“WandaVision” (2021) Part I: A Show on Its Own Terms

After nine episodes of oscillating between a creative curveball and what we expect from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), WandaVision (2021) has wrapped. This will be Part I of a two-part consideration of the show. Part II, which I’ll put out later this week, will delve into what WandaVision suggests or indicates for the future of the MCU. I’m approaching this as two parts because I want to give space to reflect on the accomplishments of the show on its own terms before postulating about how it fits into a multi-billion-dollar franchise. Nonetheless, before going on I offer one warning: I will be considering the totality of WandaVision and the previous MCU titles that inform it, so if you are not caught up and want to avoid any spoilers or potential spoilers, read on at your own risk. I will not be summarizing what happened in the show, so if you haven’t watched but want to get a sense of what happened I suggest reading these fabulous recaps by Daniel Chin over at The Ringer. Now, let’s begin.

As a child raised by therapists who decided that limiting the types of television I could watch was a solid approach to aiding my healthy development,  I spent the majority of my TV time tuned in to PBS or TV Land. My time on the latter of those two stations contributed greatly to how much I enjoyed the opening stretch of WandaVision. Showrunner Jac Schaeffer and her creative team made a multi-course feast out of repurposing the trappings and tropes of classic American sitcoms. Seeing them update The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966) and Bewitched (1964-1972) by using the black and white color palette and even breaking out the old-fashioned square aspect ratio was a lovely creative twist. It also allows the oft-passed-over power of production design to shine. The teams tasked with re-designing the Wanda and Vision household each week to reference but not copy the interiors from beloved sitcoms did exceptional work. I would also be remiss not to mention how the opening credit designers and musicians crafted spot-on remixes of classic sitcom theme songs and openings. Like the production design, each song and sequence took cues from classic sitcoms without slipping into the realm of carbon copy; we knew exactly what they were referencing, but were treated to a tongue-in-cheek update in the process. Such attention to detail and creative ingenuity maintained a high level throughout the run. Even when the sitcom aspect of the show slipped more into the background we could count on it to come back for a laugh, resulting in the truly gonzo moment of Vision having an existential crisis while in an episode devoted to recreating the look and feel of The Office (2005-2013)

The sitcom approach also provided audiences the chance to cozy up to two characters who had previously existed as MCU window-dressing: Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) While both have appeared in previous MCU films, they were only shown in meaningful scenes together once we arrived at Avengers: Infinity War (2018). Resultantly, audiences possessed little emotional stake in their storyline when compared to main players such as Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), or Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). Therefore the storytelling importance of having lead episodes that centered on the love and humor between Wanda and Vision within the familiar sitcom backdrop was vital to expand our fondness for the characters. I still believe the show would have benefited exponentially from its leads receiving more meaningful screentime in films prior to the premiere, but Schaeffer and co. mostly pull off the Herculean task of backfilling that emotional connection. Through the undeniable charm of seeing Wanda and Vision perform a joint magic show, or struggle to prepare dinner for Vision’s boss and his wife, two relatively remote figures evolve rapidly into people (or a carbon-based synthezoid in one case) that we care about. All of this leads to my favorite WandaVision discovery: Olsen and Bettany have comic chops to go along with their previously displayed dramatic abilities. For all the quips and in-jokes of the MCU, it often comes up short of highlighting more complex comedic skills, and WandaVision is the rare exception that calls on one-liners, slapstick, satire, and more to get laughs. Bettany and Olsen seem to be having fun, and it makes everything they do all the more delightful. 

For all the exquisite production value and detailed care, none of this works without elastic performances at the center of it, and Bettany and Olsen provide that in spades. WandaVision requires both of them to exhibit a mastery of multiple eras of sitcom-style acting while also remaining able to snap into the contemporary version of their characters that often breaks through the sitcom un-reality Wanda has crafted and locked them inside. They are both hilarious, especially in the second episode which features the previously mentioned magic act. It is one of the aspects of the show that I enjoyed the most because Bettany and Olsen just seem like they are having a damn fine time, which in turn is what makes the turns to darkness all the more affecting. The mystery surrounding exactly how Wanda and Vision ended up in a sitcom-reality after Vision died is preserved until the fourth episode. Aptly titled “We Interrupt this Program,” it is a thrilling but expositional-heavy dive into how Wanda crafted “the Hex” and trapped the residents of Westview, New Jersey in her fake world. “The Hex” is a manifestation of a survival mechanism to try and avoid the trauma and grief of losing her true love so shortly after losing her brother, and only a stretch of years after the death of her parents. That fourth episode, while placing WandaVision in the wider MCU patchwork, also marks the moment when Bettany and Olsen are asked to considerably expand their dramatic work, and once again they are up to the task. 

