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WandaVision Wrestles With Our Expectations for Superhero Tales

Don't be expecting your standard superhero show.
Don't be expecting your standard superhero show.
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In WandaVision, Wanda Maximoff, a tremendously powerful hero and Avenger, and Vision, an artificial man and Wanda’s lover that we last saw get killed at the end of Avengers: Infinity War, find themselves in a 1960s sitcom. They go through the paces and familiar beats of a show like I Love Lucy and they seemingly have no memory of who they are or what’s going on but they play along in this '60s TV reality faithfully, laugh tracks and all.

Which sets viewers up for all kinds of questions and pretty much means the best way to explain the first two episodes and the show's ambitions is to say: WandaVison is weird.

This isn’t the standard Marvel superhero tale that fans might have come to expect. So far there’s no bad guy that needs stopping, there’s no MacGuffin that needs to be recovered to save the world. It is a sitcom revolving around two of the less explored members of the Avengers team. It's unclear how long the show will stay within this dynamic. The end of the second episode shows the possibility WandaVision will go through the decades of sitcoms as the mystery of the show gets revealed.

The first episode’s narrative revolves around Vision’s boss, Mr. Hart (Fred Melamed), who is coming over for dinner and Wanda has to prepare a meal at the last minute. It’s standard sitcom fare until the reality they are stuck/trapped in starts to tear at the seams. Hart interrogates the couple on who they are and why they are here and starts to choke on his food.

The room gets dark and the atmosphere chills and Hart’s wife (Debra Joe Rupp) goes into a trance-like state crying and repeating “Stop it” until Vision sticks his hand down his throat and removes the food that’s choking him. Hart gets up and he and his wife act like nothing happened, thanking Wanda and Vision for dinner and evening. Vision will even be up for promotion when he comes into work the next day; all is good once again.

WandaVison is weird. That sentiment has probably been beaten into the ground by this point but it’s the best way to explain the first two episodes and the ambitions of the show. This isn’t the standard Marvel superhero tale that fans might have come to expect. So far there’s no bad guy that needs stopping, there’s no MacGuffin that needs to be recovered to save the world. It is a sitcom revolving around two of the less explored members of the Avengers team. Its unclear how long the show will stay within this dynamic. The end of the second episode shows the possibility WandaVision will go though the decades of sitcoms as the mystery of the show gets revealed.

The first two episodes, outside of any Marvel continuity or connection, are funny and strange and can drift into unsettling territory and back again without breaking the '60s theme. Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany play Wanda and Vision respectively. They are both good actors that in the Marvel movies — for whatever reason — were pushed to the peripherals of the stories.

In WandaVision the focus is all on them and calls on them to stretch these characters in ways they wouldn’t be able to in an Avengers movie. Olsen and Bettany are both funny and charming, able to pull off the quirky husband and wife dynamic of '60s shows. Bettany is playing a machine masquerading as a man trying to fit into this new neighborhood and job without giving away his real identity. Olsen plays the housewife who reins in her artificial intelligence husband.

It can be jarring watching these first two episodes expecting a standard superhero show and getting a black and white sitcom instead and one in which not much happens — at least in the first two episodes. Outside of a few moments, it is a straight-up '60s style comedy with some hints that something larger is going on.

If this was binge-able from beginning to end many viewers including myself would have inhaled the rest of the season in one afternoon. Slow dripping the episodes Mandalorian style probably would have worked better for a show like the upcoming The Falcon and the Winter Soldier which is something more traditional action-oriented Marvel.

The mystery and the grand scheme of the show and what’s really going on is the thing that will keep people watching.  What is going on? Where are they? How did they get here? Isn’t Vision dead? There’s a slow feed of Easter eggs giving hints at what could be going on and moments where the idyllic '60s American neighborhood Wanda and Vision live in starts to break down. Comics fans might look to the bottle of wine called ‘Maison Du Mepris’ and think “oooh so that’s where this is headed” or they might look at the sword of the red helicopter Wanda finds in the bushes and wonder “are they in space!”

People generally want what’s familiar. They want more of the same but make it bigger, add more characters but don’t fundamentally change the formula or our expectations. WandaVision is hopefully a chance to allow more unique ways to tell these stories that dominate our media culture. If anyone in the mass media big intellectual property game has the cachet to take chances like this it’s Marvel and Disney.

WandaVision is available to stream on Disney+

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