4 out of 5 stars

Having conquered the worldwide box office with $20BN in grosses after 23 movies, Marvel Studios now sets its sights on the small-screen. WandaVision benefits from a glut of new stories thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Fans haven’t seen anything from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) since Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) premiered; not that Marvel needs help generating interest in their wares. But did their blockbuster formula translate to something intimate and experimental, or is the intention just to bring big-budget visuals to a long-form medium?

WandaVision certainly doesn’t worry about easing us into things gently. The first episode is bereft of explanations for why we’re immediately watching a black-and-white 1950s sitcom, evoking memories of I Love Lucy (1951-57), with a newlyweds Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) moving into the small-town of Westview. There’s even a touch of Bewitched (1964-1972) because Wanda retains her magical abilities, together with secret identity hijinks with Vision posing as human to fit in at work.

The premiere, “Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience”, did exactly that to give WandaVision verisimilitude (and the actors added performance anxiety), but even the later canned laughter doesn’t detract from the excellent production designs and costumes. The performances from Olsen and Bettany are also fantastic, as their characters swap world-saving heroics for domestic misunderstandings, awkward dinner parties, and dealing with nosey neighbour Agatha (Kathryn Hahn).

The first three instalments only occasionally tip their hat to something strange happening, as “Don’t Touch That Dial” fast-forwards to the 1960s and “Now in Color” ditches the monochrome and adds longer hair as a brighter 1970s arrives. This opening salvo of episodes split opinion, as a lot of viewers weren’t sure what they were watching after a few weeks investment. And while it’s easy to sneer about lax attention spans, losing patience with Olsen and Bettany riffing on Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke is understandable if you have no connection to those shows and eras. Disney+ perhaps realised this issue so released the first two episodes together, but maybe they should have dropped the third a few days later.

Tolerances vary, of course, but I’d have liked the ratio of sitcom pastiches to clues about the underlying mystery to be more equal. Luckily for anyone wondering whether or not to ‘touch that dial’, the plot progresses significantly during “We Interrupt This Program”. This fourth episode provides firm explanation for much of what’s happening inside Westview, using an outsider’s perspective. Further questions remain and new ones are discovered, of course, but dubious viewers are given a bigger picture story to latch onto—if wondering if the Maximoff’s can impress Vision’s new boss or rehearsing for a neighbourhood talent show didn’t have you gripped.

WandaVision finds a better mix of TV parodies and comic-book adventure in the episodes that follows, although some will be frustrated that initial burst of bold creativity gives way to a more standard plot. Even the decision to go with a traditional weekly release pays off, as a big reveal in “On a Very Special Episode…” would’ve been spoiled by fans allowed to binge everything in a few days. It’s also a welcome reminder that mystery shows benefit from giving us time to contemplate what we’ve seen, and openly discuss what could happen next. It drives debate and helps keep a show alive in the public consciousness for months instead of weeks.

Without spoiling anything significant, the second half of the series divides the action between Wanda and Vision’s fake lives in Westview (where they eventually spoof Family Ties, Malcolm in the Middle, and Modern Family), and the outside world’s attempts to comprehend what’s happening. This is where more familiar MCU hijinks take place, with S.W.O.R.D agent Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) assigned to help FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Ant-Man and the Wasp’s Randall Park) break through the town’s protective ‘Hex’ bubble. And both are aided by sassy astrophysicist Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) from the first two Thor films, which is altogether a neat way to utilise supporting MCU players. (Teyonah Parris may be a newcomer, but even she’s playing a grown-up child introduced in 2019’s Captain Marvel.)

The ultimate answer to the mystery is simpler than I was expecting, but the clues are drip-fed at a decent rate and keep you hooked. I didn’t find myself wanting to get too ahead of things, or have events ruined by outsmarting the writers, so maybe the long afterlife of WandaVision being binged will work in some respects. You’ll perhaps accept its shortcomings easier, as you won’t have invested weeks of thought on it. Most episodes have a different theme and visual cues, which is enormous fun to watch, and the outside investigations by Monica, Jimmy, and Darcy were a clever way to keep WandaVision’s weirdness proportionate.

