TV REVIEW: WandaVision Episodes 1-2 (2021)
563 days. It’s been 563 days since our last main entrant into the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the release of Spider-Man: Far From Home. The MCU had several casualties in 2020, having to remove Black Widow, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and Eternals from its slate in the hope of releasing them in 2021. With quite literally all of cinema still up in the air, more pressure than ever has been pinned on its planned Disney+ TV shows, our first taste of MCU content in 18 months, starting with the Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany vehicle, WandaVision.
WandaVision sees Wanda “Scarlet Witch” Maximoff and Vision, the sentient AI creation of Tony Stark, who was pivotal to Avengers: Age of Ultron, moving in together after the events of Avengers: Endgame. The happy couple had developed a relationship since their initial meeting that developed gradually and quite tenderly in their appearances since, so much so that it’s easy to forget Vision isn’t even human. All isn’t as it seems though as their idyllic homelife begins to be punctured by otherworldly, reality altering moments threatening to destroy their life in 1950s suburbia.
In and of itself, WandaVision is quite a daring entry into the MCU canon. With the two episodes released, this is by far the most unique product the series has released so far. Given the MCU has earned quite a few critics over the years as being a paint-by-numbers product, transposing two beloved characters into a black-and-white pastiche of 1950s American sitcom television is quite the departure from the company line. In so doing, it provides a pleasingly simple way of fast-tracking the WandaVision relationship into marriage, raising a family, and beyond.
The chemistry between Olsen and Bettany has always been a joy on screen and their ability to adapt to their new surroundings, with all the 1950s overexaggerated gestures and overenunciated jokes that comes with it, works remarkably well. There’s even the overbearing neighbour, Agnes, played by the always delightful Kathryn Hahn (her appearances are brief, but Hahn has that perfect understanding of performance in the 1950s and blends in seamlessly). The first episode consistently impressed with its faithful recreation of a classic sitcom trope (my boss is coming to dinner) with a Marvel twist; Wanda struggling to cook a last-minute dinner despite her magical abilities, close shaves with being discovered by the non-superpowered guests, and miscommunicated plans surrounding the evening itself. It wouldn’t look out of place in the I Love Lucy Cinematic Universe. It all feels like a very loving homage to the classic sitcoms of old, even down to depictions of Wanda’s powers feeling authentically inauthentic with clearly hanging from wires floating plates and the slightly off jump cuts to illustrate a magical costume change.
The second episode jumps forward to 1960s television and pays homage to the iconic Dick Van Dyke Show; if Wanda’s mishaps were the focus of the 1950s, Vision’s are much more in focus here, effectively becoming The Paul Bettany Show. The second episode is where I felt I finally got what they were going for as we’re given a bit more conventional Marvel plot to contend with amongst the slapstick shenanigans. Paul Bettany is a genuine delight in this episode has he tries to blend in with his new neighbours, inadvertently swallowing chewing gum before the big talent show (a sitcom staple) and coming across as drunk throughout. His physical comedy combines brilliantly with some great line delivery (“Norm here’s a communist!”) from a clever script written by showrunner, Jac Schaeffer. The faithful recreation of these sitcoms is mightily impressive, even down to its near-perfect understanding of how sitcoms work. You’ve seen these clichés before, but the Marvel twist gives it that knowing wink to the audience.
The black-and-white, filmed in front of a live-studio audience, 4:3 aspect ratio aesthetic created in WandaVision works brilliantly well in the first episode, with Olsen and Bettany knowingly acting up for the in-studio crowd (the first episode was in fact filmed in front of a lucky audience who then surely had to sign Hollywood’s most strict NDA), and director Matt Shakman stages it all with remarkable confidence to make it feel as authentic as a sitcom from the 1950s should. Its second episode shifts format, has a much bigger area to work in with outdoor sets and a first glimpse at the town of Westview. What impresses the most is the sense of growing scale the show has in just the first two episodes; what started purely indoors with a total of three different sets (kitchen, living room, Vision’s workplace) upon which to work transforms into a thriving community in the second with a huge public library, swimming pool, and town square. Say what you will about Marvel, but their commitment to making a quality product must be commended.
After two episodes, I’m thoroughly impressed by the MCU’s premiere TV show. It’s different, it’s well-made, it’s funny, and it’s a great showcase for its two leads. That said, I’d be lying if I said my overriding feeling about the show was excitement as opposed to mere curiosity. Where, exactly, is this show taking us?
Thus far, WandaVision is much more focused on creating a send-up of sitcoms than it is creating a new entry in the MCU. The point for all of this is yet to be revealed and suggests patience is to be rewarded for fans of the series. I enjoyed the episodes, but it was the otherworldly reveals that piqued my interest the most. A sudden burst of colour where there shouldn’t be, a fourth-wall breaking set of instructions from Wanda, an off-kilter, in-universe advert that breaks up the episode, an attempted communication otherwise impossible with a simple 1960s radio, and a literal changing of reality are the moments that will keep Marvel fans coming back to see what’s next. Whether they will be enough to keep its audience throughout its run will be telling, but that starved are we of Marvel content, having a weekly, 20-minute burst of Marvel is better than no Marvel at all.
It’s evident that this wasn’t intended to be our first dip in the Marvel well since 2019, given just how different it is, but its bizarre nature is a welcome change from the Marvel norm. The curiosity to see where this is going is certainly strong, given just how much appears to be bubbling under the surface, I just hope we get a bit more plot to latch onto next week as we dive, presumably, into the 1970s.