WandaVision: Season 1, Episodes 1 and 2

“Who’s doing this to you, Wanda?”

(SPOILER WARNING!)

It’s been a funny old year for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with no big tentpole blockbusters since 2019’s Avengers Endgame. We’d been used to three or four of these gargantuan spectacles a year, but with cinemas closed due to the pandemic, we comic book nerds have been left hanging.

But fret no more, fanboys! For the MCU is no longer entirely cinematic, having extended its Disney-owned tentacles, Hydra-like, to the small screen. Oh sure, there’ve been Marvel TV shows before, and they even tied into the movies – Agents of SHIELD, Luke Cage, Daredevil, etc, etc… But these were produced by outside partners like ABC and Netflix, and all recently found themselves cancelled. To be replaced by… Marvel Studios TV! Excelsior!

WandaVision is the first of their projects to make it to the air, focusing (as should be clear from the title) on the unlikely couple of Wanda Maximoff, aka Scarlet Witch, and super android/AI Vision. And it’s a curious little effort – if you’re used to muscular, spandex-clad heroes levelling entire city blocks to defeat interdimensional super-powered baddies, you might find yourself perplexed. For Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda and Paul Bettany as Vision, reprising their roles from the movies, are apparently stuck in… classic TV sitcoms.

Let me repeat that. This is a superhero duo story, told via one of the most hackneyed genres in American TV. It sounds, and should be, awful. Yet weirdly, based on these first two episodes, it’s actually exactly the tonic a lockdown-weary, MCU-starved fanboy could want.

Obviously there’s going to be more to it than that. A number of questions present themselves, one of the most obvious being that isn’t Vision, as last we saw him, well, dead? So how come he’s now alive, back with Wanda, and inhabiting the medium of TV comedy shows?

For any longtime comic reader, various scenarios present themselves. Wanda and Vision are plainly not, currently, in the real world. But then Wanda’s powers include the ability to warp reality itself, little explored in the movies she’s been in. She also (in the comics) has struggled with mental illness. Could she have created this most artificial of worlds, complete with her resurrected lover, as a means to get through the trauma of recent events?

But then what of the ominous voice, occasionally heard in the background, asking, “who’s doing this to you, Wanda”? If she hasn’t created this artificial world for herself, someone else must have. But who? Maria Hill, director of SHIELD in the comics, once created an idealised. Norman Rockwell-esque town called Pleasant Hill, in which to imprison supervillains brainwashed into thinking they were wholesome small town archetypes – the drugstore clerk, the teacher, the garage mechanic and so on. I’d guess something very like that is happening here.

But to enjoy the ride here, it’s best not to think about that too much. For now. Just relax, and enjoy the bizarre (and surprisingly funny) spectacle of these familiar heroes inhabiting the most perfectly recreated archetypes of American TV that only a genuine love for the medium could create. Every detail is perfect – the sets, the scripts, even the live audience (apparently), watching a classic three camera stage. For showrunners Matt Shakman and Jac Shaeffer , this is clearly a labour of love. It’s even shot with period-appropriate cameras in the old TV ratio of 4:3!

The plan is apparently to put our intrepid duo into a typical sitcom for every decade of American TV since the 50s. Episode 1 does precisely that, with the tried and trusted 50s suburban setting and challenging plotline of having forgotten that you’d invited the boss round to dinner. Apparently in this setting Vision can change his appearance to more suitably blend in as a bespectacled suburban office worker, while Wanda, clad in the primmest of 50s fashions, is the perfect middle class housewife.

What makes it so enjoyable is not only how pitch-perfect the recreation is, but the unexpected gift for light comedy displayed by Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany. Deliberately hackneyed it may be, but in the hands of these two, it’s also genuinely funny. Their timing and delivery are perfect, especially Bettany, who says he based his performance on a combination of Dick van Dyke and Hugh Laurie (it shows). For Olsen, it was a bigger combo of the likes of Mary Tyler Moore, Lucille Ball and Elizabeth Montgomery. These guys know their classic TV comedies.