I want to zero in on Olsen because it is her work that makes WandaVision successful even when the machinations of a multi-billion-dollar corporation take precedence over contained storytelling. WandaVision is structured around Wanda’s journey through grief, and it is that throughline that anchors the show. As we learn the extent to which Wanda exerts control of Westview, and the ways in which others outside “the Hex” have manipulated her pain to get what they want, the portrait of a grief-stricken woman trying desperately not to crumble into a void of depression and pain emerges. Olsen plays Wanda as a woman hell-bent on projecting joy and happiness to stave off her grief, and therefore her construction of an alternate reality is a stand-in for the denial anyone feels when they lose a loved one. Could any of us truly say that if we had her powers and lost our soulmate that we would not do whatever we could with said powers to try and bring them back? Wanda’s journey from denial to acceptance is moving, and Olsen’s performance captures the way Wanda moves through the stages of grief. Her anger, best showcased in the moments when she breaks sitcom character and uses her powers to expel people from “the Hex”, is spine-chilling, but not off-putting. Olsen has a mastery of facial control as an actor, and so paired with the bombastic displays of grief, anger, and violence, it is the quieter moments when she looks at Vision with the melancholic gaze of someone who knows he is not what she wants him to be or stares at the children she magically created before they are consigned to the oblivion from which they came that stabilize the show. She turns in a kaleidoscopic performance over nine episodes that would be impressive in any genre, MCU or otherwise. 

Olsen’s performance feels especially important in the moments when you can feel the MCU machinery creaking along to introduce storylines for later movies or series. I loved Teyonah Parris as Monica Rambeau, but at times it seemed like her presence was shoehorned in to allow her superheroic origin story to take place here so that she could be one of the main players in Captain Marvel 2 (????), something seemingly confirmed by the mid-credits scene in the WandaVision finale. Even when developments were central to the plot and made sense within the framework of the show, I was often struck by the feeling that they were underserved. A case in point is the campy brilliance of everything that Kathryn Hahn did as Agnes/Agatha Harkness. In a performance that saw her make a meal of the ‘nosy neighbor’ trope before emerging as the powerful witch she was all along (shout out here to musicians responsible for “Agatha All Along” which is an absolute bop), she was consistently consigned to a plot device. the finale boiled her down to a straw figure existing only to be a villain Wanda could defeat. Wanda’s decision to leave Agatha “where [she] can find her” sets Hahn up to return to the MCU, which gives me hope she will have more to do in the future, but also makes me wonder why they didn’t give her more time to develop as a figure worthy of Hahn’s talent. I enjoy the easter eggs and foreshadowing as a fan, but it undercuts the structural integrity of the project itself when choices are made to serve a larger franchise instead of for the betterment of the present narrative. 

In totality, even for the missteps and inevitable MCU-serving maneuvers, I thoroughly enjoyed WandaVision and regard it as a successful project unto itself. Even though we had the requisite ‘final battle’ in the finale, the narrative ended with Wanda and Vision standing in their living room talking about what it meant to lose each other again. For all the bombast and heroics, this was a show about Wanda coming to terms with her grief and trauma so that she can do her best to move on, which is an utterly human struggle no matter her powers or magical conundrums. WandaVision also leaves me with the express hope that Marvel will allow creators to take more risks on the company dollar. At this point, anything with the Marvel imprint is bound to make a handsome sum of money at the box office (assuming we ever actually get to go back to real blockbuster releases) or draw millions of eyeballs on a streaming service. My hope is that this security convinces Marvel overlord Kevin Feige to continue green-lighting dynamic projects that push the boundaries of what we expect from the MCU. WandaVision seemingly proves that there is an appetite for non-traditional Marvel fare, and though the corporate bottom line of a company that hungers for as much money as it can rake in will always be the final factor in developing projects, maybe, just maybe, there is a way for artistic risk to co-exist with that venture. We cannot know now, but as I wait for the premiere of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2021) in under two weeks, and look ahead to seeing Black Widow (2021) and the other upcoming MCU movies, I am heartened by what WandaVision achieved. 

Come back later this week for Part II, where Devin will indulge his wild theorizing to consider what WandaVision means for the narrative direction of the MCU. 

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