I think it’s safe to say that we have reached a point to where everything Marvel Studios touches turns to gold. You could say one reason is because the mastermind behind the MCU Kevin Feige and his team of creators have defined the superhero movie genre for an entire generation. For better or for worse, Marvel has set a standard so high that many audiences reject (almost out of compulsion) any other unique vision or approach to the genre. Don’t believe me? Ask the DCEU. Movies like the groundbreaking “Wonder Woman” and “Shazam!” (which you could argue is the most MCU movie of their entire catalog) aside, much of the DCEU has been met with at least some resistance (and in many cases tons).
But not so for Marvel. Part of it is due to the allegiance of dedicated fans (and in some cases critics) who heartily embrace anything (and I do mean anything) the studio does. But it’s also because Marvel has been synonymous with quality and they’ve truly done something incredible with the MCU. While they aren’t always scrutinized the way they could be, MCU films are routinely good and always entertaining. They’ve done well casting their characters and picking the big screen stories they want to tell.
After all they have done to change the superhero blockbuster landscape, now they look to do the same to episodic streaming. “WandaVision” marks the first of several limited streaming series coming to Disney+. Its story is told over nine episodes and the series was advertised as something we’ve never seen before from the MCU. We were also told it would have major repercussions for Phase Four (or whatever Marvel is calling this) and future storylines. The series brings together two second-tier characters from the Marvel films (and two of my favorites from the comics) and in a snap moved them higher up on the MCU food chain. But that doesn’t mean “WandaVision” is without flaws.
The series was presented in a half-hour television sitcom format with Matt Shakman directing each. It was given a hefty budget which becomes more obvious the deeper we get into the story. But most importantly, the series brings back the two stars from the MCU movies, Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff and Paul Bettany as Vision. Obviously seeing them both together in a post-“Endgame” story raises a TON of questions and adds even more appeal. Olsen and Bettany had good chemistry in the movies but here they really shine, even as the show’s sitcom gimmick starts to wear thin.
“WandaVision” is built on a big central mystery so getting too far into the plot could potentially spoil its effect. Essentially the setup is this: mere weeks after the events of “Avengers: Endgame” Wanda and Vision are living a happy suburban life in the small idyllic town of Westview, New Jersey. In an effort to fit in, both hide their identities from their neighbors and townsfolk. But here’s the catch, their life plays out like a TV sitcom complete with opening credits and laugh tracks. Each episode (minus the final two) is set in a new decade which the sitcom framework conveys. For example, episode 1 is presented in 4:3 black-and-white and is riffing on 1950’s television, specifically “The Dick Van Dyke Show” with a dash of “Leave it to Beaver”. Episode 2 moves to the 1960’s evoking “I Love Lucy”. Episode 3 shifts to color and has a “The Brady Bunch” vibe. And so on…
At first this comical conceit is a lot of fun, but it slowly and steadily runs out of gas especially when Wanda and Vision begin noticing something is off in their seemingly television-perfect life together. Whether it’s the behavior from the reoccurring characters who pop back up in every decade (none better than Kathryn Hahn’s quintessential nosy neighbor Agnes), Wanda’s instant pregnancy, or creepy unexplainable visions. The mystery of what’s going on in Westview quickly becomes the most interesting component of the show. Yet “WandaVision” sticks with the nostalgic sitcom gag all the way through episode 7. And when over half of these roughly 30 minute episodes is spent laughing and nodding at decades of sitcom history it leaves little time to dig into the much more compelling elements of the story.
In fairness, the sitcom bits aren’t arbitrary. The show does eventually connect them and add context to their existence. In other words they make sense. But on a week-by-week basis they do account for a lot of the running time. The scraps are given to agents of S.W.O.R.D. who set up a base outside of Westview to monitor what’s going on there. They’re led by the blandly antagonistic Director Hayward (Josh Stamberg). These scenes also feature three returning MCU side characters: the equally bland FBI Agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), a returning but inconsequential Darcy Lewis (Kay Dennings), and one of the show’s most intriguing pieces Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Paris). Monica was the adorable little girl from “Captain Marvel”. Now she’s grown up and clearly has a big future ahead in the MCU.
The last two episodes are the longest and finally give us some needed answers while revealing who has been pulling all of the strings. This is the series at its best, wrapping up some story angles, leaving others wide open, and introducing some ‘magical’ new elements into the MCU that is sure to have some long-lasting impact. It also features an eye-popping final showdown that truly is unlike anything the MCU has done before. It’s where the show’s bigger budget can be seen the most.
Not everything wraps up quite so nicely. A couple of characters just up and vanish in the final episode (at least one has an excuse we can halfway buy). There’s also the unavoidable question of where are Wanda’s friends from the Avengers? Yes Thor is in space, Cap is old, etc. But no one saw what was going on or felt the need to check on Wanda? Also the finale exposes a certain mid-series surprise appearance to be nothing more than a shameless attention-grab. It earned Marvel plenty of headlines and online chatter but weakly ended as a lame anatomy joke reminiscent of something you would see on Beavis and Butthead.
Hiccups aside, “WandaVision” still accomplishes what it sets out to do: 1) Show that streaming episodic television is an exciting an effective means of telling fresh MCU stories and filling out their large sprawling universe. 2) It fleshes out Wanda and Vision, not so much their backstories but their relationship which is the true centerpiece of the series. “WandaVision” adds a much-needed layer of humanity between them that earns our empathy and makes them big players moving forward. 3) It moves the MCU forward in a meaningful way and with potentially far-reaching implications. All together “WandaVision” may not be the most seamless television series experience. But it does expand the Marvel Cinematic Universe in an exciting way while setting the table for the slew of other Marvel streaming shows on the horizon. “WandaVision” is streaming now on Disney+.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS