One of the most memorable moments of the experience I had attending a midnight screening of Avengers: Endgame came when Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff confronted Thanos – the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)’s big-bad – during the climactic battle. Members of the audience I was with, whose excitement at so many events throughout the film had manifested through cheers and applause (a rarity for cinema crowds in Ireland), responded to her appearance by uttering “Oooohhh!” and a couple of laughs; they knew the heroine gifted with telepathic and telekinetic abilities was about to wreak havoc on the figure who had inflicted so much torment on her in the previous instalment Avengers: Infinity War. The response to this scene came as a surprise to me in the level of enthusiasm this audience had for Wanda, given that she had only played supporting roles in the MCU films she had featured in since her debut in 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. It was a testament to Olsen’s portrayal of Maximoff and the relationship her character had built with fellow superhero and love interest Vision (Paul Bettany) – most of which had occurred off-screen – that the brief showcases of her powers sparked such fervour among fans of the series.
Endgame was the culmination of 22 films released in the space of 11 years in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, marking the end of the line for established personalities in the series while opening doors for newer additions. However, the number of doors that were about to be opened increased dramatically with the launch of Disney’s brand new streaming service Disney+, as Marvel Studios stated their intent to venture into television, announcing a multitude of productions revolved around existing MCU characters as well as individuals and storylines that had not yet been introduced. A striking aspect of this approach was the commitment to giving supporting figures like Wanda Maximoff the chance to headline an entry in the franchise that might not have been possible if the studio had remained purely focused on theatrical releases. As more news emerged about the development of these shows, my optimism about the future of the MCU increased significantly, as it appeared as though they were using the immediate period after the exhilarating, emotionally draining double act of Infinity War and Endgame to delve deeper into characters we had not spent a substantial amount of time with in the series’ first three phases. By doing so, there were chances to tackle themes and genres that earlier instalments had little room to explore since they were building towards a specific event. Now, with no Thanos-esque threat on the horizon, this period of the MCU provides ample opportunity to have more fun with the world, while simultaneously demonstrating an ambition to go in dark places when required.
WandaVision was not intended to commence Phase 4 of the MCU; that position was held by another female-led entry in the franchise, Black Widow. However, delays to that and other upcoming films and television shows due to the current pandemic, resulted in a rejig of the studio’s slate of releases which led to this miniseries – created by Jac Schaeffer – kicking off a new era. As it transpires, this production could well serve as a solid indication of what fans can expect in the coming years. On paper, the concept of WandaVision seems like the most jarring of Marvel’s Disney+ slate in regards to the combination of characters and tone. The world Wanda finds herself in, resembling the aesthetic of various sitcoms in the latter of the 20th century as well as those of recent times, feels ill-fitting for a figure who has had to deal with so much tragedy and, due to the nature of her abilities, is on the margins of becoming consumed by darkness and losing sight of the people who persuaded her to use the powers she boasts for the world’s betterment. However, the show makes it pretty clear early on that all is not as it seems, and suddenly it is operating as both as tribute to television comedies as well as a mystery. As a result, the latest MCU offering wisely does not attempt to carry stakes as huge as those of Infinity War and Endgame, but there are enough intriguing elements of the narrative to maintain an audience’s emotional investment.
Given the hype associated with any Marvel Studios project, the creative team behind WandaVision had to ride a very fine line between delivering what fans would expect from the company’s offerings as well as utilising the medium of television to push the boundaries of the storytelling that has pervaded the universe thus far. I was curious to see if the progression of the narrative would resemble that of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2, whereby the majority of screen-time was dedicated to exploring the main characters’ personal issues and fractured relationships rather than having them trying to fend off a traditional villain. It was such a departure from other MCU movies in its pacing and narrative structure, and a subset of fans were frustrated by this while others like myself found James Gunn’s second feature in the Marvel canon to be deeply rewarding upon multiple viewings. WandaVision, however, mostly succeeds in striking a neat balance between adding new layers to characters like Maximoff and building enough momentum with its mysterious plot to elicit a response of exasperation among audiences upon almost every episode’s cut-to-credits, desperate to know how certain developments will be resolved. The novelty of placing established figures in a world that changes to reflect alternative eras of television sitcoms is the main draw of the first two instalments in the miniseries, with the commitment to recapturing the aesthetic and tone of classics like The Dick Van Dyke Show and Bewitched through the production design, lighting, acting, dialogue, and cinematography immediately immersing viewers. Thankfully, just as this narrative device is on the verge of seeming like a gimmick, the show shifts gears and pulls us back into the world fans have become accustomed to since the release of Iron Man in 2008. It spotlights individuals who have made brief appearances in the MCU in a way that feels true to the story rather than a case of shoehorning people in for the sake of it. Subsequently, the back half of WandaVision contains a dual storyline with vastly different tones, and it still manages to juggle both without losing its stride.
One of my concerns going into Phase 4 of the MCU was that its entries would not sufficiently reckon with the fallout of Endgame and would quickly pivot to setting up another huge threat for our heroes to eventually face off against. Therefore, it is a welcome relief that WandaVision grapples with the consequences of the Avengers’ actions on a small and wide scale. Through the characters of Wanda and to a lesser extent Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Paris), the show demonstrates how difficult it is for someone to adjust to a tumultuous world without loved ones. Wanda in particular is an ideal figure to tackle the theme of grief with given how she can teeter between lightness and darkness. The calming influence Vision has on her was on display in Captain America: Civil War and Infinity War, but in this series we really understand why they share such a strong connection, as well as how harmful the impact could be on Maximoff and many others of permanently losing him. It is not until near the end of the show when we realise how a profusion of tragedies on a superhero can manifest in a startling way, in that causes it inflicts more psychological damage on civilians than physical. Endgame did a great job in highlighting how people with gifted abilities cope with defeat and loss, but WandaVision demonstrates a maturity in its treatment of these heavy subjects that vindicates its 9-episode length and the promotion of its titular characters from supporting players to headline acts, enabling Elizabeth Olsen to exhibit her versatility as an actress as she shifts between extremes of comedy and drama.
I want to dedicate one brief section of this post to Kathryn Hahn. She is just wonderful, and that’s all I will say in fear of spoiling things for anyone who somehow has not watched the show in its entirety.
There are a couple of drawbacks to this project’s status as a television property, in that the resolution to certain mysteries feels at odds with the manner in which they were built up earlier in the series, and there are sequences, especially in the finale, where the limited budget in comparison to MCU films is apparent in regards to the visual effects. Occasionally, the show falls back into habits featured in early Marvel entries, specifically showdowns between characters with near identical abilities as well as a rather bland antagonist (albeit the series nearly makes up for that near the end through another figure’s emergence). However, despite these few flaws, there are many encouraging signs in WandaVision or the future of Marvel Studios. While not every Disney+ series from the studio will try to directly recapture the mood and look of this project, the inventive ways it explores various characters and themes should certainly carry a considerable influence on the creatives behind upcoming productions. Fans may not have an event on the level of Endgame to look forward to for a while, but by progressing the overarching storyline in this fashion, our emotional attachment to Marvel’s heroes is likely to be stronger than ever when that moment eventually comes around.