Fun and escapist and sometime extremely emotionally confronting though Marvel’s prodigious cinematic output is to watch, it is a rare thing indeed to think of them as daringly creative original in any way.
Each and every movie, with some rare exceptions, follows roughly the same template, with an ever-escalating series of events leading to a big third act showdown upon which the fate of the world/universe/all of space and time (take your pick) depends.
So far, so expected.
What is supremely and thrillingly exciting about WandaVision, which just released the first two episodes via Disney Plus, with weekly episodes to follow every Friday thereafter until the initial slate of nine episodes is completed on 5 March, is how fantastically out-of-the-box it is in ways that will have you whooping and hollering with delight. (Not a problem in the comfort and privacy of your own home but a whole other matter in a public park where this reviewer watched the episodes.)
This is a series that have well and truly broken the mold, televisual and cinematic, offering a show that is breathtakingly original, even as it samples liberally from television shows of the past for look, feel and vibe, and which balances adroitly and with devastatingly good effect a tension between saccharine, sitcom sweet and darkly, threateningly portentous.
WandaVision follows the events of Avengers: Endgame in which — SPOILER ALERT!! — Vision dies, leaving Wanda Maximoff aka Scarlet Witch bereft of the android man she loves.
There is no coming back from this death – some characters you mat recall were time-travelled back to the land of the living but not Vision, his skull pulverised by Thanos right before Thor kills him – and yet in WandaVision Vision is alive and well and living in what looks like black and white sitcom paradise.
Or is he?
Certainly, as WandaVision breezes with retro wit and charm into our pandemic exhausted lives – that, in and of itself, is a great reason to watch a show that is, at first at least, all vibrant vintage escapist fun – you have to wonder just what is going on.
Vision and Wanda have moved to The Stepford Wives-ish suburban perfection of Westview, one of those Americcan towns where life seems bucolically perfect but which comes, as all these places do, with plenty of orthodox-defending snakes in the grass such as Dottie Jones (Emma Caulfield Ford) who is described, rather accurately, as a “skeptical [sic] mom who rules the neighborhood with an iron fist and poison smile”.
In this sitcom idyll, Wanda and Vision are blissfully happy newlyweds who suddenly find themselves living the American Dream with no real knowledge of how they got there, how to host a dinner party, what their wedding anniversary date is, and what it is exactly that Vision’s employer, Computational Services actually does.
There are a mass of gaps in their knowledge but they are beautifully and gorgeously in love – one of the great pleasures of this show is seeing how much these two characters love and adore each other, an innocent sweetness that contrasts nicely with the show’s slowly-unveiling darker elements – and content to ignore those missing puzzle pieces in pursuit of their hazily arrived-at domestic bliss.
And how blissful it all is for the most part.
Wanda spends her days pfaffing about her kitchen in the 1950s housewife uniform of tight pretty dress and floral apron and hosting her helpfully friendly but nosy neighbour Agnes, played with consummate joie de vivre by the superlatively talented Kathryn Hahn who makes the role her own so quickly it will make your head spin with smile-heavy delight.
Vision works at the aforementioned Computational Services, a company where data is processed in and out to uncertain end, for a boss (Arthur Hart, played by Fred Melamed; his wife, is played by Debra Jo Rupp of That 70s Show fame and she is giggly, anxiety-laced perfection) who is the very archetype of unyielding old timey-wimey corporate management.
Their lives are beautifully, impeccably ordered, they clearly love each other and they are fast becoming value, if odd, members of their community, even competing in the school’s fundraising talent show where they put quite the chewing gum-addled performance.
But something is off, and it seems that it’s Wanda who is most acutely aware of this, as the veneer of suburban gloss starts cracking in the most unsettling and strange of ways.
Drawing on a rich history of US sitcoms, WandaVision looks for all the world at first like a classic member of the genre, taking inspiration from shows like The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bewitched and I Love Lucy, all of which play a part not just in the look and feel of the show but in the opening sequences of the show which pay homage to the iconic shows of sitcoms past.
Amidst a heady slew of Wanda and Vision Easter Eggs, it becomes quite apparent that much of the character’s pasts, particular Wanda’s, is leaking into the sitcom shininess of the show, a sign that nothing is quite as real as it seems.
That becomes even more apparent as signs begin emerging, for Wanda’s eyes and ears only it seems, that someone is trying to alert to the artificiality of her current reality.
We see strange things occur during the dinner party with the Harts, a weird crackling and disembodied voice coming the speaker on Dottie’s outdoor entertainment area’s table and later in the strange bangs and booms that presage the arrival of scarily unsettling objects such as a toy helicopter and a man dressed as a beekeeper whose presence so alarms Wanda that she winds back time.
It is clear that for all the bubbly fun of the show, and it is a joy to immerse yourself in all that lovingly-realised sitcom nostalgia, that something every strange is going on and that WandaVision may be resting on a darkly disquieting foundations of dark and loss and threatening evil of some kind.
It’s a deliciously, intriguingly inviting mix which is realised near-perfectly, with WandaVision first two episodes drawing on witty clever writing that references all kinds of Marvel nuggets including the fact that show is inspired, says Bettany, by “two iconic Marvel Comics tales: House of M and The Vision“, superb characterisation and equally superlative performances by all involved, a fantastically delivered mix of the light and frothy and skin-crawlingly dark, and a promising sense that the next seven episodes will be utterly worth watching and definitely worth saving in an incremental way that bingewatching simply doesn’t deliver.