Do I have any earthly idea what’s going on? And does this bother me one bit? No and NO.
The MCU drought officially came to an end this weekend. It’s been a year and a half since we had anything Marvel universe-related shoved in our faces, so WandaVision’s premiere on Disney Plus understandably came with a sigh of relief, and maybe a few groans.
I rather enjoyed the break in Marvel media. Marvel/Disney has colonized so much of the cultural conversation that it truly felt like the only way I could escape the frenzy was to live under a rock.
Imagine my surprise that WandaVision doesn’t overload us with interconnected teases or world-building expansions. Wanda and Vision find themselves, well, as stars of a 1950s black-and-white sitcom— a show within a show. Gone are the dramatic world-ending stakes, gone are any allegiances to Iron Man or Captain America, or frankly any reference to other characters on the Avengers lineup.
Their current concerns in episode one are refreshingly mundane, involving literal steaks as Wanda and Vision miscommunicate a special date on the calendar and play frantic hosts to Vision’s work boss. Also, there’s Kathryn Hahn who fast becomes Wanda’s best friend while she acclimates to the neighborhood politics. I don’t know where this plotline is going. I just love that it’s Kathryn Hahn.
I can already envision (nice!) droves of angry MCU stans review-bombing WandaVision because they wanted something more action-oriented in the way that Falcon and the Winter Soldier is shaping up to be. WandaVision is decidedly none of that (not yet anyway) and I can’t even begin to tell you how much I appreciate this throwback aesthetic.
This isn’t to suggest the show has in any way conned its audience. If you saw any of the trailers dating back to a year ago or read the freakin’ plot synopsis, then you know what you’re in for. What I didn’t expect was how earnest the results would be with Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany playing a charming newlywed couple (whom happen to be superheroes) moving into a suburban home—even if this is all a simulation by way of a larger mind control experiment.
Olsen and Bettany finally get to cut loose, something that was never possible across the ultra-serious odysseys of Age of Ultron, Civil War, Infinity War, and Endgame. All of that feels like a distant memory now as they get to play to a more comedic tone while riffing on television reruns of the last century. The laugh track already brings SO MUCH levity to two very, very somber characters. It’s a bit jarring considering where we last saw them, yet their sitcom chops just feel so natural.
Because Olsen doesn’t seem like she’s been dropped into I Love Lucy and instructed to do her best housewife impersonation. Instead, she feels genuinely plucked right out of a show like Bewitched while of course keeping one toe firmly planted in the MCU. Her ability to play aloof, grave, and sincere in the same frame speaks to Olsen’s prowess as a performer and how she’s been underutilized thus far.
Paul Bettany, too, is playing it so fast and loose as a work-conscious husband that it’s liberating to see now that he’s no longer limited to mechanical movements or pompous super-intelligent dialogue. Less C-3PO, more of the manic energy that Bettany had in A Knight’s Tale—which is a win for everybody.
It’s funny how the usual tropes and trappings of a half-hour sitcom (stock plots, exaggerated mannerisms, painfully on-the-nose dialogue, etc. ) doesn’t confine either of them but instead frees them as actors.
Both Olsen and Bettany are aces in the second episode when they’re tasked with performing a magician’s set for the local talent show. Bettany plays drunk as he stumbles to lead each magic trick – Viz isn’t drunk, he’s just got gum in his gears, which makes the bit funnier – while Olsen bounces off the ensuing buffoonery. (“That was my grandmother’s piano” currently lives rent-free in my head.) Heck, Olsen does more acting with the mere twinkling of her fingers than the Marvel films allowed other than an Eastern European accent.
This is a welcome change of pace for two characters who up until now served as CGI spectacle, whose romance was a requirement of the dire Infinity Stone saga. Their chemistry this time around feels earned, their partnership a genuine thing to behold in the spaces of a smaller domestic setting. Their pairing, too, is arguably the best way to learn more about them, not just because they hail from the same origins, but that their origins are so obviously superhero cookie-cutter that I don’t think this would feel as unique a show if it threaded the same serious tone as the movies leading up to this.
It’s nice to forget sometimes that this is all part of a larger universe that encompasses everything from Ant-Man to Howard the Duck. It’s refreshing to just be in this fake suburban home in this fake cul de sac in fake god knows where— even if the show is bound to pull the curtain on this thing any episode now. I’m just thrilled that we finally get to see Wanda and Vision as other than what Captain America or Iron Man sees of them. Now they’re front and center with the freedom to carve out their own weird and subliminal corner in the MCU.
I can’t get over how ingenious WandaVision’s sitcom premise is either. Marvel has usurped dominion of studio tentpoles and moviemaking as we know it. The MCU is now firmly entrenching itself in our memories of television by literally borrowing the aesthetic and iconography of classic sitcoms of yesteryear.
I’m well aware that this sitcom style isn’t bound to last, so me gushing over the first two episodes may be premature in the long run as a wider conspiracy begins to tease itself out surrounding Wanda’s mental state. (A Stark toaster, and a Strucker watch commercial a.k.a. the two men in Wanda’s life that had a hand in shaping her 😮) It remains to be seen how the show will handle its inevitable tonal shift, or whether the show will live up to its bold tagline of a “new era of television.”
For now, I’m hopeful. The TV format allots for time and character that a 2-hour movie just doesn’t have the patience for. With episodes due to be released weekly through February, it seems we have nothing but time with Wanda and Vision and Kathryn Hahn. Two episodes in, the MCU’s television experiment is alive and full of promise.
Who knew what the MCU needed to feel joyous again post Endgame wasn’t the addition of another Avenger on the roster or the gradual teasing of its next big villain.
What it needed was the freedom to be small again.