Culture Trips

‘Weird is good’: Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen on superhero sitcom WandaVision | Television

Marvel’s 2020 should have gone much differently. Its Black Widow movie and The Eternals should both have been released last year, with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings imminent. But the pandemic struck and now all three have been booted into the middle distance. And so it has now been 18 months since we last heard from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, when Avengers Endgame became the highest-grossing movie ever. And in that vacuum, the question of what happens next has only grown more intense. But the answer might not be what anybody expected. Marvel is about to break its silence with WandaVision – and it’s a huge departure. Not only is it the first TV show produced by Marvel Studios, it is also presented in the form of a half-hour sitcom. It is no exaggeration to call WandaVision the weirdest thing Marvel has ever done.

“Weird is good,” says Marvel Studio president Kevin Feige from beneath his trademark baseball cap. “I like weird. After Endgame, after the completion of a 23-movie Infinity Saga, we were soul-searching about what was coming next. WandaVision being our first for Disney+ is perfect. It was always about pushing the boundaries of storytelling, doing something we could only do with the narrative structure of television.”

That is certainly true. One way of viewing WandaVision is as a love letter to television. Each episode takes its inspiration from a different decade of classic US suburban sitcom, with Wanda Maximoff (AKA Scarlet Witch) and Vision playing the lead characters. They have always been an unlikely pair. Scarlet Witch is a mutant with the power of “chaos magic”, or the ability to “warp reality and bring total destruction to the cosmos”. Meanwhile, Vision is a near-indestructible, density-changing, super-intelligent android. Classic sitcom stuff, in other words.

Idealised existence … Olsen and Bettany.
Idealised existence … Olsen and Bettany. Photograph: Marvel Studios/Courtesy of Marvel Studios

The first show, a homage to The Dick Van Dyke Show, is in black and white, with a studio audience and 4:3 screen ratio. There’s a Bewitched episode, a Brady Bunch episode, all the way through to Malcolm in the Middle and Modern Family. It’s a fun ride and, in the chronology of the MCU, one that takes place after Endgame. But hang on, didn’t Vision meet a sticky end in 2018’s Infinity War? He is dead, right?

“Yes. Dead as an android can be,” replies Paul Bettany, who played Vision in the movie and continues in the role here. It’s the same non-answer vagueness anyone involved in Marvel will summon whenever you ask them anything. “Can an android ever live?” he adds, unhelpfully. Perhaps sensing my frustration, he tries to attack the question from the perspective of an actor, rather than a flying purple synthezoid.

“I had just been killed – twice – and my contract was up,” he says. “I got a call from the boss saying, ‘Come into the office.’ So I looked at my wife and I was like, ‘I think I’m being written out.’ Being British, I didn’t want anybody to feel uncomfortable, so I said, ‘It’s absolutely fine. It’s been a wonderful run and thank you so much.’ And Kevin looked at me and went, ‘Are you quitting?’ And I went, ‘Are you firing me?’ And he went, ‘No, we’re going to pitch you a TV show.’ And I went, ‘Oh, OK.’”

Perhaps the answer lies with Scarlet Witch. After all, she has been on a relentless bummer of a journey since joining the MCU. Her brother was killed, she caused an accident that set about the events of Civil War, and she watched her robot boyfriend get murdered twice in row, once by her. There is some speculation that Scarlet Witch has now used her powers to warp reality in order to deal with her bereavement, living out a happy life in the most idealised form possible, a mid-century American sitcom where all problems can be resolved within 30 minutes. If that’s the case, it makes WandaVision a show about grief, right?

“I think we feel comfortable saying that, yes,” is the hesitant answer from Elizabeth Olsen, who has played Scarlet Witch since 2014. “I think it’s about grief and coming to terms with one’s life and trauma. And processing.” At least this is a field that Olsen understands. Prior to WandaVision, she had just completed the critically adored Facebook series Sorry for Your Loss, where she played a woman similarly ravaged by the death of a loved one. I mention the similarity, clumsily labelling her The Grief Lady.

Inspiration … the original artwork.
Inspiration … the cover of Tom King’s book. Photograph: Marvel

“Oh my God, tell me about it,” she sighs. “I was really holding on to the sitcom element of this show. I was like, ‘This is the greatest gig I’ve ever had.’ It was so freeing. I really did kind of become The Grief Lady, but we got to tell this story with such playfulness. It didn’t feel just like a heavy experience.”

Nor is it to watch. Despite the potential for doom, WandaVision is first and foremost a sitcom, peppered with classic sitcom storylines. The first episode, about all the zany mishaps that occur when Scarlet Witch hosts Vision’s boss for dinner, should appeal to anyone who enjoyed the Steamed Hams episode of The Simpsons, while it probably isn’t a spoiler to reveal that Vision spends much of another episode drunk because the gears in his tummy get clogged up with chewing gum.

WandaVision’s director Matt Shakman puts the period faithfulness down to a “sitcom bootcamp” he put the cast and crew through. A longtime director of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – and before that a sitcom child actor – he was determined the series should avoid the pitfalls of parody. “The shows had to be authentic,” he says. “That meant doing the homework of just watching a lot of old television. But then, even more fun, we got to talk to people who worked on these shows. We tracked them down. We had a fabulous lunch with Dick Van Dyke. We read books about the making of these shows.” The lighting was authentic. The lenses were authentic. And Marvel didn’t even blink when Shakman suggested a live audience, even though it required countless phone confiscations and NDAs.

