“We’ve all been there right? Letting our fear and anger get the best of us…”
This review will primarily discuss overall concepts and themes from WandaVision, while attempting to avoid specific plot elements. However, if necessary, plot elements may be brought up; be aware that spoilers may lie ahead. There are also spoilers for Avengers: Endgame, but if you haven’t seen that then you probably shouldn’t even be thinking about this review yet.
On July 2nd of 2019, Disney and Marvel released Spider-Man: Far From Home; the first instalment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe following the huge, climactic event that was Avengers: Endgame. Peter Parker helped us process our emotions following the loss of some of the MCU’s central players, and prepared us for the next wave of MCU properties to come; due to start with Black Widow in May of 2020.
And then the world shut down.
With Covid-19 lockdowns coming into effect across the world; cinemas closed and studios shutdown. For the first time since 2008, the world did not have a Marvel movie slated for release, and Disney’s insistence to hold out for cinematic releases for the MCU properties kept pushing that potential date back. What that did was allow them to shift their focus onto their newest project; limited series based around some of the newer Marvel heroes, due to come straight onto the Disney+ platform, to help flesh out the backstories of the characters and drive the overall narrative of the MCU, without having to rely entirely on the films to do so. It’s a bold strategy, spearheaded by Disney reshuffling the power structure at Marvel to give Kevin Feige greater control over all the video media properties; and the first gambit they took was WandaVision, starring Elizabeth Olson as Wanda Maximoff, and Paul Bettany as The Vision; which aired weekly on Disney+ from mid-January to early-March. At a first glance, the risk appears to have paid off; the internet has been electric every Friday after the new episodes dropped; with fans discussing plot developments and twists, and trying to guess where the story is going next. But… is it really that good?
A new sitcom has begun to air on analog television signals, set in the sleepy town of Westview, New Jersey; WandaVision, starring Wanda Maximoff and The Vision, and their idyllic new life as a married couple – but all is not as it seems. The pair begin to adjust to a quiet life following the events of Avengers: Endgame; but the other residents of Westview don’t behave as they should, Vision can’t seem to remember anything from before they arrived in their new home; and Wanda is acting awfully suspiciously… and shenanigans ensue.
There’s not much more that can be said about the plot without giving things away, but a lot that can be said about the performances. Around the time episode 5 aired, a satirical news article started doing the rounds titled “Elizabeth Olsen hospitalised with severe back pain from carrying the entire MCU.” While this is a joke, it can’t be understated that this is an incredible showing by Olson. As may be obvious, Wanda is very much at the centre of this show and Olson takes us on a complex emotional journey, building in intensity as the narrative advances. She pounced on the opportunity to expand the story and mythos around Wanda, bringing us a level of character that could never have been achieved in the ensemble cast Marvel films. Paul Bettany also shows us what brought him to the dance, pulling a lot of emotion out of Vision in a more tender way, harking back to the pair’s more emotional scenes during Avengers: Infinity War. His role in the show starts off in a more supportive capacity; but as time goes on and mystery around his own presence starts to become more prominent; he transcends that role and begins an emotional journey of his own; one which comes with it’s own complex peaks at various points.
One thing the pair should be particularly lauded for is their ability to seamlessly move between the acting styles and tropes of the history of American sitcoms. Starting with the likes of I Love Lucy and moving through the decades to the ilk of Modern Family, Olson and Bettany invoke the spirit of some of American television’s most loved sitcoms masterfully, offsetting them perfectly with the weirdness inherent in having them be centred around a witch and an android. The magical antics of the likes of Bewitched are perfectly translated through Wanda’s magical chicanery in the earlier episodes; and Vision’s attempts to interact with the other residents of Westview without giving himself away are reminiscent of the likes of Mork & Mindy (though stylistically, the performance is much different to that of the late Robin Williams, as you might expect).
The supporting cast is key here as well, both within the world of the sitcoms and outside of it, back in the real world. The Westview citizens do a great job of conforming to the stylistic tone of the show each week, while also giving just enough to hint that something isn’t quite right – which is arguably where the shows gets the majority of its strength at the start. Those little moments; the strange dialogue, the sideways glances, the confused reactions to Wanda and Vision; drive that narrative forwards amongst the more fantastical or nonsensical aspects of the sitcom existence, allowing us to take glances back at who Wanda and Vision actually are. The charge here is led by the stereotypical nosey neighbour Agnes (Katherine Hahn), who consistently appears for a well-timed laughter break, or to provide some classic sitcom-esque insight into whatever suburban issue is troubling the couple at that moment. Some more great turns in this regard come from sitcom legends like Debra Jo Rupp, but also from the likes of Emma Caulfield Ford, David Peyton and David Lengel; who flesh out the town of Westview and help provide deeper context at key moments.
