REVIEW: “WandaVision” – Episodes 1 and 2

I’ve been jaded with the MCU for a long time now. For at least the last half-dozen films, the whole thing has felt a bit creatively stagnant. Visually, it’s hard to separate one film from another; they all have a sense of sameness to them. The same is true tonally, too, with almost every film in the franchise using comedy to undercut its emotional moments and relying too much on spectacle and humor at the expense of meaningful, consistent character development. Avengers: Endgame had pretty much killed my interest in the MCU as a whole, with its terrible plotting and incoherent character arcs, but maybe these movies just aren’t for me. Even when the MCU took risks, like with Infinity War and Endgame, it still felt safe. That is, however, until the first batch of Disney+ MCU shows were announced. Sure, some of them felt like the same old, same old from the MCU (looking at you, Falcon and the Winter Soldier), but some seemed cool, unique, and interesting. Chief among them was WandaVision—a show about two characters I’ve never cared much about that featured an audacious and risky premise. Sounds exactly like my cup of tea. And, honestly, having seen the first two episodes, I’m pretty into it. While being extremely light on any kind of an overarching plot, the first two episodes of WandaVision are a love-letter to classic TV sitcoms that hints at some kind of broader, menacing mystery. If it can stick the landing, it could be something great. (4 out of 5 wands.)

NOTE: There will be spoilers for the first two episodes of WandaVision. Read at your own risk.

WandaVision S01E01 (written by Jac Schaeffer, directed by Matt Shakman)
Wanda and Vision struggle to conceal their powers during dinner with Vision’s boss and his wife.

WandaVision S01E02 (written by Gretchen Enders, directed by Matt Shakman)
In an effort to fit in, Wanda and Vision perform a magic act in their community talent show.

The first episode is modeled after a Dick Van Dyke Show kind of show while the second episode is modeled after Bewitched. However, there is no explanation as to why Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) find themselves in such an environment, nor is there any explanation as to how the show fits into the MCU’s larger universe. Instead, these episodes exist as fairly standard sitcom episodes. The first episode revolves around Wanda and Vision getting acclimated to their new lives while facing a standard sitcom plot. That morning, they find a heart on that day’s entry on their calendar and misunderstand what it’s referring to. Wanda thinks it’s signifying their anniversary while Vision learns it’s signifying a dinner with his boss (and his boss’s wife), whose last name is Hart. Shenanigans ensue. The second episode sees Wanda and Vision continuing to try and blend in with their neighbors while entering a talent competition and doing magic tricks. Again, shenanigans ensue. The plots are simple and they’re quite reminiscent of the sitcoms they’re referencing.

These episodes are caught somewhere between parody and pastiche. You’re never able to tell if WandaVision is lovingly making fun of sitcom tropes are wholeheartedly embracing them—but that’s part of the fun. There’s a live studio audience, the episodes are shot in black and white in a 4×3 aspect ratio, and there are even in-universe commercials that air about halfway through each episode. Honestly, you couldn’t find a more faithful recreation of mid-20th century sitcoms if you tried. It’s clear that Jac Schaeffer and Gretchen Enders, the writers of the first two episodes, have quite a bit of love for these older shows. And it’s even clearer that Matt Shakman (the series’s director) has studied them quite a bit. Regardless of whether the show intends to be a parody or a pastiche, it’s a lot of fun. On their own, these wouldn’t be particularly impressive episodes of a sitcom, but in the context of what they are—entries in the oft-monotonous MCU—they’re great. There is such a distinct style shown during these episodes that makes WandaVision feel unlike anything else in the MCU. It’s kind of similar to how Thor: Ragnarok felt like a breath of fresh creative air. These episodes are exciting because they’re so different. Nothing happens in them, but they’re so fun because of how perfectly they reference older sitcoms. If you’re familiar with the shows being riffed on, you’ll immediately notice all the easter eggs and hallmarks being displayed. But if you’re not, I wonder if there’s enough for you.

