WandaVision is a wildly imaginative detour from the usual MCU smash ‘n’ bash

Wildly imaginative, formally daring and steeped in character and emotion, the MCU takes a weird new direction in this sitcom-homaging series that follows Wanda (Elisabeth Olsen) and The Vision (Paul Bettany). 

While the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a cultural behemoth, the more interesting stuff tends to happen off to the sides, away from the big universe-shaking titanic tussles. With the launch of Disney+, which like every streaming service nurses a bottomless appetite for new content, the opportunity has arisen for Marvel to take some real wild swings in what is a relatively safe space.

Audiences might not stump up cinema money for a relatively obscure character like Moon Knight or a legal workplace comedy starring She-Hulk, but they may very well spring for a Disney+ trial for them. And while a surreal sitcom featuring The Vision (Paul Bettany) and the Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff (Elisabeth Olsen) probably wouldn’t break the billion dollar barrier at the box office, it’s a formally ambitious and intriguing slice of small screen entertainment.

Now, you might recall that Vision was dead the last time we saw him, having had the Mind Stone pulled out of his artificial head by Thanos in 2018’s Infinity War. In the opening few episodes of WandaVision (three were made available for review) he’s alive, well and living in wedded suburban bliss with Wanda in a black and white ‘50s-ish sitcom setting that’s equal parts The Dick Van Dyke show and Bewitched, with the pair of them concealing their powers from the likes of Vision’s boss (Fred Melamed) and nosy neighbour Agnes (Kathryn Hahn).

Showrunner Jac Shaeffer and director Matt Shakman have really gone to town on the whole early sitcom pastiche, shooting in black and white with a multicamera set up, employing canned laughter and, more importantly, cleaving to the narrative and performance styles of the form, offering up a glowing and sincere tribute to the early years of TV.

But there’s more to it than that, of course. While the style is enchanting, the central mystery is intriguing. How is Vision alive? Where exactly are we? Why is time seemingly both flexible and fast (by episode three the visual style has progressed to a late ‘60s Partridge Family/Brady Bunch pastiche)?

On occasion elements alluding to the wider Marvel universe creep in: a Strucker watch here, a Stark toaster there. Like the film Pleasantville, which WandaVision cannot help but recall, there are hints of darkness beneath the picture perfect suburbia we’re presented with. More so, brief scenes of somebody watching Wanda and Vision’s exploits on a high tech monitor indicate that the “real” world of the MCU has its eyes on their sitcom sub-universe.

All will be revealed, of course, and quite quickly. WandaVision is slated for only six episodes and, as is the way of such multimedia franchises these days, is rumoured to be doing the heavy lifting in setting up Doctor Strange 2 and even possibly the introduction of the X-Men into the MCU. But focusing on the series’ larger franchise function is doing it a disservice. The joys here are in the micro, and it’s a pleasure to revel in Bettany and Olsen’s pitch-perfect performances.

Bettany’s comic timing is, if you’ll pardon the phrase, a marvel to behold—clock the episode in which Vision is “drunk” on chewing gum. For her part, Olsen is incredible, playing the comedy of Wanda’s sitcom persona against the pathos of the character’s actual past (this is a woman, continuity fans, who has seen her parents brother, and lover die in front of her eyes over the course of her story) to subtle and moving effect.

Despite being ostensibly well outside the norms of superhero cinema and television, so far WandaVision is a perfect example of why these stories are so compelling. It’s wildly imaginative, formally daring, steeped in character and emotion. After the sense-shattering universe-scale crescendo of Avengers: Endgame in 2019, you could be forgiven for being a little over cape capers at this stage, but WandaVision is both the perfect corrective and a great appetizer for whatever Marvel Phase Four will bring us.