emergency discussion

What Do We Want Out of WandaVision, Anyway?

Photo: Marvel Studios

We’re now several episodes into WandaVision, the first major Disney+ era TV foray into Marvel Cinematic Universe. The series is a playful genre pastiche of sitcoms from throughout TV history, which is stitched together with a massive, as-yet-unclear Marvel mythology, and with each new episode one thing has become clear about WandaVision: People feel a lot of ways about it! It’s a little unusual to see such a broad range of strong responses to a major comic-book title, ranging from delight to boredom to annoyed eye rolls, especially because the things that appeal to some of WandaVision’s audience are exactly the things that most annoy other viewers.

So, in the spirit of pleasant, collegial disagreement, three of Vulture’s WandaVision viewers — comics critic/Vulture recapper Abraham Riesman, TV critic Kathryn VanArendonk, and news writer/MCU skeptic Rebecca Alter — have gotten together to fight about WandaVision. (Please note, major spoilers through episode five of WandaVision lie ahead.)

Rebecca Alter: Let’s talk about hex, baby.

Abraham Riesman: Yes, let’s! How’s everyone feeling about this show in a general sense? I am feeling mildly interested but only because of the episode-five twist. Nothing else about it is making me come back other than my assignment to recap it. Not that it’s horrible, it’s just that all the “original” ideas have been done before elsewhere; we’re just supposed to call them novel and interesting because the Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn’t done them before. Which is, I’ve noticed, a general problem in discussions of the MCU: People treat it like it’s its own history of filmmaking, so innovations there are regarded as universal innovations, as opposed to just being clichés that they finally decided to incorporate. Sorry if this is too jaded and negative!

Kathryn VanArendonk: No, this is PERFECT, because I am super, super into the show as it is so far, and as soon as twists started showing up I got very annoyed. They were interrupting the thing I really liked about WandaVision! And I think this is the thing that’s been most interesting to me about the show and its reception — it feels unusual in that Marvel properties don’t tend to create this kind of divisive response. Oh, they’re divisive, for sure! Are they good or are they bad? Are they movies or do we not get to call them that because they’re basically TV? Are they generally Good for Culture or are they Destroying Culture, etc.

But the terms of the argument around WandaVision feel quite different to me. The audience seems to be coming to the show with a wide range of expectations for what it is and how it works, and inevitably not all of those expectations are being met. So that’s why we’re here, I think, because I’d love to hash out what we all came to this show wanting, and a little about how it meets or does not meet those expectations.

RA: I’m with you, Kathryn, because I’m finding that not only is WandaVision the most engaged I’ve been with a Marvel property in years, or maybe ever, but I think it stands on its own as a genuinely, refreshingly different TV show that’s doing very fun meta things with the form. When was the last time I actually laughed at the gags and cared about the characters in a multi-cam sitcom? It succeeds on that level alone, and I think the central mystery/anxiety coursing through it and occasionally bursting through an otherwise great formalist experiment pulls me deeper into it and gets me hooked. It’s that “too many cooks” thing, and it still works on me. I think Marvel properties already meta-textually illustrate the dangers of nostalgia for IP from our childhoods — I like WandaVision for actually addressing this central paradox of the MCU.

AR: I suppose a lot of my problem with WandaVision is that I know what they’re drawing from in comics lore and storytelling, so I know that virtually none of it is revolutionary. But you are right that they’re putting it into a new context vis-à-vis medium — it’s one thing to have a story about a superhero getting trapped in 1950s sitcom environment in a comic, but it makes it slightly more interesting if you’re actually doing it in the mode of a ’50s sitcom, set and lighting and all. I don’t know, I just think you two are giving it more credit than it deserves in terms of what it’s exploring. I know how comics adaptations work. They are 90 percent an executive saying, “What have they done in the comics that’s cool? Yeah, let’s just do that again, but slightly different and bigger, with actors who we won’t let do anything genuinely interesting in their performances.”

RA: Oh, for sure. Part of the marvel of this show is that something I find artistically valuable made it through this many layers of committee.