Elizabeth Olsen is the undoubted star of the show, as WandaVision is primarily about her character struggling with the grief of losing Vision during Avengers: Infinity War (2018). It’s a reminder that Olsen is a more talented actress than her signature role has usually allowed her to prove, and it’s interesting seeing what WandaVision asks her to portray following her acclaimed turn in Sorry for Your Loss (2018-19). That show was exclusive to Facebook Watch, so not many people actually saw it, but she again played a young woman whose husband unexpectedly died. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence, but is it any wonder Olsen has such a grasp on the turmoil people go through after suffering loss? And between those heavier moments, she’s clearly having fun playing a perky housewife in an apron, a frazzled mother of twin boys talking candidly to the camera, then a powerful witch protecting her super-family.

If part of the reason to move into television was to give a few B-list characters time to show their true colours, WandaVision is a resounding success. I don’t think many fans had either Wanda or Vision in their top-tier of MCU characters, as the arc of their romance was spread thin across a handful of movies where they weren’t the focus. The demands of $250M event movies are what they are, of course, but this series allowed for the exploration of their relationship in a depth no two-hour movie could hope to. We not only have a greater appreciation for Wanda and Vision as individuals and a couple, but the series manages to retroactively improve how we think of them from earlier MCU appearances. Having lost a few big-name stars after Avengers: Endgame (2019), it’s a clever way to rejuvenate interest in two characters starved of material and make you excited to see them return.

WandaVision is certainly not perfect. It’s a meal of three portions. The opening trio of episodes are the most daring and experimental in nature, but they’re also the most divisive because of their unwavering focus on a premise some will find repetitive. The next four episodes are the most conceptually balanced and digestible, but the last two resolve matters in mixed fashion. But the core aim to explore Wanda’s grief is an unequivocal success thanks to Olsen and Bettany’s touching chemistry, with both actors savouring the moving scenes and heartbreaking dialogue a few of the scripts in particular give them. One flashback set post-Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), with Vision helping Wanda cope with the loss of her brother Pietro, features a beautiful line about grief being “love persevering” from Bettany. It’s a moment that gets to the heart of what WandaVision is about.

The smaller puzzles around the edges, which provoked a lot of theorising, are unfortunately a big disappointment. Monica Rambeau seemed an integral part of the series halfway through, but she gets almost nothing to do during “The Series Finale”. And the mid-series arrival of Evan Peters as Pietro Maximoff (who played that role in Fox’s X-Men prequels, but not the MCU in Age of Ultron) was a huge surprise that thrilled fans, but it was revealed to be stunt-casting rather than a genuine sign of something exciting happening to combine the two universes. The climax is also an action-packed spectacular of super-beings flinging fireballs at each other in mid-air, which seems like a world away from how things began. It would have been more cohesive to have all the false realities play a part somehow, to bookend the show stylistically.

However, for all its weak resolutions and teasing the fanbase with more exciting ideas than they had any intention of delivering, the crux of WandaVision worked incredibly well. This was a Truman Show (1998)-style mystery with a dash of The Prisoner (1967-68). It shone a light on two underused characters and made audiences appreciate them more. Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany have never been better in these roles, and their range as actors is on full display. WandaVision succumbs to problems that shows of this nature are prone to, but taken as a study of grief and loss, plus a celebration of TV (which is literally used to escape reality here), WandaVision comes recommended.

This is a successful recalibration of the MCU from showrunner Jac Schaeffer, director Matt Shakman (Fargo, Game of Thrones), with MCU chief Kevin Fiege as puppet master). It suggests Disney+ will deliver weekly issues of a live-action comic-book (to strengthen our bond to characters), and reposition the successful films as places where big events and pay-offs happen in spectacular fashion. And they’re all drawing on a rich cocktail of characters, themes, stories, and ideas from across decades of Marvel comic-books, so roll on Phase 4…

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USA | 2021 | 350 MINUTES • 9 EPISODES | 1.33:1 • 1.78:1 • 2.39:1 | BLACK & WHITE • COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

writers: Jac Schaeffer, Gretcher Enders, Megan McDonnell, Bobak Esfarjani, Peter Cameron, Mackenzie Dohr, Chuck Hayward, Cameron Squires & Laura Donney (based on characters created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Roy Thomas & John Buscema).
director: Matt Shakman.
starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Kathryn Hahn, Teyonah Parris, Randall Park, Kat Delnings, Evan Peters, Debra Jo Rupp & Fred Melamed.