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The first episode of the Disney+ series WandaVision raises a lot of questions, most of them trivial in the grand scheme of life. Yes, sure, we all want to know about the nature of the show’s reality, what all the Easter eggs add up to, who the mysterious supporting cast really is, and so on. But such mysteries are dwarfed by one urgent, overarching, implicit query: What is the place of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a world that seems to be falling apart?
It’s been a year and a half since the release of the last MCU story, Spider-Man: Far From Home, and it’s not as though everything was going swimmingly back then, either. But a lot — too much — has happened in the intervening period, most of it far too horrifying and well known to bother recounting in a recap of a streaming series. Suffice it to say that the MCU’s hiatus was absolutely not supposed to be this long; multiple movies and shows had been planned for 2020. Instead, that godforsaken year was the first in many with no releases of MCU narrative content (well, other than Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which hasn’t really counted in the shared universe since its first season). Fans clamored for a streaming release of Black Widow to no avail. Now with WandaVision, the drought finally ends. It’s entertaining and intriguing enough, but why are we watching? Is it mere escapism and familiarity? Or does the MCU have something substantive to say in 2021?
As this is only the premiere episode, that remains to be seen, but before we go any further, please allow me to introduce myself: My name is Abraham Riesman, and I’m a recovering Marvelholic. I’ve been consuming Marvel stories — in comics, film, television, animation, games, podcasts, what have you — since I was in first grade. I’m 35 now, and in the past decade, I’ve written hundreds of pieces for Vulture about the superhero industry, first as a staffer and now as a freelancer. I’m about to publish a biography of Marvel’s most famous figure, Stan Lee, and the research for it shook my little geek heart to its core. I won’t be using these recaps to blithely trash a brand that means so much to so many people, but be forewarned that there will be no stanning here. With all of that said, let’s get on with the show.
We begin, naturally, with the world-famous Marvel Studios intro animation, the one with the montage of images of the various MCU characters, but as the familiar fanfare reaches its conclusion, the logo’s font changes, the picture desaturates into monochrome, and the music starts to sound tinny, distant, antique. Suddenly, we’re watching a screen turn on and what appears to be a TV show from the 1950s in the mold of I Love Lucy and its ilk, complete with a 4:3 aspect ratio and a cheery theme ditty about MCU C-listers Wanda Maximoff (better known in comics as the Scarlet Witch, though, for byzantine rights reasons, she hasn’t been called that in the movies) and the robot Vision (not English in the comics, so terribly English in the movies). The credits of this show-within-a-show depict Wanda and Vision as newlyweds who have just moved into a new suburban home. The show is called — naturally — WandaVision.
We find ourselves in the home of Wanda and Vision, shot in a classic sitcom three-camera soundstage setup. There, they engage in intentionally stiff repartee, such as when Wanda accidentally levitates a dish into Vision’s cybernetic skull, prompting him to lovingly remark, in Paul Bettany’s best English lilt, “My wife and her flying saucers!” Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) replies, “My husband and his indestructible head!” As that line implies, the conceit of this ’50s pastiche is that Vision is indeed a robot and has to hide that from the rest of the world, which believes him to be an average Joe thanks to his ability to mask his robotic visage with ordinary-looking skin (no doubt a boon for Bettany’s free time outside the makeup chair). That said, everyone calls him Vision, which is not the most common of names for a human being. Wanda, in turn, has to hide her magical abilities while still exploiting them in a pinch, Bewitched-style.
The pair quickly run into classic Sitcom Problems with strange twists. Their kitchen calendar has a hand-drawn heart on the day they’re beginning, but neither can remember what it means. They seem genuinely, unsettlingly puzzled by this lacuna. They each bluff to the other that they’re totally aware of what the occasion is and go about their days. Wanda stays home and gets a knock on her door from her classic Sitcom Neighbor, Kathryn Hahn’s ostentatiously arch Agnes, who has come to welcome Wanda to the neighborhood. Agnes notices some oddities, including that Wanda says she and Vision are married but she doesn’t have a wedding ring. In talking to Agnes, Wanda convinces herself that the heart refers to her and Vision’s anniversary, prompting Agnes to run and get a copy of a ladies’ magazine that has an article on satisfying one’s husband.
