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Series Review: ‘WandaVision’ Showcases the Potential Highs and Lows of Marvel’s Future on Disney+

*The following article contains spoilers for all nine episodes of WandaVision*

There are so many reasons that 2020 was the absolute worst. You were there, you lived it, we don’t need to get into it. But for a certain demographic of superhero fanboy, one of the most frustrating omissions of the past year was the complete lack of content from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not since the almost two-year gap between 2008’s The Incredible Hulk and 2010’s Iron Man 2 (back when the franchise was still in its infancy) has there been such a dearth of content from this wildly successful franchise. Indeed, Marvel Studios has become increasingly adept at conditioning its fans to expect no less than 2-3 new films per year over the past decade. Even when the films don’t always meet expectations, they can mostly be counted on to entertain as standalone pieces that informs a larger, more cohesive world.

After the success of 2012’s The Avengers, Marvel tried to capitalize on the growing demand for new stories by making their initial forays into television. These early attempts, which included ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter, as well as Netflix’s slightly grittier corner of the universe (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, et al), were all very much informed by the films that came before them, but the reverse was exceedingly rare. While there was the occasional exception, such as when Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson (who was presumed dead in the film continuity) helped to procure the Helicarrier that Nick Fury shows up on in Avengers: Age of Ultron, for the most part the TV adventures where locked off from the events of the big screen. Spider-Man and Doctor Strange never ran into the Defenders, despite them operating out of the same city, and the core Avengers never learned that the man whose death motivated them to assemble in the first place was actually alive and running a low-budget version of S.H.I.E.L.D. from a large warehouse. And the less said about the Inhumans, the better.

This is all to say that Marvel’s new partnership with Disney+ is an immensely exciting opportunity to create the kind of cross-pollinated storytelling that was previously reserved for the movies. The first few shows being released all deal with prominent supporting characters from the films, several of whom have been Avengers themselves at one point or another. Later in March, we’ll be getting The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (which was originally meant to be the first show out of the gate before Covid delays to the shooting schedule), a spy thriller that directly deals with the legacy of Captain America now that he’s elected to pass on his shield. Not long after that we’ll be getting Loki, which follows an alternate-dimension incarnation of the fan-favorite trickster god as he gets into his own shenanigans and presumably finds his way back to that antihero redemption arc that already played out in the last two Thor movies, but which this version of the character has yet to experience.

Before any of that, however, we have the inaugural series of WandaVision, which just wrapped up its nine-episode run last Friday. Based on how it concluded, it feels safe to say for now that there probably isn’t a second season in the works. While it’s too early to say for sure, at this point it’s likely that the majority of these Marvel Disney+ shows will be limited series rather than carrying on for multiple seasons, between the complexities of casting increasingly in-demand stars, to the dozen or so new series that have already been announced, some of which will continue the stories of established characters (like Hawkeye and Secret Invasion), while others will introduce brand-new characters (like She-Hulk and Moon Knight), all of which have been promised to interact with and have consequences for the primary film entries in the MCU going forward. For example, Ms. Marvel and WandaVision’s Monica Rambeau have already been confirmed to appear in Captain Marvel 2, while the newly-christened Scarlet Witch herself has already locked in a supporting role in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

But what of the show itself? How does WandaVision stack up to the films its title characters originated from? Quite well, as it turns out. As with the other Disney+ flagship series, The Mandalorian, the production quality and special effects are indistinguishable from those used for the theatrical outings, which makes it feel excitingly cinematic despite its small-screen setting. And while the series does fall victim to a few aspects of the MCU formula, especially in the final episode, on the whole it does an excellent job of telling a contained and impactful character story that sees its protagonists grow and develop in ways that they’ve been unable to when sharing the screen with the more popular Avengers. Perhaps most crucially, it really sells the love that Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) share, the isolation they experience without one another, and the tragedy of having to lose one another multiple times, which are all things that the films have largely glossed over for the sake of runtime.

Initially structuring itself via a series of homages to classic American sitcoms, the show takes its time establishing any larger plot, focusing instead of Wanda and Vision’s romance in the height of newlywed bliss. Little details that pull away from their idyllic suburban life, such as their inability to remember how they got there, or the minor inconvenience of Vision being super dead last time we saw him, give the events a creepy, David Lynchian undercurrent of something being not quite right, even if you can’t place your finger on it. It’s only at the end of the third episode, and more substantially in the fourth episode, that these events are placed firmly within the context of the post-Endgame MCU, and the audience is given a better understanding of the situation at hand and its potential consequences.

