Contains some spoilers for WandaVision.
Of all the properties to attempt a shared universe, Marvel’s has succeeded, in the main, because it committed to being a producer-led series, under the creative control of one man: Kevin Feige. Warner Bros. attempted to make the DC Extended Universe a director-led process, then when Zack Snyder produced less that glowingly reviewed results, it threw to whole enterprise into chaos, with no overarching vision, save for that of Snyder, with whom they were now seeking a break. Star Wars‘ sequel trilogy faltered (critically) due chiefly to the fact that it comprised the visions of two vastly different filmmakers, with each film acting as a clumsy riposte to the previous entry.
The relevance of this is that if Marvel have had one area of patchy, inconsistent product, it is their TV arm. Rather than live under the auspices of Feige, the TV series were shepherded by a separate division: Marvel Television, under the creative control of noted comic book writer Jeph Loeb. At the launch of both Agents of SHIELD and the Netflix series (starting with Daredevil), viewers were told ‘it’s all connected!’. In reality the connection rarely went beyond a few references to the Avengers or to Tony Stark.
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The universe may have been one, at least notionally, but the lack of Feige input seemed to mean that the all-powerful film division wanted little to do with this sub-area over which it had no control. This left the whole enterprise feeling completely disparate and, as the products started to become wildly insistent – with Daredevil and Jessica Jones both producing weaker seasons after their first – less and less relevant. By December 2019, Marvel Television was defunct and the MCU would now be in the hands of the parent Marvel Studios. Once again, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is under the creative control of one man and, with the launch of Disney+, the goal is to make television and film co-equal partners in the telling of stories from phase four and beyond. No longer would television be the junior, B-list partner.
Although The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was expected to be the first series out of the gate, the current worldwide pandemic, with its associated filming delays, has ensured that WandaVision has made it to our home screens first. While the former may have been the safer product (time will tell on that, with the debut episode due in less than two weeks), the switch in schedule may have turned out to be a happy accident, as the MCU needs to stake out an identity on television that, although it sits within the whole, is different to that offered by a two hour film. A multi-camera sitcom, with a live audience – at least at the start – seems an endeavour of significant risk, and a statement of intent that Marvel have lost none of their creative juice.
In the nine episode arc, WandaVision takes us through a different era of sitcom in each episode – with exceptions around the fourth, as we start to learn what is happening, and towards the end of the season, when the whole sitcom conceit is dropped entirely. Episode one is presented in academy ratio, black and white, and seems to be playing on shows such as I Love Lucy; episode two is very much Bewitched; episode three moves to a widescreen format (something of a cheat, as actual sitcoms did not do this for another 20-55 years at least), and is finally in colour, riffing on The Brady Bunch.
Episode five moves to the eighties with an episode in-keeping with Family Ties (the bespoke opening credits being almost identical) and a range of other shows from that era. The 90s and 2000s are covered in one with a Malcom in the Middle-style episode – even the movie theatre in that entry showing films from both the 90s and 2000s at the same time. Finally, the most recent completed decade is covered with a Modern Family take. Each era is recreated perfectly, with comedic stylings, set design and camera placement being exactly as would be expected.
All of this is in service of a story dealing with the grief of Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) after the death of Vision in Infinity War. In her grief, she appears to have created a perfect suburban lifestyle for her and what may or may not be a recreation of her dead partner (Paul Bettany). With enough clues that all is not as it seems – unseen hands off-screen at the end of episodes, modern and colour drones appearing in the black and white episode, key characters ‘forgetting’ their lines, and Vision slowly realising none of this is as it should be – we are kept on the hook though the early episodes.
That said, episode four was as late as it could have been left to start filling in the mystery, with Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) – daughter of Captain Marvel‘s Maria Rambeau – being revealed as a member of the ‘cast’ of WandaVision, and expelled out of the show’s Westview setting, back into our present day. From there we see welcome returns for Randall Park’s Jimmy Woo character from Ant-Man and the Wasp (and he is still working on that close-up magic), and Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) – now a proud holder of a PhD – not seen since Thor: The Dark World.
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WandaVision is best experienced with as few spoilers as possible, though with as much MCU background knowledge as the viewer can find/remember. That is the show’s biggest strength and biggest weakness. It is a weakness because this is really not the property with which to start a journey with Marvel. The lore is starting to become dense, and the playing with format in the earliest episode will only alienate those without the background on the series with which even to formulate theories on what is happening. It is a strength, as – finally – when we are told ‘it is all connected’, it actually is.
Whereas the completist could watch the previous TV series either for enjoyment of that property or to say they have seen everything in the continuity, while the rest of us could pick and choose in the knowledge that it really didn’t matter as long as we saw the films: now this feels like a true part of the new MCU phase. On a negative note, the show kind of botches the ending, with a final shot reminiscent of The Incredible Hulk‘s, and a final confirmation that no storyline is every truly finished in this worl.;But it draws huge emotion and wonderful performances from two leads who seemed at the outset that they were spearheading something of the storytelling gimmick.
WandaVision is available exclusively on Disney+.