Outside of Westview, a dedicated team is working on figuring out what is actually going on, and it’s a great team. Randall Park reprises his role of FBI Agent Jimmy Woo (last seen in Ant-Man And The Wasp) and is joined by both the debuting Teyonnah Parris as Monica Rambeau, the now grown-up daughter of Maria Rambeau from Captain Marvel, and the returning Kat Dennings as Darcy Lewis from the Thor series; neatly bringing together some disparate elements of the wider MCU to further develop the togetherness that the overall series relies on. All three get the chance to shine to varying degrees, and while Teyonnah Parris in particular has some stand-out moments that indicate a bright future in the wider MCU lies ahead (which is especially impressive, as the production team has gone on record that she should have featured more than she did, but the pandemic restrictions made that too difficult to put into place); I was particularly impressed with how Dennings threw herself back into her role, adapting to a lot of off-screen character development that has transpired in the in-universe 13 years since the events of Thor: The Dark World with gusto and enthusiasm; and shows a lot of that character development efficiently and entertainingly in the space of one episode in particular. The arrival of these characters also signals a change in the pace and tone of the overall narrative; where we are no longer tracking the irregularities through the actions of those within Westview, but are also following along with the team who are trying to do that same thing; and it generates an interesting feeling of togetherness with these characters, as we all try to figure exactly what the hell is going on.
We’re about to wander into some themed discussion, so skip this paragraph if you’re planning to go in as dry as possible. Usually in a review of an MCU property, we’d set some time aside to dissect the portrayal of the piece’s villain; but that’s a strange thing to do for WandaVision, as the antagonist of this piece is largely conceptual. While there is (at least one) physical character who certainly fulfills a number of the archetypes needed to be called a villain; the main source of contention for our protagonists is actually Wanda’s grief. At the end of Avengers: Endgame, Wanda is snapped back into existence 5 years after watching her partner die at the hands of Thanos. She walks straight into battle, with no time to process what has happened to her, or to Vision, and fights to the death again to save the world. She goes to the funeral of Tony Stark… but Vision’s body isn’t where it was when she disappeared. 5 years have passed, and that body has been moved unceremoniously. All she wants is to mourn; for her parents, for her brother, for her partner; but she’s an Avenger, and her partner was a one-of-a-kind vibranium android created by a combination of a psychotic robot, two scientific geniuses and a Norse God – finding the time to grieve properly was never going to be easy for her. The steps that she takes to try and process those emotions result in her taking the unexpected path that leads to the events of WandaVision, and they shape a lot of Wanda’s response to what is happening around her both directly and indirectly, and even after we discover who else has been pulling on some of the strings in the background, it’s still clear that Wanda’s fragile emotional state is a major driving factor in the narrative. As stated before, Elizabeth Olson deserves to have credit and praise shovelled onto her in droves for the strength and care she gives to her performance throughout this series. Her ability to portray the sitcom acting styles so perfectly, and seamlessly move in and out of a more familiar MCU-esque performance is second to none; with an emotional weight behind her actions that cannot be denied. WandaVision has proven that there is a lot that we are yet to see from Olson, both in the MCU and beyond. Wanda is not alone in her grief; and it serves as a unifying theme among much of the cast for profoundly different reasons; and everyone else who is trying to process that grief must do so while processing Wanda’s as well, albeit in a much more practical fashion.
WandaVision is an interesting experiment, for Disney and for Marvel. It exists as the next stage of Disney’s experiment into weekly event television which started with The Mandalorian; and for Marvel, it’s both an experiment as to whether a limited series can be used to expand upon the stories of some of our favourite second-string characters from the MCU so far, to build them up in preparation for taking centre-stage in the movies of phase 4 and phase 5; and an experiment to see whether Marvel live-action television can be successfully deployed under the Marvel Films arm after spending so many years being tended to separately. It’s also a test to see whether the weirder side of the MCU will sit well with fans; an important experiment following the luke-warm reception to the original Dr. Strange movie, and ahead of some of the more fantastical elements to come through the likes of Dr. Strange And The Multiverse Of Madness and The Eternals. What WandaVision does particularly well is walk the line between standard MCU nonsense and bizarre, post-modernist nostalgia trip; taking us in and out of the sitcom elements in greater measure as the series continues to take us by the hand and gently lead us back into the familiar structure of the main film continuity. The finale episode of the series could just as well be the last act of any of the films; it’s narrative structure essentially runs the same way, and it ends the series off on a huge high point as a result. Whether these experiments have paid off or not won’t be properly known until the next raft of Marvel weirdness hits our screens. Dr. Strange And The Multiverse Of Madness and Loki have big ol’ shoes to fill, as does Falcon And The Winter Soldier – as the second Disney+ limited series, but one with a much more traditional MCU format, they’re going to have to make some serious moves to follow up WandaVision without it feeling like it’s lacking something – but we’ll be back to talk about that in a few weeks…
For now, WandaVision absolutely lives up to the hype. I couldn’t wait for the following Friday to find out what was going to happen next, and spent the days between trying to piece together the mysteries with my friends. It’s held up by a raft of fantastic performances, wonderful scripts and amazing world-building; and has left us with a deeper understanding of some familiar characters, a great introduction to some new characters – and a leading lady who is ready to take her place at the front of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If you’re even a casual fan of Marvel’s cinematic output, you should find the time for this one.