre, reminiscent of times gone. Equally, the sound design in general, sometimes utilising a laugh track, sometimes a live audience, all in service of authentically realising the art form. Every department is firing on all cylinders and with pockets as deep as Disney’s, it’s clear they’ve spared no expense – every penny is on screen.
Though I’ve heavily praised the show it isn’t without it’s pitfalls. Like much of Marvel’s work it tends to ventures into cliche, especially towards the latter episodes where CGI and superhero battles threaten to smother the more nuanced and emotional elements. The villainous characters are rather thinly drawn for the most-part, their motivations a little questionable and unclear, not to mention caricatured at times. More disappointing though is how abruptly some secondary plots are wrapped up in the finale. Jimmy, Darcy and Monica have brief moments in the spotlight to give them a resolution and ensure there are no loose ends but they feel crowbarred in and rushed, consequently, they don’t quite satisfy. As a fan of the interconnectivity of the MCU I would’ve liked to have seen some more ties to the overall universe, particularly in the finale, though admittedly we do get some good reveals about Wanda’s next steps in her journey. And I’m sure there a plenty of viewers who don’t need that connective tissue which I can appreciate, sometimes even Marvel content can stand alone… I suppose. The positive being that WandaVision isn’t essential viewing for those who don’t need all the detailed backstory and they can just drop in to catch up with Wanda in the upcoming Dr Strange and the Multiverse of Madness.
Ruling – These are small blemishes on an otherwise excellent first outing for Marvel’s TV slate however, and the final scenes of the show are both profound and moving in equal measure, I dare you not to well up. Will we see WandaVision season 2? Doubtful. The very fabric of the show rests upon this single arc and to undo so much for the sake of another round would be to subvert this entire series, Feige wouldn’t allow such a thing. It’s a tough show to say goodbye to, especially given the context of the closing scenes. But say goodbye we must and make way for Marvel’s next serial adventure… The Falcon And The Winter Soldier.