For me, one thing lacking from most Marvel movies was an intimacy of the characters’ personal experience. They had some good action moments and some very funny one-liners but, like a lot of comic book films, they were more focused on the spectacle. For me, they became pretty formulaic to the point that I mainly watched them when my wife wanted to. With Disney+’s WandaVision, though, the preview had me intrigued. The high concept of seeing Wanda (Elizabeth Olson) and Vision (Paul Bettany) all of a sudden living in TV sitcoms starting in the fifties all the way up to the aughts, with hints along the way about what is going on, gave me hope for something more from Marvel.
It fully delivered on that promise.
Starting mainly with traditional sitcom hijinks mixed with superpowers furthering the plot with subtle details of something more sinister going on kept me amused and curious. Even when the main mystery started to become more clear, the details learned along the way kept me guessing and kept me engaged. With the final episodes, I have heard some say, WandaVision falls back on the traditional Marvel ending in terms of elaborate spectacle. I agree with that, but I have a hard time being upset about that turn. First, the final battle had a very clever call back that I didn’t see coming. Secondly, I do not know how else they really could have ended it. It needed some resolution, and the high concept the show started with couldn’t really make for a final cathartic moment. Instead, what we were left with leads to an emotionally wrought finish that made me sad and invested in the journey.
This concept of a TV show living in TV shows can be a difficult concept to make work. It has to balance paying homage without being over the top. It has to make fun of the cliches without being insulting. But WandaVision threads that needle very well and makes it easy to just sit back and enjoy yourself. In fact I am eager to rewatch it and see if I can find more that I missed. On a side not, there is apparently a Full House reference that I missed that makes me mad that I didn’t catch it, considering the cast.
Also taking Wanda and Vision, two characters who I knew were a couple in the movies but was hard pressed to say why they were together or what their personalities were, and giving them this fully embodied exploration was also brilliant. There is some history that will be missed if you haven’t seen the movies, but the fact that there is so little on them gives the show time to grow with them and see how the weird world they inhabit and their relationship changes them.
Paul Bettany is doing fine work here, being the more grounded character who is morally fighting against the world that he realizes is not real, yet he still doesn’t want to hurt the woman he loves. That comes across beautifully. Despite the fact that these two are both in the title, this is clearly Wanda’s story.
Elizabeth Olson, who I feared wasn’t going to stretch herself as an actress, seemingly stuck in the Marvel world, surprised me completely by doing her best work playing that same Marvel character. As the justification of this manufactured TV world begins to unravel, the pain she is experiencing and why she is clinging to it is heartbreaking to see. She knows on some level that things cannot stay this way even as she tries hard to make it so. Her flashback, retroactively giving reason as to why we are in this TV world, feels less like a retcon and more like filling in the gaps of her story that were never explained in the movies. We knew why she was supposed to be in pain. Now, the pain is able to come through fully and given the time it needs to help her character be defined and grow.
Kathryn Hahn received a great deal of praise as Agatha Harkness, for me the supporting acting standout was Teyonah Parris as Monica. She was able to create an empathetic character who was given her own tragedy and skill set that made her a great foil/hero for what Wanda was going through. She got to stand up against authority and make her own one liners with her own group of sidekicks. It’s the perfect supporting performance that I hope gets more praise as people see the show.
This was, for me, the perfect combination of fun bingeable TV with deeper meaning thrown in. It took the Marvel formula and added some very intriguing new ideas that gave them so much more to work with. Does that make me eager to see Wanda in the new Dr. Strange movie or see how the TV shows are to connect with the movies going further? Not really, unless I see evidence that this kind of concept is going to spread further to Marvel.
But as a miniseries it is able to stand on its own with little need of help from the rest of the universe, giving us great characters, a cool concept, deeper meaning about grief, and even the fun action we always get from Marvel.
WandaVision competes for 2021 Emmys in the Limited Series categories.