Disney+’s first real time at bat for the MCU on television is a sprightly, experimental series that makes great, if deliberately-paced, use of its premise.
Admit it: we’re all preemptively exhausted by Disney+’s seemingly endless onslaught of new films and franchise shows set to premiere over the next few years: we’re going to be practically drowning in content, all geared toward immersing us in the brands and IPs they mercilessly control and asking audiences to buy into an ever-overwhelming web of interconnected stories. That said, ifWandaVision is a bellwether for the level of experimentation and creativity we can expect from some of these shows, we might not be in the worst hands.
Don’t expect to get the full picture of what’s going on in Captain Marvel co-writer Jac Schaeffer‘s series right away; in fact, the three episodes provided to critics for review cut off just as we start to get a peek behind the curtain. But what we do know is this: Wanda Maximoff, aka Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany), who was last seen killed by Thanos in Infinity War — Endgame heavily implies the anti-Snap didn’t bring him back, since Thanos just killed him with his bare hands — are living lives of domestic suburban bliss within the black-and-white confines of a sanitary, I Love Lucy/Dick Van Dyke Show-like ’50s sitcom, set in the fictional suburb of Westview. (There are shades of Bewitched in there, too, with the show’s animated intro and their farcical attempts to hide their superpowers from coworkers and nosy neighbors alike.) They twirl around their mod-furnished living room studio set, exchanging one beaming bon mot after another to canned studio laughter; they breathlessly fumble their way through farcical scenarios like an impromptu dinner with Vision’s stern boss (Fred Melamed) or trying to win the community talent show with a magic show.
But like The Truman Show or Pleasantville, cracks start to show in the squeaky-clean firmament of their carefully-curated environment. A new neighbor named Geraldine (Teyonah Parris) shows a suspicious level of interest in Wanda; Vision has no idea what the Computational Services company he works for does; the community seems a bit too pleasant, especially when they stop to echo communal cries of “For the Children”. What’s more, as Wanda and Vision’s relationship progresses from marriage to sex to the prospect of expanding their family, their sitcom world begins to progress through the years to a groovy ’70s Brady Bunch pastiche, and one gets the feeling that our two Avengers are lost in a world not of their own making.
To say more would reveal some of the show’s considerable charms, which are slow to appear but welcome when they do. The overriding priority for Schaeffer and director Matt Shakman (who cut his teeth as an actor on plenty of sitcoms before building up an impressive resume of television directing gigs on shows from Ugly Betty to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) is to nail the aesthetic of the sitcom worlds Wanda and Vision inhabit, and they pull that off in spades. The ’60s sitcom world is a boxed-in 4:3, film as a multi-cam sitcom with setups that will be familiar to anyone who’s spent a childhood immersed in those kinds of shows, while their trip to the ’70s has more feathered hair and Technicolor than you can shake an Infinity Gauntlet at. Christophe Beck nails the jaunty sitcom score interstitials that bookend scenes, while Frozen songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez gift our leads with period-appropriate jingles that befit whatever decade they’re trapped in now.
It helps that Olsen and Bettany take to the aesthetic trappings like a duck to water — they’ve got electric chemistry, modulating effortlessly between the heightened theatricality of sitcom acting to moments of tenderness and horror as they come down off their studio-audience highs and start to realize the situation they’ve found themselves in. Bettany, in particular, throws himself into the world with gusto; one laments we haven’t seen him do farce a lot more often until now. They’re surrounded by a game supporting cast, too, from Parris’ mysterious new friend to Kathryn Hahn’s uproariously nosy neighbor, who may know more about what’s happening than she’s letting on.
Those expecting the kind of action spectacle we’ve come to expect from the Marvel Cinematic Universe will be sorely disappointed, but I love that Marvel is taking the opportunity to use its expansive universe to actually try new things, rather than just grafting shades of other film genres onto existing action blockbuster formulas. WandaVision is the first real MCU show to attempt the kind of formal and narrative experimentation Peak TV expects – one hopes that, as the layers keep getting peeled back on this particular onion, they keep this momentum going and stick the landing. If they do, the future of the MCU on Disney+ is looking surprisingly bright.
The first three episodes were available for review.
WandaVision zaps its way through the cathode ray tubes onto Disney+ January 15th.
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