AR: Interesting! I will fully confess that it’s hard for me to appreciate anything in the MCU these days due to the damage it’s wrought on entertainment, so I’ll try to break through that cynicism and engage like you two are.

KV: It’s good to point to your very different knowledge of and perspective on the show, though, because that seems central to the reception problem it’s had more broadly. In my extremely anecdotal browsing through WandaVision responses, it has seemed to me like people who know and love comics, and who are well-versed in all the source material, are pretty underwhelmed by the show. People who know shit-all about the comics (me!), meanwhile, are much more likely to be fascinated by it! Again, a huge overgeneralization, but something that lots of cultural adaptations have run into in the past decade, as reboots/revivals/adaptations have consumed such a huge share of media.

AR: Word, given that everything is a riff on something else, a lot depends on whether you (a) are familiar with the original thing, and (b) liked or hated that original thing. Which is weird! Remember a time when we were all, as a society, approaching works of art without any foreknowledge of them? Halcyon days.

KV: Yeah! And Marvel seems particularly prone to opening itself to this kind of “I already know too much about this thing to appreciate this new version” criticism, given that it operates on a sprawling “hey, did you recognize this reference” version of storytelling where nothing ends and everything is connected to everything else, and an Easter egg often stands in for … say, character development. Or plot.

RA: The issue of “knowing” definitely always goes hand in hand with any MCU product. You either know too much to appreciate it, or you know too little to appreciate it. Which is quite unlike the sort of sitcom space WandaVision plays in, where traditionally the whole appeal was that you can go in knowing nothing, and by the end of the episode, things reset.

The other massive difference (and fun tension) between MCU blockbusters and this sort of sitcom is stakes. What was so compelling to me about WandaVision for its first three episodes was that the stakes weren’t THE WHOLE UNIVERSE IS GOING TO END FOREVER IF WE DO NOT ACCESS THE ORB. It demonstrated that smaller stories can be adapted onscreen with these same characters, with more domestic, emotional, interior, small-scale stakes, while still having mysterious and supernatural elements. This is why episode four — which really we should talk about — is the most divisive part of this divisive show so far. It signaled (to me, anyway) that actually, those sorts of smaller stories don’t matter, they’re not what the MCU apparatus is interested in exploring or validating, and the reason why Wanda’s story matters is because it’s part of more OH NO THE UNIVERSE IS ENDING LET’S BRING IN THE MILITARY mishegoss. I don’t care for that turn one bit. What were your reactions to the outside-Westview segments?

AR: Resignation, I guess? Again, I just know too much about how the superhero-industrial complex works and knew they would never sustain the bit long enough to make it work without delving into the standard-issue adventure fare. What really bugged me about that, though, was that it made the whole “this is about grief” thing way too explicit. That was true in episode five, too. There’s this sense that if they just say, “Wow, a woman is going through grief and grief is hard, grief grief grief,” that’ll make it have emotional oomph. Instead, it just feels like a cheap, borderline-misogynist attempt to cash in on the fact that everyone wants to think this stuff is Great Art. People have devoted countless hundreds of hours of their lives to the MCU and don’t want to admit that most of that time was spent on work that is derivative at best and utterly forgettable at worst.

KV: As someone with very thin Marvel knowledge but a long history of loving TV that is often considered trash, I think there’s a rich and valuable space for mass fiction that is neither trash nor Great Art, which is the space where WandaVision falls for me. Particularly for sitcoms, where this show has really dug in as far as genre and tone, it is almost never thematically subtle, and it’s all derivative, in exactly the way that WandaVision illustrates. A ’60s-style sitcom builds on the work of a ’50s one, etc. So the “it’s about grief, stupid!” stuff feels in line with the genre it’s chosen, and the genre feels in line with what passes for the Big, More Interesting point it makes. (Which is that genre is a TRAP!)

AR: You’re completely right about the need for and importance of art that is in between grand and idiotic. (Or maybe “grand” isn’t the right word, but you get it.) I read comic books, for Chrissakes! I think maybe my issue, now that you two are talking about it, is that I don’t really care for sitcoms? At least traditional three-camera ones. That doesn’t mean they’re bad or worthless, it’s just a genre that has never meant anything to me at a deep level, so perhaps I’m not the target audience for WandaVision.