“It’s also a really interesting way to show an American century,” adds Bettany, a Londoner who now lives in New York. “You can feel the warmth of those Dick Van Dyke Shows transform into the cool cynicism of Modern Family and Malcolm in the Middle. You can track the culture of America during those eras.”

Enigma … Teyonah Parris as Monica Rambeau in WandaVision.
Enigma … Teyonah Parris as Monica Rambeau in WandaVision. Photograph: Marvel Studios/Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Feige says the series was inspired by Tom King’s 2016 comic book series The Vision, particularly its cover. “It envisioned the character of Vision living in the suburbs with a family of androids,” he explains. “Wanda wasn’t in that, but the covers were quite amazing. Vision standing in the doorway of a suburban house with a white picket fence and a mailbox. And that fascinated me because of my own fascination with the TV shows I grew up watching. Brady Bunch, Dick Van Dyke, Leave It to Beaver. The simplicity of those stories appealed to me. Having a problem solved in 30 minutes would bring me so much comfort when I was kid. It still does.”

“Marvel seems to be rewarded for taking big risks,” Bettany continues. “Reinventing what Thor was with Taika Waititi directing was a huge swing. And they’ve done it again with this. They didn’t want to just do the same old thing. What I will say is, as it progresses, our series has more special effects shots than Endgame, which is an unbelievable number of special effects.”

I mention this to Shakman. “It’s an amazing statistic and it is true. However, I will just say that we have a total running time of approximately six hours, and one of our two stars is very often assisted with CG in many shots. That quickly adds up. Yes, we do have all these VFX shots and, yes, we do have big Marvel set-pieces coming, but we will not be a bigger visual effects extravaganza than Endgame.”

One big new addition to WandaVision is Teyonah Parris as Monica Rambeau who, in some comic books, gains the title of Captain Marvel. Again, I try to prise out some information about her exact MCU status, seizing upon a comment she made about Covid preventing her from “preparing physically” in a gym. What sort of shape is she in, I ask – superhero shape?

“Enough to be able to run down the block without having to pause and take a breath,” she sidesteps. However, the inclusion of Parris does bring up a potential issue with WandaVision. Twentieth-century American sitcoms weren’t exactly bastions of diversity, and attempts to rectify this were often unwatchably clumsy. When Bewitched attempted to broach the civil rights movement in 1970, for example, it made the catastrophic decision to put its entire cast in blackface for an episode. Did the overwhelming whiteness of the form give Parris, arguably best known for playing the receptionist Dawn on Mad Men, pause?

Authentic homage … Kathryn Hahn as Agnes, with Olsen and Bettany.
Authentic homage … Kathryn Hahn as Agnes, with Olsen and Bettany. Photograph: Chuck Zlotnick

“It was certainly on the forefront of my mind,” she says. “But I was offered the space to have the conversation. OK, we have these amazing classic sitcoms that I grew up watching. But, as you said, there are no people of colour there. What are we going to do to not just gloss over that? Marvel were totally in agreement, like, ‘Do we say anything or not?’ Just having the space to ask the questions and be completely flat out wrong, miss the mark, whatever, was lovely.”

Parris’s first appearance is jarring, precisely because we don’t expect a black woman to appear in such sitcoms. However, Parris suggests that this too might be deliberate. In the first three episodes, Rambeau’s presence is a total mystery. Nobody seems to knows her true purpose. “To me, it works,” says Parris. “First of all, you’re like, ‘Why is this person, who we think is Monica but aren’t sure, in this generally white space?’”

Another notable thing about WandaVision is that it finally gives Scarlet Witch her dues. Long undersold, this is a woman who almost ended the Avengers with a mind trick and then came tantalisingly close to ripping Thanos limb from limb all by herself, yet she has been perpetually overlooked in favour of flashier superheroes. I ask Olsen if she’s relieved that the character is now finally receiving the attention she deserves.

“I don’t feel like I’ve been underused,” she says. “I just think I’ve been used specifically. Wanda represents mental health more or less, that’s her journey. And now it’s fun to get to be playful and charming and mysterious, and all the other things that everyone else …” She tails off then regroups. “This is a really amazing opportunity for Paul and I – to have three times the amount of time you would in one of these films.”

It’s also an opportunity for Marvel to reassert itself after the collapse of the theatrical experience. Kevin Feige is excited about WandaVision’s potential to get the MCU into our homes at a time when we can no longer visit cinemas. Although he admits to bristling when the episodic nature of the Infinity Saga was first compared to television – “We would always go, ‘No, what you’re talking about? These are big, giant movies we’re making’” – he now seems more content with the analogy. “Television is so great right now. I’ll take that comparison.” It is the first of a planned slew of shows based on Marvel superheroes, including Hawkeye, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, She-Hulk and Ms Marvel.

Nevertheless, as a man who made his career masterminding billion-dollar-grossing movies with $300m budgets, he isn’t ready to make a permanent switch to TV. “Now that we’ve experienced being alone in our rooms for almost a year, there’s a desire to get together. And that’s what movies are for.” So he isn’t worried that giant-budget Marvel movies will become an economically unviable casualty of Covid?

“Oh,” he says. “I’m worried about the future of everything.” However, having seen WandaVision, that’s hard to believe. A worried man wouldn’t breeze into a whole new medium with something so daring and experimental. WandaVision is a series you can only really pull off if you have total, world-stopping confidence in your abilities. Marvel, you suspect, is going to be just fine.

• WandaVision is on Disney+ from 15 January.

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