Vision goes to an office where he works on “computational forms,” but, as he says to a co-worker, he doesn’t really understand what the business is or does. Before he can think too hard about it, his boss, Mr. Hart, informs him that he and his wife are coming over to his and Wanda’s house for dinner that night — so that was the heart! The stakes are high, of course, as they always are for this hoary setup: Mr. Hart will be judging Vision’s future at the company based on how the dinner goes. Ominously, a mustachioed co-worker is seen packing up his stuff after his disappointing dinner with the boss. Gulp! Vision calls Wanda to warn her, but his oblique verbiage makes her think he’s talking about their anniversary. The core problem established, the formula is ready for the next stage.
But before that, we see an interstitial, ’50s-style commercial for a toaster. It’s relevant in two ways: “Toaster” is a common insult tossed at robots in sci-fi and superhero stories (very much including Vision), and we learn at the end of the ad that the toaster is manufactured by Stark Industries, which is, of course, the company founded in the early 20th century by Tony Stark’s dad, Howard. The toaster light blinks, and out of nowhere, it’s red, breaking through the chiaroscuro color scheme of the rest of the screen. It also blinks just a little too long to feel comfortable.
We come back for a dull few minutes of gags as the Harts arrive at the home of Vision and Wanda. Wanda hasn’t prepared dinner, obviously, so there’s lots of scrambling to keep the elders entertained while the grub gets prepared. (Wanda’s sexy nightgown is explained away as a Sokovian custom, referring to Sokovia, the fictional Eastern European country that Wanda is from.) Agnes shows up and brings lobsters, chicken, and steak to help Wanda out; Vision distracts his guests by singing the novelty classic “Yakety Yak”; and ultimately, the food is presented. That’s when things get weird.
Mr. and Mrs. Hart keep asking questions about Vision and Wanda’s past and their relationship, none of which they can answer. Suddenly, the three-camera setup is gone, and we’re getting tighter, darker-lit shots of the characters. “Honestly, why did you come here?” Mr. Hart asks. “Why? Dammit, why?” He then chokes on some of his steak and appears to be dying, only for Vision to surreptitiously phase his hand through the man’s throat and extract the blockage. He gets up as though nothing has happened and cheerfully says it’s time for him and his wife to go.
We’re suddenly back to the three-cam setup and the laugh-track vibe. Wanda and Vision sit on the couch, where they sigh in relief, and Vision lets his face go to its natural robot state. Realizing that they need a wedding song and artifacts, Vision says “Yakety Yak” will suffice, and Wanda materializes a pair of rings. “And they lived happily ever after,” Vision declares as they kiss. He picks up a TV remote and points it toward the TV in front of him, at which point the pair look toward the viewer and smile while the show-within-a-show’s credits roll. (I don’t think any of the names have comic-book antecedents, but I’m prepared to be wrong.)
While they roll, we zoom out, the aspect ratio goes wide-screen, and we see that this show has been playing on a monitor in a darkened computer bay. On a computer screen in the corner is the logo of S.W.O.R.D., a fictional agency that monitors alien activity in Marvel’s comics (it stands for Sentient World Observation and Response Department). Someone’s hand hits a button on a big remote control, and suddenly we’re at an angle to the screen while old-timey text reads, “PLEASE STAND BY.” It flickers. Roll on the real credits, which zoom into the screen and show the little pixels of light disassembling and reassembling as different objects: a house, a mobile above a baby’s crib, glasses, Wanda and Vision’s comic-book headpieces, and so on. The meaning is ambiguous.
If you’ve paid any attention whatsoever to the ad campaign for WandaVision (the one in our universe, not theirs), none of this episode is all that surprising. It’s almost a shame, really — if the show’s content had been kept a secret, the abrupt depositing of the audience into a genre and format completely antithetical to those they had known before would have been a much-needed shock to the system for a viewer used to the MCU’s tropes (which is to say, basically all of us).
Nevertheless! If you grade on the curve of filmed superhero fiction (which is more or less inevitable for anyone who enjoys it) and look at it from the perspective of a fundamentally artistically conservative operation like Disney, this leap into the unknown is a bold gambit. Everything is done with precision and commitment, and God, is it nice to see an MCU thing where people are allowed to act. But ultimately, what remains to be seen is whether there’s any thematic oomph, or if it’s just going to be an empty jumble of well-executed tropes and portents. Please stand by, indeed.
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