RA: And as someone who doesn’t care too much about giant, jingoistic action movies (not that you or other Marvel readers do, just … anyway …), I’ve never felt much like the target audience for Marvel movies. But they’re the only real monoculture we’ve got left, so I still find myself going to see them when new ones come out and feeling compelled to have opinions. WandaVision felt like a concession to the rest of us, until they broke from Wanda’s hex into that wider SWORD stuff and it didn’t, anymore. Not to generalize or antagonize or any other -ize, but Marvel fanboys are Wanda: They’ve taken culture hostage and they’ve trapped everything in this reality bubble and roped every creator and every viewer into it, and I often feel forced to play along. I’m choosing to read it as fun and subversive — and maybe you’re right and maybe I’m giving the creators too much credit — that WandaVision demonstrates some self-awareness and meta-commentary. The thing that superheroes have going for them is they’re big, colorful metaphors and we can mind-project whatever we want onto them to help us understand stuff. So that’s what I’m doing with this.

And we haven’t even gotten into the Kathryn Hahn of it all. Maybe what I’m really trying to say is I like WandaVision because I like it when Kathryn Hahn gets a paycheck.

KV: Who among us, Rebecca, could argue that point? Certainly not I! But your very compelling reading of WandaVision and Marvel meta-commentary goes back to the same tension Abe has been pointing at. He knows the creators are not going to go beyond a certain line in terms of experimentation or daring. Meanwhile, you know that Marvel has taken everyone hostage and you project some of that backstory into the thing in front of you. WandaVision, for better or for worse, seems more open to this kind of projecting, polarizing, open analysis than any Marvel thing in a while. Any TV thing in a while, I’d argue! For me it’s always a good sign when lots of people can look at the same show and come away with very different readings of what’s going on. But I can see how it also leads to this infuriating muddle. How much MCU do we get to ignore when we watch the show? Who wants a show that comes with homework?

This is the appeal of the sitcom rhythm for me, too! I don’t need to have done the homework to come away with all kinds of feelings about these characters. My fascination with the sitcom in this format is also how explicitly domestic it is. You have no idea how much easier it is for me to care about Wanda and Vision when they’re worrying about adopting a pet than it is when they’re saving the world. I am exhausted when it comes to apocalypse. Or at least if there must be apocalypse — which I totally feel you on, Abe, it was always clear there was going to be apocalypse, and I’ve dreaded it from the start of the show — at least I get the pets and kids and sitcom high jinks part first.

RA: All of the delightful, lovingly made genre pastiche reminds me of the reason why Captain America: The First Avenger is my favorite MCU movie: It had an Alan Menken–penned USO song. That’s it. A moment of frivolous joy buried in all the action. WandaVision is full of these moments.

AR: Yes, true! I guess I just resent that they’re explicitly artificial? There’s very little joy (for me) in a scene about adopting a pet when you know (or in my case, assume) that the purpose of the scene is largely to make fun of scenes about adopting pets. It makes me feel like, what’s the point? Is it all just to show how good they are at aping things? What do you two think about the precision in creating/re-creating these sitcom touchstones at a technical level?

KV: Oh, they’re gorgeous. The sets and costumes are lovely, and the plots they choose are ideal for pulling out the sitcom themes they want to emphasize — Wanda’s pregnancy-hiding gags, the silliness with the magic show. I’m not sure why the sets are the things that strike me most, but I cannot get over how perfect all these houses are — the large window with louvered shutters between the kitchen and the living room in the Dick Van Dyke episode, the staircase in the Brady Bunch episode, the way the action in each episode moves from living room to kitchen to hidden back room. It reminds me of the thing I am often most annoyed by in Marvel movies, actually, which is that I never have any idea where anyone is in relation to anyone else. I find it really hard to appreciate the stakes at any given moment because everything about the physical space is malleable. It’s such a relief to see Wanda, a superhero with (as far as I understand it) unlimited and unspecified powers to just change reality, clinging to these fragile sitcom walls. I get it.

