Reviewed by Tim Robins
WandaVision has just finished its nine episode run on Disney+ after a rapturous reception by online comic book fans, followed by a collective sulk as the grand finale failed to live up to fan speculation.
WandaVision is the first entry into “Phase Four’ of Marvel’s master plan for separating audiences from their hard earned cash. The series was created and written by Jac Schaeffer, also co-writer on the upcoming Black Widow feature film, although the idea of trapping Wanda and Vision in a sitcom came from Marvel Studios president Kevin Feigie.
The series is set after the movie Avengers: Endgame, reviewed here, although there are nods to other previous films, including Avengers: Age of Ultron and even the non-MCU properties such as X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) and X-Men: Apocalypse (2016).
A show within a show, on the outside are members of S.W.O.R.D. (S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Sentient Weapon Observation and Response Division), who are looking in on a hex world created by Wanda’s mutant ability to do anything writers want her to do. In this case, shape an entire town, according to the changing tropes of the American sitcom across the decades. As the series progresses, Wanda Maximov (Elisabeth Olsen) and her android lover, the Vision (Paul Bettany), struggle to fit into conventional events such as inviting the boss around for dinner, or simply exchanging superficial pleasantries with the neighbours next door.
The series offers plenty of ties to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Among the cast are Teyonah Parris, as Monica Rambeau from Captain Marvel (2019) and Randall Park as Jimmy Woo from Ant-Man (2015).
Evan Peters, from the Sony X-Men universe, also makes a surprise appearance as Wanda’s brother ‘Pietro’. In one of WandaVision’s meta-textual moments, Wanda is described as having recast the role of the MCU’s Pietro (as played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) having been killed in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). There are lots of wink, wink, nudge, nudge moments like this. The episodes have achingly arch titles such as “Filmed before a Live Audience”, “Now in Color” and “Breaking the Fourth Wall”.
The series is, in part, a pastiche of sitcoms such as I Love Lucy (1951-1957), Bewitched (1964-1972) and Malcolm in the Middle (2000-2006). Tonally, this aspect of the show is quite complex. So although episodes come with audience laughter, the situation becomes tinged with paranoia when the characters begin to notice that their reality is not what it seems. This gives WandaVision the feel of Ira Levine’s novels The Stepford Wives (1972) and Rosemary’s Baby (1967).
Much of the praise for the series has come from the meticulous recreation of US sitcoms as they changed across the decades. The first few episodes are even shot in black and white, and even the make-up had to be changed to work in this medium. This is entertaining to a point, but playing with the conventions of sitcoms is not exactly unprecedented and, given the frequency that US television plunder its back catalogue on TV and DVD, it is still possible to see such shows as current. History is not what it used to be, especially when the past refuses to remain in the past. WandaVision comes complete with its own already-made nostalgia.
For those familiar with comic book lore, much of the fun of WandaVision has been in guessing what parts of the Marvel Universe would be used to explain the show’s central mysteries: why are events occurring and who is responsible. And if you aren’t familiar with Marvel’s odd couple, then Panini UK have published an anthology, Wanda The Scarlet Witch and The Vision, to accompany the show. The reprints go some way to explain why fans thought Marvel’s devil substitute Mephisto might put in an appearance.
The character of Wanda was introduced in The X-Men (#4, 1964) and has since changed from someone who caused accidents when she pointed her fingers to a god-like entity capable of shaping reality itself. So the finger of suspicion was always going to be pointed at her, although other players also had a hand in the feel good hex world of small town Westview.
Fans quickly caught on to Agnes (Kathryn Hahn), a chirpy next door neighbour, correctly guessing that she was none other than Agatha Harkness, former babysitter for the son of the Fantastic Four’s Sue and Reed Richards. I must confess that I knew nothing of her transformation from kindly witch woman to evil adversary. That twist seems to come from the show’s creators, more than the comics.
Unfortunately, the weekly scheduling of WandaVision episodes, and the limbo of Covid-19 lockdown, allowed time and space for fans’ minds to go into overdrive. Gossip about the content of Episode Nine, included: what would be in the closing credit sequences, who would be the big-name actor Bettany hinted at always wanting to act with, and how would the series link to the forthcoming MCU movie Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness? Surely the presence of Wanda and The Vision’s spectral children was a sign of the deadly hand of Mephisto at work?
The answer to all of the above is no, not at all and Bettany was talking about playing opposite himself as a Vision in white. Instead, WandaVision fell back unreflexively on the tedious tropes of superhero movies: characters firing beams of energy at each other and a big beam of energy rising into the sky. As much as X-Men: First Class seemed to be the story of how Magneto got his helmet, so WandaVision was less about grief and loss and more about how Wanda became ‘The Scarlet Witch’. Something made less interesting by the MCU’s insistence that magic is just manipulating quantum energy, and not really magic in the Harry Potter sense.
It’s an old writer’s trick to throw in a casual reference that can be used in later series or quietly dropped without anyone other than the most devoted fans fretting over such content. When Wanda thanks her sleeping children for allowing her to be their Mom, the suggestion seems to be they are different to the other townsfolk transformed by Wanda’s hex powers. The final episode left me flummoxed rather than disappointed. Wanda seemed to be let off lightly for traumatising an entire town of innocent people. And the fate of Agatha Harkness was bewildering.
In the face of huge fan-driven hype, some of the twists could only be bathetic. There’s a Skrull whose only purpose seems to be to plug the forthcoming Secret Invasion TV show. ‘Pietro’, who turns out to be a guy named Ralph Bohner (pronounced “Boner”). This may be a gag too far. I doubt it will help sales of the new Pop figure released to tie in with WandaVision.
I enjoyed the series, but I suspect that a major part of WandaVision’s appeal is that it mirrors the lives of its audience. During lockdown, we are all trapped in domestic situations and daily routines while, beyond our bubbles, death and disaster stalk the land – not so much a comedy but by turns a tragedy, and a farce.
• Wanda The Scarlet Witch and Vision Bookazine is available from the Panini Comics web store and all good supermarkets and newsagents | ISBN: 9781846532962 £9.99
The Bookazine reprints “Avengers Origins: Vision”; “Avengers Origins: Scarlet Witch & Quicksilver”; Giant-Size Avengers #4 and Avengers West Coast #51-52
Dear reader, a review is an opinion – other opinions are available
These links also contain spoilers for the show
Jac Schaeffer shared some of the secrets behind the show’s origins, its Marvel-size finale and those impossibly catchy tunes.