At this point, the show transitions from being a sweet, adorable little lark about two super-powered individuals trying to live a simple life and raise a family, into one that is still that, but also regularly cuts away to an S.W.O.R.D. operations base just outside of their town, where a trio of minor characters from previous movies act as audience surrogates and try to understand the situation and deal with it as best they can. We have Teyonah Parris as the aforementioned Monica Rambeau (who we previously saw as a child in Captain Marvel), Randall Park as Jimmy Woo (who we previously saw as an FBI agent attempting to enforce Scott Lang’s house arrest in Ant-Man and the Wasp), and Kat Dennings as Darcy Lewis (who we last saw as Natalie Portman’s wacky sidekick in the first two Thor movies). All three are likable enough and pleasant to spend time with, but their roles are largely reactionary and feel separate from the main plot. Even when Monica eventually develops ill-defined superpowers of her own after crossing through the magical barrier Wanda has set up around the town, her involvement in the final conflict feels frustratingly limited.

Not helping these scenes is the presence of Tyler Hayward (Josh Stamberg), S.W.O.R.D.’s acting director who is eventually revealed to be so cartoonishly evil that he makes William Hurt’s “Thunderbolt” Ross from The Incredible Hulk and Captain America: Civil War seem downright subtle. Marvel Studios is at this point somewhat infamous for dropping the ball when it comes to the characterization of their villains, with only a handful of exceptions (Killmonger, Loki, Vulture, and Thanos come to mind), and unfortunately that trend carries over here. The main antagonist is ultimately unveiled as Agatha Harkness, aka “Agnes” (Kathryn Hahn), Wanda’s nosy neighbor who is actually a centuries-old witch intent on learning the secrets of her power. Hahn is an absolute delight whenever she’s onscreen, and her villainy is introduced via an infectiously catchy tune that, if you’re reading this, you’re likely already intimately familiar with. However, as per Marvel tradition, her overall motivations are uninspired, her schemes make little sense in retrospect, and the final battle against her is mostly comprised of her and Wanda flying around shooting different colored lasers at one another. Even if the resolution to this is mildly clever, it’s a disappointing result given everything that Hahn brings to the role.

These shortcomings are unfortunate, and they’re not the only ones (Evan Peters is introduced as a recast version of Wanda’s brother Pietro, aka Quicksilver, in a subplot that ultimately goes nowhere, especially given the vast interdimensional ramifications it might’ve presented). But even if it’s not perfect, the show gets far more right than wrong. The sitcom homages are delightful and feel properly researched and executed (the sendups of The Dick Van Dyke Show and Malcolm in the Middle feeling particularly successful), with the period costumes and evolving depictions of superpowers in various eras all feeling appropriate without distracting from the overall story. And enough can’t be said about the work being done by Olsen and Bettany, two immensely gifted actors who take full advantage of the opportunity to finally inject some genuine charm and pathos to these characters they’ve been playing since 2015. Bettany’s aptitude for comedic timing is a gift that keeps on giving, while Olsen does an excellent job of charting Wanda’s emotional journey through the various incarnations presented here, before finally landing at a place that’s far more in keeping with her comic book counterpart, with all the potential chaos that entails for the future.

With Marvel’s first foray into TV that’s designed from the ground up to feel like it’s part of the bigger universe they’ve established in their remarkable 23-film run (another four entries are supposedly releasing this year, barring further delays), they took a big swing on an unusual story featuring two of their less-popular characters, and came away with a hit that captured the imagination of its audience and rekindled the desire for more stories from this world. Occasionally, it fell prey to some of the established weaknesses of the film saga that came before it, perhaps exacerbated by the weekly release schedule that allowed fan theories about the inclusion of characters like Mephisto and Reed Richards to run rampant. And while there were the obligatory post-credits teases of things to come, the show was at its best when focusing on the quirky little love story between two abnormal beings who just wanted a normal life. In the grand scheme of the MCU as a whole, the show succeeds in giving us something new, even if its packaging sometimes feels the same as what we’ve seen before.

SCORE: ★★★

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Written by Myles Hughes

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