Being who they are, their powers naturally play into the sitcom plots – Wanda can magic up a five course meal, while Vision can reach inside the throat of his choking boss to save his life. This being comedy, of course, not even their powers can always save the day, and there are comical mishaps aplenty along the way. In that respect, the classic comedies it’s most reminiscent of are the ones where characters do have superpowers – notably I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched, a similarity that becomes even more obvious with the second, 60s set, episode.

Sitcoms may have changed through the decades, but certain archetypes are always constant – particularly the type of characters you need to make them work. So Wanda and Vision are surrounded by the stock characters you expect – nosy neighbour Agnes (Kathryn Hahn), Vision’s stern boss Mr Hart (Fred Melamed) and his all-too-credulous wife (Debra Jo Rupp), along with a slew of workmates and community figures.

With ep2, ostensibly about a small town talent show in the archetypal community of Westview, it becomes clear that, even though the decade has shifted, these characters (and their actors) will be a fixture throughout. What is notable, and adds to the general sense of unreality permeating the thing, is that some of the characters from the second ep on are black.

Sitcoms in the 50s and 60s weren’t renowned for their diversity – Desi Arnaz in I Love Lucy was the only notable non-white star of the period, and even he had to “white up” his Latino roots somewhat. So the appearance of Mad Men’s Teyonah Parris (Don Draper’s secretary Dawn) as the seemingly ordinary Geraldine is both a useful nod to inclusion, and a sign that something’s a bit off here.

Both eps are genuinely, uncomplicatedly funny. But for me the second, with its classic sitcom plot of Vision and Wanda staging a magic act as “Illusion” and “Glamor” for the town talent show, was the funnier of the two. Obviously Vision, being an android, doesn’t eat; so when he accidentally swallows some chewing gum given to him at a Neighborhood Watch meeting, it literally gums up his works (as shown in a period-accurate style bit of monochrome animation).

The effect of this is that he shows up to perform in the town square basically looking drunk. But not real, convincing drunk – something I can only refer to as “comedy drunk”, which Bettany plays perfectly for laughs. As he uses his powers to perform genuine “feats of magic”, the fretting Wanda has to use her own powers to make all his tricks look obviously fake. It’s a hilarious scene perfectly played for comedy by both Bettany and Olsen.

For added verisimilitude, both eps are broken in the middle by period-specific style fictional commercials (though not the hawking of cigarettes that was so common at the time, obviously). These are as well done as the eps themselves, and also seem to be providing the start of some clues as to what’s really going on.

With both these eps shot in period-accurate monochrome, the intrusion of bits of actual colour is used to signify weird happenings that are presumably the intrusion of the real world. In ep2, Wanda is puzzled by a mysterious, actually coloured, model helicopter she finds in a hedge. But the first appearance of colour is in the mid-episode “commercial” in ep1, as the Stark Industries toaster being advertised has a single, ominously glowing red light on it.

The ad in ep2 doesn’t have colour, but has even more clues – it’s a watch made by “Strucker”. Presumably a reference to longstanding supervillain and Hydra agent Baron Strucker, it even has a little Hydra logo on the face. And what of the mysterious figure in beekeeper clothing emerging from the street drain that disturbed Wanda so much?

I’m guessing these little clues will pop up ore and more until we know what’s really going on. But for me, at least, what’s really going on isn’t the point of this show. What I’m enjoying is the lovingly recreated archetypes of TV in days gone by, produced by people who obviously love it themselves, with these two superheroes incongruously inserted into it – and yet somehow fitting in perfectly. Ep2 even had a perfect final transition into colour; a nod to the way I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched started in monochrome and ended in colour, and presumably a transition into colour episodes from next week, when we enter the 70s. What’s really going on will become clearer as the nine episodes go on, I’m sure – for now, just sit back and enjoy the fun.