WandaVision Review: Episodes 1 and 2

Disney initially made a hefty bet when they spent $4 billion to acquire Marvel. Imagine if the giant meta-franchise had gone financially stale before they had reached 2012's Avengers. Does the giant corporation double down and similarly purchase Lucasfilm that year for another $4 billion? Without these two dominant properties shoring up their revenue for a decade and beefing up the Disney horde of exclusive content, do they successfully launch a streaming service in 2019 that quickly manages to become a household standard alongside Netflix and Hulu?

This train of thought makes it understandable to many viewers how the Marvel Cinematic Universe, while perfectly fun and exciting in every outing, achieved something of a homogeneous formula, tone, and aesthetic. Sure, these MCU movies are all essentially the same effects-heavy adventure with loose, jokey dialogue, somewhat undercooked villains, and a heavy reliance on pop-culture sensibilities as shorthand (the big grand finale Avengers: Endgame being itself a $400 million riff on Back to the Future Part II). But we, as audiences, understood. Disney and Marvel Studios figured out the sweet spot, the platonic ideal of safe, family-friendly thrills. Why wouldn't they cash in on a sure thing twice as year?

But by beginning with "WandaVision," it's clear the Disney/Marvel Studios partnership isn't done making some bold gambles; instead of a financial bet, this is a creative one.

Now that Disney+ has been firmly established as a (mostly) streaming leader for content new and old and the MCU has come to a crescendo and a natural narrative resting point, the marriage of the comic book property and the high-budget prestige streaming service was inevitable. But by beginning with "WandaVision," it's clear the Disney/Marvel Studios partnership isn't done making some bold gambles; instead of a financial bet, this is a creative one. Will general audiences show up for appointment television in 2021 to follow a high-concept reality bending mystery starring two of their least prominent superheroes from the movie series?

An even bolder creative decision, this mystery doesn't become readily apparent until the climax of the first episode. Episode 1 lulls us into a false sense of familiarity as a pastiche of classic '50s sitcom ephemera, albeit starring Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch introduced in 2015's Avengers: Age of Ultron as a genetically altered master of telekinesis and illusion, and Paul Bettany as the cybernetic Vision, a supercomputer mated with a magic Infinity Stone in an indestructible android body. Outside of the characters' complicated, silly comic book origins, the show largely consists of "young married couple figuring it out" shenanigans baked into the brains of any millennial who grew up watching Nick at Nite. They host a disastrous dinner party for Vision's stodgy boss, try to fit in with their neighbors, and court wacky misunderstandings and pratfalls worthy of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo...all in glorious black and white, and a squished 4:3 aspect ratio.

Now, if that was the entire concept of "WandaVision," it would be exceedingly clever and risky. Big budget comic book superheroes playing "The Honeymooners" for $6.99 a month? It's not exactly the surefire crowd-pleasing spectacle of "The Mandalorian," but it's a terrific stretch of previously underutilized characters and performers. Olsen and Bettany prove themselves thoroughly adept at the broad comedy timing and purposefully saccharine, earnest love story, even up against sitcom acting gurus such as Debra Jo Rupp and Kathryn Hahn, who absolutely nail their turns as skeptical and nosy neighbors. The key to these performances is not letting them ever slide into outright parody, like a one-off high concept episode of some other action-adventure shows. These are real sitcom performances, and they land like it's Must-See-TV or TGIF all over again.

But then, the true concept of the show rears up and startles you: whatever strangely familiar--and yet somehow artificial and alien--reality that Wanda and Vision are living in has some glitches, and our unusual happy couple have moments where they can see through it. And it's terrifying. Then we, the audience, remember that Vision was viciously killed by Thanos and never resurrected in Endgame. Then...slowly, the aspect ratio changes, and we pull out to reveal the existential quandary that "WandaVision" is being watched on a monitor by someone in a more contemporary world. Are they trapped in a Matrix-like digital construct? An alternate dimension? A magical illusion? Just like in the over-the-air days of yore, we have to tune in next week.

Episode 2 takes the mystery and the comedy even further with a slight update: an animated intro worthy of "I Dream of Jeannie" or "Bewitched," a double-bed for the happy couple to share (scandalous!) and a hair/costume/furnishing aesthetic akin to Apollo-era astronaut households. Egad, the show has pushed forward in time to the 1960s, complete with a last-minute shift to glorious technicolor!

And thus the tease is set. Viewers tuning in for a POW! and ZAP! adventure are going on an odyssey through the history of television. It's a fitting backdrop for the first of these new MCU series on Disney+, and it pairs nicely with the central focus of the show: the nature of reality and relationships, seen through the rigid constructs of scripted comedy, three-camera format, and canned laughter. And it stars a magical young woman and an artificially designed computer man, the very personifications of effervescent charms and calculated formula literally mated together. 

...it's much more exciting to see what these characters, actors, writers, and effects professionals are capable of when they are given something weird and somewhat risky to convey.

As opposed to a big splashy action series with a weekly comic book villain or ticking clock procedural setup--something that "Agents of SHIELD" and Netflix's Defenders universe had to shed clunkily or die--"WandaVision" allows the development of two characters who felt awkwardly squeezed into the movies since their mutual debut, and also provides a season-spanning intrigue worthy of those early '00s smash hits like "Lost" and "24." This narrative strategy of using television literacy as both a warm welcoming blanket and a blunt shield against an audience at the same time shows an impressive amount of trust in the writers' room from Kevin Feige and the higher powers at Marvel and Disney. It also allows the first two episodes to feel light and breezy despite an undercurrent of uncanny valley dread.

What an opening gambit Marvel Studios has played in their leap to streaming television. While not as expensive or effects-heavy as the upcoming "Falcon and the Winter Soldier" undoubtedly will be, this show is far less certain of a "Mandalorian" style crowd-pleaser for MCU devotees. If these first two episodes are any indication, the big gamble of taking one of Disney's most valuable product arms for a proudly odd walk through different genre and texture is already paying in great dividends. "WandaVision" will more than likely reach a high water mark in its motif of  broadcast artificiality and then roll back into the MCU's reality of flying, teleporting, and laser blasts. And that's fine. But if you ask me, it's much more exciting to see what these characters, actors, writers, and effects professionals are capable of when they are given something weird and somewhat risky to convey.

Rating: A

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