‘WandaVision’ Review: The MCU Enters a Strange New Phase
One of the standard complaints about Marvel since the early days of their cinematic universe is that their movies amount to little more than television on the big-screen. In order to properly mimic the never-ending battles and monthly cliffhangers of their comic book source material, Marvel’s films always tease future serialized installments. The complaint seems a little ironic now that Marvel Studios is actively making television for the small screen — and their first production, WandaVision, looks almost nothing like their enormously successful film franchises.
Instead, WandaVision is a TV show through and through. Each of the first three episodes made available to critics copies a different beloved sitcom. The premiere looks and sounds like I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show; the next installment copies the kooky supernatural antics of Bewitched. The third borrows heavily from The Brady Bunch, among other family sitcoms of the early color era. (The first two episodes are available on Disney+ on Friday; subsequent shows premiere weekly on the streaming service.)
There is an overarching story to the series, one that will presumably explain how these very surreal events connect back to the lives (and deaths) of matter-and-mind manipulating Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and the artificial “synthezoid” known as Vision (Paul Bettany) from the more cinematic entires of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Through the first third of WandaVision’s season, though, its Marvel mythology remains in the background. Instead, the emphasis remains on its reproductions of classic TV, as if Marvel was throwing down a(n Infinity) gauntlet as part of their entry into a new medium. They’re not making Marvel movies for television. They’re making television shows — and television shows about television at that. (Previous MCU TV series like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and The Defenders were made by a different Marvel division; WandaVision is the first show from Marvel Studios and the team responsible for the company’s movies.)
The results are impressive in terms of the ways they imitate the look and feel of retro sitcoms — and a bit less successful at capturing those shows’ sense of humor. An old-fashioned laugh track punctuates the jokes and banter between Wanda and Vision — who live in a bland suburban town named Westview and constantly struggle to hide their incredible powers from their neighbors and co-workers — but I didn’t find myself laughing along with it too frequently. The comedy, where it exists, is more clever than hilarious.
That wouldn’t matter that much if WandaVision was more of a conventional superhero adventure, where Wanda and Vision must try to figure out how they’ve wound up in this mysterious predicament and fight their way out. At least through the three episodes so far, the show, which was created by Jac Schaeffer, is much more into recreating the vibe of old TV than satisfying Marvel fans’ heightened expectations after more than 18 months without an MCU production. (Schaeffer previously wrote movies like The Hustle; this is her first TV credit.)
While the one-liners themselves sometimes leave a little to be desired, Olsen and Bettany do a terrific job tailoring their performances as Wanda and Vision to match the aesthetics of 1950s and ’60s multi-camera productions. Everything from the way they walk, to the pauses they take between lines to accommodate the canned laughter, feels just right for the period. They generate all the biggest laughs, like the sequence in the second episode where Vision puts on a disastrous magic show and Wanda needs to use her actual magic powers to cover for him. Matt Shakman, whose resume includes epic dramas like Game of Thrones and actual sitcoms like Everybody Hates Chris, is an ideal director for a show that includes elements of both genres.
Still, if WandaVision was going lean so far in the direction of vintage sitcoms, it might have benefitted from punchier scripts. It takes a long time for a clear picture of what’s going on behind Wanda and Vision’s televised domestic bliss to emerge. The tiny teases of the larger story behind WandaVision are intriguing, and promise a final six episodes that should be a lot more exciting and Marvel-y than these three. On their own, this very prolonged first act feels a bit like the sitcom equivalent of a synthezoid: A simulation of something so convincing it could almost pass for the real thing — almost.
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