Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD, as I chat about what I enjoyed in the television show WandaVision. I’m sure that people who wanted to watch it will have done so already (and it’s not as if the episodes are very long), but decorum dictates that a disclaimer is made.
It’s been a tough year, full of sadness and anger and unpleasantness; hearing the Marvel fanfare by Michael Giacchino was such a heart-warming sound – it’s been such a long time since new MCU material, so it was delightful to be welcomed back. The set-up for the WandaVision series is simple: Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and the Vision (Paul Bettany) are living in American suburbia, the town of Westview, more specifically the world of US sitcoms, despite not being completely certain how they got there while still retaining their superhero abilities, and with no knowledge that the Vision is dead. The first three episodes are set in different eras, as we progress from black and white of the 1950s of episode 1 and the 1960s of episode 2 through to the colour of the 1970s in episode 3, with various plotlines happening that riff on the type of sitcom tropes that occurred back then, including Wanda becoming pregnant and giving birth to twins, Billy and Tommy.
An aside: the first two episodes were released on the same day, set in the sitcom worlds but with hints of something else, with the subsequent episodes released on a weekly basis. The third episode was also set exclusively in the sitcom world, before the fourth episode was set in the ‘real’ world and explained some of what was happening. The three sitcom-based episodes were necessary to set up the show, but unless you really love old sitcoms, with their dated sexism and stilted atmosphere, they were a bit slow. Disney should have released the first three episodes to get that out of the way, or the creators (creator Jac Schaeffer, director of all episodes Matt Shakman) should have made two longer first episodes to cover all the necessary information in that first drop.
The fourth episode is where the story kicks off – Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) is revived in the Blip to discover her mother, Maria, has died during the five years. Returning to work as an agent for SWORD (here called the ‘Sentient Weapon Observation and Response Division’, rather than the ‘World’ in the comic books), she is sent to Westview, New Jersey to help Agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park, returning after Ant-Man and the Wasp) on a missing persons case. Monica is pulled into the energy field surrounding the town and disappears, and a base is set up around the town to investigate. Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings, who has acquired a PhD since Thor: The Dark World) is brought in to help and discovers that a signal is broadcasting a television show from inside the town, the show we’ve been watching for the past two weeks, with members of the town cast in the show. This includes Monica as ‘Geraldine’ who we had seen help Wanda during the delivery of her twins, but mentions Ultron when Wanda talks about her brother, Pietro, which caused Wanda to expel Monica from the town at the end of episode 3. This was a cracking episode and what made me love the show.
One of the elements of the show that I really enjoyed was the cliffhanger endings – comic books have always done them, although this has receded a little in the ‘writing for the trade’ era (apart from the brilliant Saga, which employed them liberally), but it was a delight to enjoy the episodes and then be left on a wonderful twist (the ‘She recast Pietro’ moment of Evan Peters, the Quicksilver of the Fox X-Men films, appearing at the end of episode 5 as the wacky uncle; the fabulous ‘It was Agatha all along’ reveal of the end of episode 7, with its own theme tune), having to wait a week for the resolution.
Another aside: I avoided reading about/listening to/watching any spoiler speculation about the show while I was watching it, so that I could enjoy it clean each time. The only thing that was spoiled in advance was the speculation that Kathryn Hahn’s character, the nosy neighbour Agnes, was going to be Agatha Harkness, but everybody knew that Hahn was going to be more than a fabulous supporting character – you don’t have Hahn in your show unless she’s going to have a purpose, because she’s brilliant (and was brilliant in the show, stealing it whenever she was on screen) and it would be a waste of such a talent. Knowledge is dangerous: I accidentally spoiled that Monica Rambeau was becoming a superhero to my partner because she didn’t know the character’s antecedents in the comic books. However, I have been listening to the Empire Podcast Spoiler Special episodes for the show after watching the whole series, and I’m glad I didn’t listen along live – the reveal of Evan Peters as Pietro would have been ruined because it was speculated upon based on rumour.
