Spoiler alert: This blog is for people watching WandaVision on Disney+. Do not read on unless you have watched season one, episodes one and two
Right here, right now
Marvel has fluked into some good timing with WandaVision, the MCU’s first official foray in to television – which picks up on the life of Wanda Maximoff (Scarlet Witch) after the events of Avengers: Endgame – although it’s unclear what is going on in the apparent 1950s and 60s sitcom parody of the opening two episodes.
Right now, I’m really in the mood for a show about a tight and confined world, playing out on the limited sets of a home, beset with a constant unease that all is not well, as friends and neighbours reveal unsettling sides to their personalities. And coming at this show as a sitcom script editor, I find WandaVision a strange reflection of the genre.
The claustrophobia of the format being parodied here used to feel incredibly useful for keeping characters together and generating heat from the ways they rub together. Now the characters in their lovely sitcom worlds, unaffected by Covid-19, feel downright carefree compared with us. At liberty to hug a stranger on the doorstep or to open their post unsanitised. Lucky them.
Of course, here the fictional world also has a theme song written by the team behind Frozen’s Let it Go. So WandaVision categorically wins.
Head writer Schaeffer is hard to get a fix on. She shared co-writing credit on Captain Marvel (a lot of voices in the mix on that one), Black Widow (which hasn’t come out yet) and The Hustle (best avoided).
So the key might be her early indie film TiMer, in which Buffy’s Emma Caulfield Ford – who also plays Dotty in WandaVision – deals with a technology that counts down to the day you meet your true love. It’s romantic, stressful, at war with the world around it, and centres on a technology so crazy it might as well be magic. Give it a look.
Marvel has made the right call to have a (enormously qualified) woman run WandaVision, since the show is heavily influenced by stories from the comics where Wanda’s – excuse me – hysteria warps reality and creates magical offspring. It seems vital that this cease being a “How do you deal with what Scarlet Witch is doing to herself?” story and evolves into the far more personal and interesting “How does Wanda deal with what is being done to her?”
If you’re a fan
WandaVision picks up on the grief Avengers: Endgame didn’t have time for. Vision was ready to be sacrificed by Wanda, before time was reversed and he was killed by Thanos, and Wanda herself turned to dust before being revived to wage battle five years later (oh come on, everyone was doing it). If you’re hooked into the MCU journey, WandaVision plays as a response to an enormous trauma that didn’t get noticed amid the carnage that concluded Endgame.
In that context, the wedding rings moment at the end of WandaVision episode one plays as especially eerie and touching. Whatever this reality is, it’s one where Wanda gets to be married to the man she lost – the heart on the wall calendar is more than just a reminder. If only we could believe their happiness will last.
If you’re new to all this
Watching WandaVision if you’re not aware of the MCU’s recent Big Moves should be a pretty effective, but very different, experience. In that reality, this is a strange sitcom about magic people that quickly bleeds into something far more unsettling. Fans of the Buffy episode Superstar, or the viral video Too Many Cooks will recognise the techniques right away: this isn’t the show it’s pretending to be.
However you got here, though, the journey of sitcom characters back to their true superhero shapes should work for everyone. You want them to be themselves, whether you know who that is or not, but you also don’t want them to lose the happiness they have right now.
Parody, but also … not
Extraordinarily, episodes one and two refuse to be a simple spoof and instead push hard for this to be a fully functional situation comedy. Schaeffer and episode two writer Gretchen Enders put everything they can into making this Wanda and Vision’s honest story, however strangely articulated.
Marvel movies have generally thrived on strong, clear characterisation. (It’s why we know Tony and Steve by name, as well as by their names of Iron Man and Captain America.) Wanda’s discomfort at what the world will make of her and Vision’s robotic perspective – the story of outsiders trying to fit in, but whose natures mean they never will – are just as good sitcom fuel as they are superhero melodrama. They have built-in difficulties every bit as useful as “the snob who dislikes being bothered by people running a hotel”.
With that character work in place, we get archetypal stories: impress the boss who comes for dinner in episode one, impress high society at the charity show in episode two. Stories that – however intentionally trite – matter to the people in them, with Wanda and Vision pushing to escape unscathed even as their very natures get in the way.
Because of this, this sitcom quickly becomes that most desired of things: actually funny. “Tell him the death rate of single men is twice that of married men” would play just fine in Modern Family, and a little run of callbacks culminating with a lobster on a front door tickles the funny bone just right.
Paul Bettany in particular seems to have a real gift for milking a laugh – including from the live studio audience in episode one. Already knocking gags out of the park with enviable timing during his episode one office scene, his drunken magic act in episode two becomes downright Arthurian (that’s Count Arthurian).
Clearly a choice has been made to use the form rather than critique it. Where 30 Rock would take the chance during parodic cutaways to slap old TV around for its racism and sexism, WandaVision isn’t aiming at satire but sincerity. (In this, 1998’s Pleasantville has the sharpest edge, showing a dislike of “coloureds” in its black-and-white world and pushing hard against nostalgia as a truly better place.) The past might not be an idyll, but Wanda’s recreated TV version might be.
Pleasantville seems to be a massive influence on WandaVision, right down to the rendering of small details in colour amid the black and white. Though here it’s notably always red – a light on a phone, a toy helicopter and, of course, blood …
With the sitcom in place, though, it’s the breaks from that reality that hit hardest. When Mr Heart starts choking and reality threatens to crack, we start to shift to a drama camera – the angles change, the cutting rhythm shifts, the effects become CGI “real” rather than the drawn-on twinkles over a crossfade. The acting style changes, too: Wanda calls for action the way she would on an Avengers battlefield.
