There is a repeated complaint against the “content” that Marvel makes, and it’s one that is wholly earned and deserved.
Namely, you could easily cut any scene from one of their movies, paste it into another, and odds are it wouldn’t look all that different. People have noticed. Directors have noticed. Odds are Marvel noticed it, and came up with ‘WandaVision’ to answer it.
Of the three episodes we saw, it’s safe to say that it is probably the most daring move made by Marvel since taking a chance on a failing actor with numerous arrests to his name and casting him in the role of Iron Man. In fact, up until this, a lot of Marvel has been safe, dependable choices.
Even ‘Thor Ragnarok’, as bold as it may have been, was a calculated risk because the two previous movies failed to make any kind of impact. If it didn’t work, so what? All the others did, so why not this too? ‘WandaVision’, however, is the first Disney+ series set inside the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In the two opening episodes, there are exactly zero action setpieces. There’s barely one in the third episode. Any of the special effects are specific to the time period it’s set in. There’s no explosions, no CGI wizardry involved, no seismic shifts in the narrative. They’re actually just sitcom episodes from the ’50s and ’60s, taking inspiration from ‘Bewitched’, ‘The Newlyweds’, ‘I Love Lucy’ and completely committing to the concept.
Elisabeth Olsen may have a familial connection to sitcoms through her sisters and ‘Full House’, but her devotion to the all-American comedy is evident in every beat. Paul Bettany, too, channels Dick Van Dyke with his frazzled optimism and upbeat buffoonery in a way that seems so at odds with what we know of the character, and Bettany as well.
Yet, it works. It actually works.
It’s not hard to imagine a high-concept sitcom in the ’60s about a witch who dreams up an imaginary husband that’s also a robot and then tries desperately to fit in with her shouty, nosy neighbours and her husband’s boss. The set design, the music, the costumes, even the audience laughter – the opening episode was filmed before a live studio audience just before the pandemic hit – you’d think it was all real.
Olsen and Bettany are, however, supported by TV comedy stalwarts, such as Kathryn Hahn, Debra Jo Rupp, and director Matt Shakman. Hahn in particular plays the stock neighbour with such gusto, and really helps to sell the idea that this could be a sitcom like any other. Shakman, meanwhile, has directed episodes of ‘Mad Men’, ‘Ugly Betty’, and ‘Kitchen Confidential’, giving him a confidence both in the medium and in blending together disparate ideas into something cohesive.
Bubbling just underneath it all, however, is just a hint of tragedy. Olsen’s performance may seem ‘Stepford Wives’-esque perfect, but you can see it in a few moments that she’s desperate to maintain the illusion. She holds it all in, and in the third episode, it bubbles up to the surface and the trauma that her character has endured comes with a price.
If there’s a comparison to be made beyond the sitcom trappings, ‘WandaVision’ is reaching for something that David Lynch has explored in his work many times, such as ‘Twin Peaks’ and ‘Blue Velvet’. It’s the idea that while America presents itself as this clean-cut, white picket fenced environment, there exists beneath the surface something sinister and threatening.
Clearly, Marvel is betting big on both the wacky change of pace and style in ‘WandaVision’, not to mention taking the leap from blockbuster cinema to streaming television. If it fails to win over audiences, Marvel can rest assured that it’s a noble failure.
It’s hard to know if the writers have the courage to stick with the mystery of it all, but it’s only by the third episode – which will arrive on January 22nd – that the veil of fantasy is just barely lifted in the final scene. As well as this, it’s also hard to know if audiences will stick around to find out what happens next, and you have to think that placing all episodes on Disney+ might have been the better option than the week-to-week option.
Fresh, original, strange, tragic, intriguing, ‘WandaVision’ stands in bold contrast to Marvel’s previous output. That alone makes it worth watching.