The Marvel formula has become predictable enough that anything that was due to shake it up could only be seen as a good thing. And in that regard, WandaVision is almost too much of a good thing — a total rejection of what’s expected of a Marvel Studios project that is so weird and surreal, it feels like you’ve wandered into an episode of The Twilight Zone. The classic series, that is.
By now you probably know of WandaVision‘s unique premise: loosely inspired by several comic book runs, the Disney+ miniseries introduces a familiar suburban idyll in which Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and her new husband Vision (Paul Bettany) have arrived, one that eerily resembles a classic 1950s American sitcom à la I Love Lucy or I Dream of Jeannie. But the eerie part doesn’t start to set in until well into the first episode, which is refreshingly committed to playing the sitcom part as straight as possible. The commitment to the bit may be irritating for longtime Marvel fans, but it makes the long game feel all the more rewarding.
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about WandaVision right off the bat is how funny it is. Not “Marvel funny,” the kind of tongue-in-cheek sardonic humor that has become a staple of the films since Robert Downey Jr. first quipped about super secret boy bands. But classic sitcom funny, as if head writer Jac Schaeffer really studied up on all the jokes and comedic beats of every ’50s sitcom. The comedy feels so in-place with the sitcom format that I was convinced that the show had hired a team of sitcom writers to punch-up the jokes.
The nine-episode series (of which this reviewer received the first three) opens with Wanda and Vision arriving at the charming all-American town of Westview, full of nosy neighbors (including a pitch-perfect Kathryn Hahn) and no-nonsense bosses (Fred Melamed). It’s just the kind of setting for an I Love Lucy-style comedy, in which the hapless newlyweds attempt to adjust to their lives, while convincing the rest of the townspeople that they’re perfectly normal. But normal they are not — though these characters are nearly unrecognizable from the tragic couple we’ve seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they retain their basic quirks — Wanda has magical powers! Vision is an android! They certainly are an unusual couple, aren’t they?
Each episode of WandaVision is incredibly dedicated to paying homage to a different era of American sitcom history. The first episode in particular contains few hints to the greater mystery, instead laser-focused on playing out the I Love Lucy meets Bewitched plot it presents: Wanda and Vision have to cook a gourmet dinner for Vision’s finnicky boss and his wife (the show playing further into sitcom expectations by casting Debra Jo Rupp of That ’70s Show and Friends fame). But, oh no, there’s a miscommunication and hijinks ensue! The show plays everything straight, right down to the live audience used for the first episode, and the practical effects to display Wanda’s magic, Bewitched-style. It’s clear that this is a series that genuinely loves the sitcom medium (it never mocks its own format), which lends an oddball earnestness to WandaVision.
Just as the series is dedicated to its sitcom conceit, so are Olsen and Bettany impressively dedicated to playing the part. Olsen must have sitcom timing in her bones — her family connection to the medium being obvious — but Bettany runs away with the title of stealth MVP. Remarkably gifted at physical comedy and pratfalls, Bettany’s Vision is the kind of fuddy-duddy lead character who wouldn’t be out of place in a ’50s sitcom. Olsen too, has the slightly artificial physicality of the ’50s sitcom star down pat, though in later episodes (the second one switching to a ’60s sitcom reminiscent of Bewitched, the third going full on ’70s Brady Bunch, complete with feathered hair), the two of them start to loosen the performative quality of their characters a little.
Because a gimmick can’t carry a series for nine episodes, WandaVision starts to plant elements of unease into its whimsy by the end of the first episode. Each episode features a mid-episode “commercial” that stirs up some dread underneath the artifice, and the first episode ends with a moment that feels like the series reaching for David Lynch, a creepy and disturbing moment that shatters the placid illusion that Wanda has been living in.
This tone shift relies as much on Olsen as Wanda, who has to balance playing both the earnest ingenue with the slightly sinister enigma. Olsen more than rises up to the task, giving us a protagonist who we want to root for, even if we’re unsure whether to trust her.
As the episodes go on, these uneasy moments begin to become more frequent, seeded into both the subtext of the show (the filming style switching up to more modern techniques with each tone shift) and the text, as Wanda begins to notice strange happenings in her suburban ideal. The only downside to these more frequent interruptions into the sitcom gimmick is that WandaVision starts to lose its unique style that makes its first episode so striking and unusual, and begins to feel stylistically like a typical Marvel Studios project. The unanswered questions are intriguing enough that this loss of the show’s experimental style doesn’t bother me too much, but I almost wish they could give equal commitment to the gimmick as they do the slowly unfolding mystery.
But regardless, WandaVision is unquestionably the most experimental thing Marvel has ever produced. It hopefully harkens a new era for the studio to break out of that darned formula every now and then, and get weird. There’s nothing wrong with being a little unusual.
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