Yet another aside: listening to the Empire spoiler podcasts provided a glimpse into the minor industry that grew up speculating on theories about the show, and the bizarre rumours and possibilities that people selected. Talk of ‘an aerospace engineer’ in the show apparently posited the theory that it would be Reed Richards and this would introduce the Fantastic Four into the MCU, which was clearly nonsense. The speculation for possible Big Bads for the show included Mephisto and Nightmare – what? Having read some of the comic books, I was always sure that everything that was happening was due solely to Wanda and her breakdown due to the grief of losing Vision, which was the entire point of the show – a woman with massive reality-altering powers dealing with the death of her lover and coming to turns with all the loss she has suffered in her life (including her parents and her brother). Bettany made a joke before the final episode about being able to act against an actor he’d always admired (he was referring to himself, in the Vision versus White Vision scenes, which were very well done), which led to people speculating on guest stars from the existing MCU actors or even new characters that were being introduced. All bonkers stuff, so I’m glad I discovered it afterwards, although it is fun to listen to the Empire gang talking about the show after the event and revealing details I missed.
On to the stuff I enjoyed. As with all MCU films, the cast members were brilliant – Olsen and Bettany were marvellous, going from broad sitcom acting to the ‘realistic’ to the more subtle sitcom acting of the modern era (Bettany’s look to camera in episode’s 7 ‘Breaking the Fourth Wall’ and Olsen’s ‘I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m fine.’ were particular delights), as well as the moving drama elements (and I loved that they took it in turns for their name to come first in the credits). As I mentioned, Hahn was perfect in every scene and I hope we get to see more of her in the future. It was a delight to see Parks and Dennings sparking off each other, and I can totally understand the clamour for a show of the two of them investigating weirdness in the MCU. Parris was exactly right as Monica Rambeau, the right balance of determination and sense of rightness and caring for a superhero, and I can’t wait to see her in Captain Marvel 2 (and possibly the Secret Invasion show) as whatever name they decide on for her character, presumably Photon to honour her mother (and it was a nice touch that Maria Rambeau started SWORD, to complement Peggy Carter starting SHIELD). As a fan of Emma Caulfield due to her role as Anya in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I was delighted to see her in the show, if only for a little while, and wish she could return at some point.
The show was always discussed as a production on the scale of the movies, and it was clear to see from the fantastic attention to detail, from the hair and clothes of the actors, to the set design of the house through the ages and even the different theme songs for each era. The CGI was movie level – thank goodness for Disney’s deep pockets – so the spectacle was spectacular but also the smaller details; this was matched by the writing on the show, which was able to blend the humour of the sitcoms in the different era with the plot development of the mystery as well as beautiful moments within the show. The line ‘But what is grief, if not love persevering?’ is hauntingly beautiful and an absolutely exquisite turn of phrase for the ages.
I also loved how much of the comic books infused the show. Each week, it seemed that the credits would increase to thank additional comic book creators for their stories – I think this was done so as to reveal the contribution after it had been used in the show (John Byrne was added to the list late on, after the White Vision reveal as the cliffhanger ending of episode 8, despite the fact that Byrne’s run on the West Coast Avengers was clearly the basis for a lot of the show, such as the nature of the twins and the effect on Wanda’s psyche, even providing visuals such as the Vision’s body splayed across different operating tables that were used in the show). Tom King and Gabriel Walta’s The Vision mini-series had the suburbia setting (and Sparky the dog), Kurt Busiek and George Perez’s development of the chaos magic aspect of Wanda’s character, and I was happily surprised by the development of Wanda into the Scarlet Witch – the previous iteration had gone with the Infinity Stone as the basis for her power, but now we’ve gone full magic, and it’s great and the proper Scarlet Witch costume looks fantastic.
It wouldn’t be an MCU project it there weren’t post-credit stings, so WandaVision provided that as well, setting up Monica Rambeau for her next stage, visited by a Skrull (‘an old friend of your mother’s’) as well as Doctor Strange and Multiverse of Madness, with Scarlet Witch in her astral form in a remote cabin reading the Darkhold for information; will she be causing problems when trying to find her children? Oh, it’s good to have the MCU back – I’ve missed it so much. I was worried that Disney was just trying to shoehorn it into TV for their new streaming service (which is severely lacking in the depth and range of new material), but it seems to have worked out well. Bring on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki and What If…? and Hawkeye and Ms Marvel and She-Hulk and Moon Knight …
Final thought: am I the only one who would sing the word ‘WandaVision’ to theme tune of the Wonder Woman television show? ‘Wanda, Wanda, Wanda Vision …’