“I Love WandaVision”

Reviewing (or really, effusively gushing about) the first two episodes of the new MCU series WandaVision

Two warnings first: 1) This has spoilers for the first two episodes of WandaVision. 2) I’ve barely read any Marvel comics, so if you got here via a search, hoping for easter eggs and hidden comics references and storyline speculation, I’m no help. Luckily for you, there’s a metric shitton of that already online: ScreenCrush has a bunch and tries to speculate on future story developments, while Nerdist keeps it a little bit more to the comics references themselves.

As an only-partially-abashed fan of Disney, Star Wars, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve maybe been a little too much of an apologist for global media conglomerates. I feel like I’ve abandoned any claim to indie cred several times over, when I suggest that not all IP is bad, and that sometimes mega-budgeted corporate productions can result in fantastic experiences.

WandaVision makes me feel a little vindicated, because I’m skeptical you’d ever see something quite like it without ten years of blockbuster movies and a corporate-owned streaming service behind it.

Legion was weirder, and it felt even more like a show-runner-driven series, but it wasn’t nearly as accessible or, in my opinion, fun. (I admit I lost interest after the first few episodes). Agents of SHIELD is almost the opposite: much more accessible, but it also feels very much like a network television action series from the early 2010s, because that’s exactly what it is. And Agent Carter seemed pretty cool, but might’ve been better as a mini series or “event series” instead of trying to make something open-ended.

WandaVision does for episodic television what Guardians of the Galaxy, and Thor: Ragnarok, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier did for the movies, which is demonstrate that “superhero” isn’t a genre but a framework. The main-line Avengers movies have been action blockbusters like you’d expect, but — no matter how much Martin Scorcese may want to suggest otherwise — the other projects have creatively branched out to encompass sci-fi comedies, heavy metal farce, and Cold War spy thriller. Even the most straightforward “super hero origin story” of them all, Captain America: The First Avenger, was a visually and tonally brilliant period piece.

In fact, it’s funny to see what the Disney+ landing page for WandaVision lists as its genre: “Romance, Mystery, Drama, Science Fiction, Super Hero.” Based on what I’ve seen so far, that seems 100% accurate.

Obviously, this series has some freedom to branch off creatively since it’s dealing with well-established characters in a long-running fictional universe. But this also breaks the most common cliche (and reality) of corporate-driven entertainment, which is that it has to be risk averse. I don’t want to make it sound like this is some underground avant-garde production, since it is still a super hero TV series that’s referencing the history of some of the most popular TV series ever made. But it is still undeniably, and gleefully, and creepily, weird.

I have a tiny bit of disappointment that they announced the series and its high-level premise so early on, because I can’t help imagining what the response would’ve been had they just dropped it on MCU fans unannounced. Or maybe just gave it a generic title like “The Scarlet Witch” and no further details apart from the cast. That would undeniably have been a stunt, and fans on the internet would’ve sussed out what was going on within hours of the first episode, just like they did with the first trailers.

But what an experience that would’ve been, expecting a TV series like Agents of SHIELD, and then getting this!

I’ve never read House of M or the Vision series, which seem to have been the main influences for where the TV series is headed. So I don’t know much about them apart from reading the synopses (which in the case of the former, is confusing enough!) And as everything else with the MCU, their take on the source material seems to be placing enough references to reward fans, while at the same time streamlining away all the unnecessary continuity to make something more universally accessible.

Which is essential here, because they have gone all-in on dropping us into the middle of the action, and I can’t say enough how much I love the way they’re giving a slow, steady drip-feed of creepy intrigue. It’s reminding of the thrill of watching Lost and scanning each episode for clues, but with the confidence that it’s actually intentional and it’s genuinely headed somewhere.

And crucially, wonderfully, I never get the sense that the filmmakers believe they’re putting one over on the audience. Usually with productions like this, that are built around the premise “what’s the intriguing secret?!” have an inescapable feeling that the writers and filmmakers are delighted with themselves for how clever and cryptic they’re being. Here, the clues aren’t subtle; they’re constantly telling you, “Look at this, this is weird.” But you still don’t know what exactly it means. The fun isn’t in trying to be the first one in figuring out, the fun is in everybody watching it unfold at more or less the same pace.

Look, that toaster looks like a face! That light is blinking red! That watch has the Hydra symbol! That toy helicopter is Iron Man colors and has an unfamiliar logo (if you haven’t read the comics) on it! The nosy neighbor just called her “the star of the show!”

Basing an entire series around callbacks to older television series could’ve devolved into a clumsy pastiche, but they paid so much attention to all the details, that I think they nailed it. The costume and hair design, the cheesiness of the “magical” effects, the Bewitched-style animations, are all perfect. I’d been expecting a clunker in the form of the gag from the trailer in which Wanda moves their twin beds together to make a double bed, because that’s one of the most well-worn jokes about 50s and 60s TV series. But even that paid off thematically, since so much of the second episode is about the entire town’s creepy obsession with making a baby and doing everything “for the children.”

The look of the show is so dead-on that it’s easy to forget that it’s constantly reminding you that none of it is real, even without the laugh track and the broad performances. So many of the side characters are of diverse ethnicities that you simply would not have seen in the TV sitcoms it’s imitating.

I especially loved the scene from the first episode, where the visiting boss’s wife is stuck in a loop of saying “Stop it,” as her husband chokes to death. Casting Debra Jo Rupp — already a self-aware TV housewife — was a great double-reference.

Speaking of performances, Elizabeth Olsen has been pretty great, and so has Jennifer Connelly’s husband. Wanda’s part could be a mine field, since it requires so much shifting back and forth between a broad sitcom-style performance and someone seemingly perpetually on the edge of a breakdown. But she seamlessly channels Lucy Ricardo and Samantha Stevens while still conveying multiple layers of anxiety — trying to maintain this corny sitcom premise and fit into this neighborhood and wondering why you can’t remember anything and somehow knowing that if this dinner party or talent show fails, it will tear apart the fabric of reality for reasons you can’t explain.

And I mean, come on. It’s just plain wonderful seeing an animated sequence of chewing gum seizing up the inner workings of an all-powerful semi-organic android.

As if it weren’t obvious from the end of the first episode, we know from the trailer that the real world is going to creep into this reality more and more over the course of the series. But after two episodes of a MCU television series, I’m already comparing it to something I never, ever would’ve expected: the amazing book Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. I know that this world isn’t “real,” and in fact, it’s abundantly obvious that this world is dangerous for the protagonist, and she has to escape if she wants to survive. But at the same time, I wish we could all stay in it forever.

“This guest is leaving your home.”