Every week on RELEVANT Recommends, we recommend a new album, book, show, movie or even video game that’s got our attention and is worth your time. This week, we’re talking about the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first real foray into TV — Disney Plus’ WandaVision.
One of the complaints you hear about Marvel movies is that it’s hard to know what’s going on if you haven’t seen them all, and that’s fair. The MCU is more like a very expensive TV show with two-hour episodes, and just because you’re only interested in, say, Black Panther stuff doesn’t mean you can skip Ant-Man stuff if you really want to follow along. WandaVision, the MCU’s first real foray into actual TV, subverts this critique a little — it might be easier to follow along with if you’re unfamiliar with what came before.
The show kicks off playing like a straightforward 1960s sitcom, most obviously echoing the likes of Bewitched and The Donna Reed Show. Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) have settled into an idyllic pastiche of Golden Age sitcom suburbs, complete with overbearing neighbors, demanding bosses, a canned laugh track and even separate beds. Of course, in the tradition of the shows they’re taking cues from, the happily married couple isn’t as normal as they seem. Vision’s a robot. Wanda’s got reality-manipulating powers. Those are both the source of plenty of neighborhood hijinks, but of course, everything gets happily wrapped up by the time the credits roll with Vision giving Wanda a doting peck on her rosy cheeks. Or …is it?
Two episodes in, and the show only drops only a few sparse hints that all is not as it seems. A splash of color here, an ominous beekeeper there. And every now and then, a glitch in the Matrix in which all the happy-clappy goings-on get a little creepily plastic — with some clear homages to David Lynch. Marvel die-hards might recognize a few clues as to what’s really going on here, but even the biggest comic book nerds are in the dark about just who or what is pulling the strings. Anyone who’s seen the most recent Avengers movies knows that something’s clearly up — we all saw Vision die (twice, actually) in Infinity War — so what’s going on?
That’s why the show might be more interesting for casual Marvel fans who come to it looking for some fun throwbacks to the Nick at Nite era of TV and a juicy mystery creeping just underneath it all than it is for anyone looking for superheroics. So far, there’s no spandex, no explosions, no talking raccoons or thunder gods. The special effects are practical. The stakes don’t get higher than preparing a nice dinner or winning the neighborhood talent show. What there is is wonderful. Olsen is doing great work, fully inhabiting her new role as a doting housewife and doing masterful work whenever the facade starts to slip. Katherine Hahn is an absolute treat, clearly relishing the opportunity to ham it up as nosy neighbor Agnes.
Some early complaints have surrounded a lack of real forward momentum in overall plot, but that critique seems to miss the unique rhythm the show is building. The potboiler in the background is clearly not as important to the creators as just making some cracking good entertainment and they’re delivering on that front. There’s nothing else like WandaVision on TV, although there certainly used to be.
We’ve seen enough footage from upcoming episodes to know the show is planning to do a tour through sitcom eras, with throwbacks to shows like Brady Bunch, Family Ties, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and, of course, Olsen family launchpad Full House in the lineup. It seems inevitable that at some point the show will lurch into full blown superhero stuff but for the time being, it’s a fascinating and ambitious exploration of comic book melodrama and television history.