Separated from whatever comes next, these episodes don’t do the best job setting up the show’s central mystery. There are little hints that something is amiss—the first episode ends with a shot of someone watching WandaVision’s closing credits in a mysterious room and the second episode features a recurring, mysterious voice on the radio calling out to Wanda, as well as a strange beekeeper who emerges from a manhole in the middle of the street. But there’s no real sense as to what, exactly, is going on or who’s behind it. And, sure, that’s part of the show’s fun. It’s a slow-burn mystery that’s sure to leave fans speculating as each episode comes out. Even those who, like me, are a bit jaded by the MCU as a whole. I’m hoping this whole thing turns out to be something like classic sitcoms meet The Twilight Zone and The Truman Show—but we’ll see what happens. However, with its fairly strict adherence to sitcom tropes, these first episodes may prove alienating to pre-existing fans of the MCU who might be expecting something closer to the films. And as far as attracting new fans, I’m not sure there’s enough explanation as to who Wanda and Vision are in these episodes to get anyone who’s not already invested in the MCU invested in Wanda and Vision’s story—yet.

Now, that being said, these first two episodes of WandaVision are a definite success—largely because of how good Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany are as Wanda and Vision, respectively. The whole show hinges on the two of them—on their chemistry, their dynamic, and their talent. Without the two of them, this whole thing falls apart at the seams. At this point, Olsen and Bettany are so in tune with their characters that their performances feel wholly natural. Even though the show hints at Wanda and Vision being unsure of their backstories, Olsen and Bettany manage to make the characters feel familiar to audiences regardless of the uncertainty around what’s going on. They walk a fine line between feeling like actors in old sitcoms and feeling like their characters and it’s kind of brilliant. Surrounding Olsen and Bettany are a solid ensemble—with the standouts being Kathryn Hahn and Teyonah Parris. Hahn’s Agnes is hilarious as the nosy neighbor Wanda can’t seem to shake while Parris’s Geraldine fills a more dramatic role as someone who, like Wanda, is unsure of why they’re in this world. I expect to see Hahn and Parris’s roles continue to grow in importance, especially since we already know exactly who Teyonah Parris is playing—Maria Rambeau, the daughter of Captain Marvel‘s Monica Rambeau. How this reveal fits into the show’s storyline is unknown now, but the appearance of Parris as Geraldine adds an intriguing wrinkle to everything. The rest of the show’s cast is solid, too, but none of them make the kind of impression that these four do.

All in all, the first two episodes of WandaVision are solid. The premise it sets up is interesting, with the audience and Wanda and Vision seemingly unsure of what’s going on and why. The loving reverence to mid-20th century sitcoms is delightful, even if the individual episodes wouldn’t make for particularly impressive sitcom episodes. I’m curious as to where the show goes from here—curious to learn what’s going on, why Wanda and Vision are in this situation, and how they’re going to get out. To be totally honest, I expect the show to end up letting me down in some form or fashion—it’s still the MCU after all. But I am intrigued and impressed by how fresh and unique this feels now. My one big concern, though, is the show’s rollout. It seems like a mistake to air this in a strictly weekly fashion. With the episodes as short as they are and the plot moving as slowly as it is, it seems like a recipe for disappointed fans. With these first episodes being so light on plot, is there enough here to hook people who aren’t as delighted by old sitcoms? I’m not entirely sure. People who adore the MCU and feel the need to absorb every possible thing will certainly watch this show weekly, but what about everyone else? I understand Marvel/Disney’s desire to have a weekly conversation around the show, instead of burning through the whole season in a single day. However, I feel there may be a middle ground that could be reached. Perhaps by releasing the nine episodes in batches of three over three weeks. This would still allow for that weekly conversation and speculation to occur while also ensuring fans feel they’ve gotten a satisfying amount of content. The shorter episodes of The Mandalorian were always my least favorites and I worry that the shortness of WandaVision’s episodes will hurt it in the long run. Time will tell, I assume. Until then, this is a solid start for a series I hope will continue to be weird, innovative, and unique.

4 out of 5 wands.

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