RA: Totally. My problems with Marvel’s normal sense of scale don’t just apply to the world-ending stakes, but just to physical sets and locations. WandaVision has a sense of place and tactility. The effects aren’t CG weightlessness, they’re not murky explosions and openings in the sky. You can imagine yourself seeing the strings and wires making those kitchen appliances bob and stir in the air on their own. It’s hokey and cheap, but it has heft and texture and the immediate, human stamp makes it fun to watch.

AR: These are all very astute points. I’ll fully confess that my biggest weakness as a critic is how much more time I spend thinking about narrative and characters than about the actual audiovisual construction of a work, and you’re opening my eyes to the degree to which this is just a more technically interesting/compelling piece of filmmaking than 90 percent of MCU stuff. I guess I just remain skeptical about what it’s all in service of. Like, I’m just gonna warn you two, though you probably already assumed this: They are almost certainly going to use this show as the first chapter of some gigantic cosmic hoozywhatsis involving alternate universes and the X-Men. I will be (maybe pleasantly?) surprised if the Evan Peters thing is a fake-out or just stunt casting, rather than a big development in the multiversal status quo. And see, “a big development in the multiversal status quo” is just the absolute last thing y’all will want to see at the conclusion of WandaVision. I dunno, maybe I’m wrong.

KV: This is the beautiful thing about TV as a form! You’re right, I do know that this is just the start of some new, enormous, stakes-free boondoggle and that if you ask me in three years how the rest of this story went, I’ll be like, “Well, first there was a sitcom and then Wanda got out but I really lost the thread when there were seven Wandas and only one Vision for some reason and it all took place simultaneously.” But TV means I can love this part of it, and appreciate the episodes that worked, and feel fine about ditching the rest. WandaVision is old-school in a way that I think is really smart in this respect. The weekly episode release emphasizes that it’s okay to feel differently about different pieces of a TV show. I feel no anxiety about whatever this will be like as a “whole,” because I’ll be fine with kicking it to the curb if the show hares off in directions I don’t find compelling. TV is a zen form! Love the part in front of you now; try not to worry about the future.

AR: Although I didn’t feel moved by the sitcom reference points, you definitely make a good case for the TV-ness of the whole thing. I feel similarly about a fair number of shows, Lost being the most notable example: I can adore season two and despise season seven and that’s all kosher. We’ll always have The Hatch. Should we move on to final thoughts?

RA: Sure! I want to thank you for bringing a comics critic/scholar perspective, and I will admit that if I was as steeped as you are in the machinations of Marvel as a corporate entity, I’d be cynical about WandaVision, too. As it stands, I’ll watch it for as long as it keeps the sitcom stuff going, and recommend it to any Marvel-skeptics who took Cultural Studies. Oh, and Kathryn Hahn fans.

KV: I don’t want to dismiss your frustration with it either, Abe. Because the thing about the rookies-versus-novices issue is that a piece of fiction should ideally be able to please both sides, and if WandaVision can’t work for people who know everything about these characters, that’s a legitimate problem! But yes, like Rebecca, I will very happily keep watching it as long as it keeps some of the more grounded stakes in place. It just tickles me! And I can’t stop thinking about how well timed it is as a meditation on grief, even if that meditation is extremely on the nose. Wanda’s doing what so many of us have done in the last year: burying our feelings in sitcoms. Whatever else this show does, I will always love how right it feels for the winter of 2021.

AR: And I want to add that I may well completely change my mind about my personal excitement level, now that the multiversal stuff is popping up. I know I’m doing my whole “everything sucks” routine here, and I mean it, but I also am still a big sucker for universe-crossing superhero fiction, and am open to the idea that it’ll be handled in an innovative way here. Plus, Evan Peters just rules as Pietro, so I’ll be happy to hang out with him again. I’m a sucker for the superhero genre, in spite of it all, and my fancy was tickled in the final minutes of the most recent episode, so I reserve the right to revise my entire assessment at season’s end. Once more, into the breach!

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