Director Matt Shakman feels like a hell of a find in all this, with the most eccentrically relevant CV possible for a period-sitcom-superhero-action-adventure mash-up show: there you’ll find episodes of Mad Men, Always Sunny, Everybody Hates Chris and Game of Thrones!
Illusion and Glamour
Although the stage names seem crazily apt for the situation in which Wanda and Vision find themselves, they’re also a nod to an actual double act from the comics who performed real magic under the guise of fakery.
But to hell with the comics geekery and back to sitcom geekery: for all its nonsense, this routine is the highlight of WandaVision’s opening salvo. As the characters struggle to cover for Vision’s drunken magic – a situation ironically caused by his overt attempts to appear human – and win over high-society queen-bee Dotty, something wonderful happens: the solutions become brilliant.
Vision levitates, so Wanda magics up a rig to make it look like a trick. It uses her established abilities to solve the problem with invention and wit: it’s a good idea, not a pastiche of one from an old sitcom. So it goes with him lifting a piano – turning it into a 2D cutout in the fashion of YouTube magicians, it has that perfect “wait, was that always flat …?” quality. It’s a clever solving of a weird problem.
And while those – and the final hail Mary play of using actual teleportation to solve the embarrassment of the magic cabinet – manage to be both smart and funny, they also land well because we have a strong sense of the stakes. Not just the in-sitcom problem of a neighbourhood shunning them for being weird, but also that strange sense that if the world were to see them as they are, the illusion might shatter. No illusion means no Illusion – Glamour would be left without her husband again.
Here’s a question: Why can’t Wanda magic some food to serve from thin air?
There’s a discomfort at the core of WandaVision that I suspect will pay dividends: the two leads have powers, but are not powerful. In theory, Wanda and Vision are two of the strongest Avengers, but here that’s all stripped away, which makes them vulnerable. In the movies, a shifting manhole would hardly trouble them – throw up a forcefield, fire an energy blast or just fly away! – but here The Beekeeper (is that what we’re calling him?) becomes a sudden and unexpected source of threat.
It’s a structure akin to Captain Marvel (also co-written by Schaeffer), with the mega-powerful lead having to find their way back to their true self and be reborn. By the end of the series, we’ll surely have seen our heroes back to full welly … but one can’t help but feel that will be a thrill swiftly tempered by a tragic outcome. Vision is dead, after all.
What’s going on?
Never before have I watched a character point a remote control at the camera and exclaim: “Did he just turn the show off?!”
The writing delights in the questions, of course. “In a real magic act everything is fake” indeed. And who can fault playing Help Me, Rhonda (Wanda) on the radio?
Some things are becoming clear. The fact that nobody can remember their past is a pretty solid tip-off that this is a reality we’ve been put into. Or conjured around ourselves – a thing Wanda Maximoff (nobody’s called her Scarlet Witch … yet) does with frequency in the comics. But the radio-voice-that-could-be-Chris-Evans-or-Paul-Rudd-but-probably-isn’t-either asked: “Who’s doing this to you?” So …
Well, surely we can read a fair amount into the red toy helicopter bearing the logo of Sword – in the comics, a parallel organisation to Nick Fury’s Shield, dealing with other-worldly threats. This has secret, tech-savvy organisation written all over it. Though we’re also seeing other Marvel suspects sneaking into the show through the “ad breaks”. Glimpses of Stark Industries, Hydra and Strucker (as in Baron von, the deceased Age of Ultron villain who gave Wanda and her brother their powers).
If there is a curse to the era of streaming shows it’s that you often get four episodes of story spread over 10. For all its pleasures, episode two is essentially a reminder that, yes, this really is the show we’re going to be doing – shifting from a 1950s theme to the 60s. Another person to impress, another struggle to keep our powers under control. It’s an indulgence rather than a real progression. You feel the pause.
It’s a thing you see a lot in real sitcoms, strangely: a second episode that essentially restates the “sit” so we all know where the “com” is coming from. But unlike dramas about concealed secrets, sitcoms are built not to progress and change. Releasing two episodes at once is the streaming solution to not quite doing enough in episode one – you’ll watch them back to back and not feel you waited a week to be told the same things again. And the arrival of colour at the end promises movement thereafter.
Telling stories based on the drip-drip reveal of concealed truths is tough. If you hint too little, reveals feel like a con; hint too much and the audience gets ahead of the characters and becomes antsy. As Damon Lindelof’s recent Watchmen nailed so brilliantly, you have to match the writers’ revelations of “what’s going on” with strong character action: the proper drama of people pushing past obstacles to achieve goals and get answers.
Doing sitcom pastiche every week is going to be tough to maintain. While the characters are driving the comedy stories very effectively, they’re only seeing whispers of the bigger mystery narrative we know is at the heart of the show. My only concern is how much of this will be revealed by effort, and how much simply told by sticking around long enough.
How long can this all be sustained? It helps to be funny for real – it’s hard to resent any time lost to gummed-up Vision’s magic act. Between a new animated title sequence popping up in episode two, those unsettling adverts that always star the same two actors, and the charm of it, maybe we can get away with this long enough for Wanda to grasp the nettle.