There are certain expectations for a Marvel Studios project.
Since 2008’s Iron Man, Marvel Studios have conditioned its fans to expect gargantuan action sequences, espionage thrills, wry quips and emotionally resonant beats. What it’s never prepared fans for is a black-and-white family sitcom framed in 3:4 with a laugh track.
And yet, that’s exactly how WandaVision, Marvel Studios’ first TV show, opens. It’s not the introduction to Marvel Studios’ TV universe we expected, but it’s also perfect in many ways, an homage to the history of television while setting up an intriguing superpowered mystery.
Imaginative, ambitious and, well, really weird, WandaVision will throw you for a curve whether you’re a MCU aficionado or a first-timer. But its willingness to do something different is what makes it irresistible.
First, the set-up — as obscured as it is, at least in the first three episodes made for review. WandaVision is centred on Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff, a Marvel superhero imbued with reality-bending powers.
The last we saw her in the MCU movies, she had been un-blipped at the end of Avengers: Endgame and was among the heroes who destroyed Thanos and his goons. But that victory doesn’t mean she’s in a good place, having lost her partner Vision in the fracas.
When WandaVision opens, Wanda and a seemingly alive Vision are living in a 1950s family sitcom, complete with the suburban white picket fence and a live studio audience. Other than her ability to levitate plates and Vision being a synthezoid, and the fact neither of them can remember their own history even when asked, they seem like a “typical” newlywed couple.
Of course, we know something is afoot, especially as the series progresses and the sitcom eras morph into the 1960s, taking cues from Bewitched, and the 1970s, in which their house becomes a mid-century split-level that could’ve been home to the Bradys. Future episodes will move through the televisual decades.
Little clues hint at what may lie outside this “pocket universe” that Wanda has created – or maybe someone else has created? – with old-school TV commercials tipping their hats to Stark Industries and Hydra as well as moments in which Wanda seems almost shaken out of the sitcom reality (a discordant voice on the radio, her ability to rewind and control a scene).
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The conflicts are small-scale – a dinner to impress the boss, a town talent show, accidentally swallowing gum – the same level of jeopardy and resolution that family sitcoms have given comfort to generations of TV viewers.
By drawing on that grand tradition of TV, Marvel has made excellent use of a medium that allows for episodic storytelling while slowly building an overarching narrative. At a time when so many TV series prefer to see themselves as “an eight-hour movie” rather than TV, it’s refreshing to see something that embraces the creative possibilities of the format.
There are few revelations in the first three episodes that weren’t in the trailer and fans clamouring for answers will have to wait a little longer, especially as Marvel will release its streaming series week-to-week like The Mandalorian.
As much as the dynamic direction from Matt Shakman, the era-specific rhythms of Jac Shaeffer’s writing, and the richness of the production design impresses, what’s anchoring the success of WandaVision are the luminous performances from Olsen and Paul Bettany.
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The red-hot chemistry between them was evident in the MCU movies but was never given the chance to be explored, limited to small moments in the middle of a lot of big action. Consequently, the relationship between Wanda and Vision always felt like it was developed off-screen between movies they had to share with dozens of other characters.
So, spending time with them in WandaVision, where they get to be a couple dealing with couple-y things, is almost like playing catch-up. The affectionate ease of their dynamic makes this series very easy to enjoy, even as it’s slow to reveal its secrets.
Olsen in particular is a natural within the sitcom set-up, able to ham it up in The Dick Van Dyke Show homage of the 1950s while drawing on Elizabeth Montgomery’s magnetism in Bewitched for the 1960s. She doesn’t have a lot of comedic roles in her background but her rhythms and physicality is spot on for each era.
And more importantly, Olsen and Bettany convey the emotional truth of each moment, even as they’re slapsticking around on screen. Then there’s Kathryn Hahn, who improves every TV series or movie simply by being present.
Considering Marvel Studios has had such a commercially successful run in cinema, it would’ve been all too easy for it to serve up more of the same.
The fact the filmmakers here have taken the step to reinvent what constitutes its signature style and tone, and subvert audiences’ expectations is a great sign for all the streaming series to come – and there is a lot to come, WandaVision is the first of six shows just this year.
Oddly, by going into the past, WandaVision has created television that is fresh and different.
WandaVision starts streaming on Disney+ on Friday, January 15 at 7pm AEDT
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