WandaVision Review: Superhero Sitcom Gains Power From Hidden Tragedy

Note: This WandaVision review is based on the first three episodes. It will not spoil anything that the marketing hasn’t already revealed.

In addition to everything else, for fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, 2020 was a long year. Just when we were getting used to 2-3 movies a year, 12 months of absolutely nothing felt tough. So even seeing that familiar hero collage and that music fanfare at the beginning of anything engenders some automatic goodwill and warm feels. But what ensues in WandaVision isn’t like anything else in the MCU so far. If you’ve seen any of the trailers or TV spots, you mostly know what to expect: it’s a sitcom starring two superheroes, except in brief moments when it isn’t.

Thus far, each of the episodes plays out like a sitcom from a different decade. Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) still know who they are and what their powers are. However, they don’t recall how long they’ve been married, where they came from, or why they moved to the telegenic little town of Westview. But like all sitcom couples with a high-concept fantasy or sci-fi angle, they must conceal their secret identities, impress the boss, stay in good social standing, and navigate wacky misunderstandings. Given how many clips and different trailers Marvel Studios released, it would be easy to fear they’ve given too much away already. Fortunately, that’s not the case so far. The trailers lean heavily into the occasional incongruities the characters notice; the show itself is mostly sitcom spoof.

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And each week embraces a different sitcom style, with appropriate title sequences and theme songs. By episode 3, we’re into color and the 1970s. It’s hard to say exactly, but WandaVision seems to actually have about a week pass for the characters between each episode. Stylistically, this could only have worked on TV, and bodes well for the future of this universe on small screens.

Obviously there are only so many possible explanations for the new reality. Is it a hallucination, simulation, alternate dimension, alien planet, or…? WandaVision looks likely to tease out that mystery for the entire season. One thing we do know, because every announcement from the first one at Comic-Con onward spoiled it, is that neighbor “Geraldine” (Teyonah Parris) is known in the MCU by a different name. But still, why is she here, in this story?

Mostly, the show plays like a loving parody. But to those who know the MCU, the subtle air of tragedy underpinning everything makes it stronger. We know Vision is dead in the prime reality. And every so often that appears to register with Wanda, but just for a split second. However happy this setting seems to be, it surely must end, because in “real” life it already did. Or must it? This is, after all, a universe where anything can happen, and nobody in comics ever really stays deceased.

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As of episode three, Randall Park and Kat Dennings have still not appeared. But there is connective tissue to other parts of the MCU, especially in some odd commercials that always feature the same pitchman and actress. There’s a bit of a Blue Velvet vibe in the occasional suggestion that something is really off here, but the characters quickly try to handwave it all away, sometimes literally, in ways that seem likely to get progressively less effective. What happens when they run out of sitcom decades?

Part of WandaVision‘s strength is that it would work just fine as an absolutely straight-up sitcom. Bettany does some of his best work as an android pretending to be a real human being, one that’s actually a pastiche of TV tropes most of the time. And he and Olsen nail the screwball dynamic that’s essential to making the best classic TV comedies work. But in letting her dark side show just a little, Olsen — and the design of the show itself — kicks everything up a notch. Viewers don’t want their hearts to break over what may be to come, but a strong undercurrent of foreboding suggests they might. And this reminds the viewer that in tough times, TV’s pleasures can only distract us for so long.

Grade: 5/5 (so far)

WandaVision‘s first two episodes premiere this Friday on Disney+, with individual episodes to follow each week.

Recommended Reading: Vision: The Complete Collection

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