This wasn’t the plan for WandaVision. WandaVision, a quirky little sitcom, was not meant to kickstart Marvel Studios’ wave of Disney+ content, let alone launch the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s highly-anticipated Phase 4. On top of that, WandaVision’s entire premise seemed too bizarre to work. The series stars Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany as their respective Avengers—second-wave Avengers, too. Wanda Maximoff (Olsen) and Vision (Bettany) aren’t on the notoriety level of Thor or Captain America, or even Hawkeye (who’s also getting a Disney+ show). Taking two ensemble superheroes and casting them as the leads of various classic sitcoms, produced by a movie studio not exactly known for small-scale antics—it’s a risk. And because of the pandemic’s impact upon movie releases and filming around the world, here’s WandaVision—the first new Marvel content in a year and a half.
What’s clear from the instant that the red Marvel logo fades into warm grays is that WandaVision is not just the next Marvel thing in a never-ending line of Marvel things. WandaVision is its own thing and, judging by the first three episodes given to press ahead of its debut, it’s potentially the one piece of the entire MCU canon that not only stands alone, but deserves to be analyzed completely independent of the larger conversation around superhero properties. WandaVision isn’t just another story about superheroes; WandaVision is a love letter to the history of sitcoms, one that sharply dissects how and why the format endures and why it remains culturally significant. Yep—WandaVision is a superhero show (a genre that’s frequently dismissed by critics) that analyzes sitcoms (a format frequently overlooked by critics).
To be clear: this shouldn’t exist. Even when looking to Scarlet Witch and Vision’s printed source material, these two have no canonical connection to classic television. Sure, both characters have moved to the suburbs and raised a few families to tragic ends, and there have been plenty of stories about Wanda rewriting reality around her. But while there are elements of Brian Michael Bendis and Olivier Coipel’s House of M and Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s Vision in WandaVision, the added layer of sitcom analysis makes this series its own marvelous, oddball thing.
And what a thing it is. After watching the first episode, this spectacularly bizarre premise makes perfect sense: Wanda’s magicked herself (I presume, honestly, as the “how” and “why” are very much the show’s central mystery) into a Mary Tyler Moore analogue and resurrected her incredibly dead robot lover as her Dick Van Dyke because she is blocking out trauma by surrounding herself with an idyllic, multi-camera family. In the real world of the MCU, Wanda was dead for five years and the love of her life is presumably still a lifeless gray shell in a Wakandan forest. She lost her parents as a child, her brother in a battle with Ultron, and her teammates—her surrogate family—kept in-fighting and dying. Because of Wanda’s very specific mental and emotional anguish, WandaVision truly could only be a classic sitcom. Of course she’s escaping into a format where everyone is gorgeous and perky, where all problems are resolved in under 25 minutes, and where having the most in life—a lovely house and adoring husband and twins!—comes at no cost. Of all the Avengers, Wanda Maximoff is the character that has been asked to pay time and time again.
This is why WandaVision is brilliant television, and quite possibly the best TV show about television to… ever exist? By pairing Wanda Maximoff, a character born of great tragedy, with sitcoms, the purest form of TV comfort food, WandaVision expertly unpacks why the traditional sitcom matters. Wanda turns to it because we turn to sitcoms, again and again, and we have for 70 years. WandaVision is the first TV show to say, loud and clear, that rewatching your faves is how we all deal with trauma. It conveys how that trauma sneaks into our viewing, too, by punctuating each episode with seconds of increasing dread. There’s a sense that something larger is wrong here… and then it’s easy to forget because, hey, hijinks!
This is why sitcoms work. We get swept up in the rhythm of setups and punchlines and we find low-key relief in the knowledge that things are going to turn out all right. We—and this is what WandaVision is all about, at least at first—find surrogate families with characters played by actors on television. We get valid, legitimate, and unexpected guidance and inspiration from these shows. It’s not an exaggeration to say that watching Marty Crane give Frasier a hug feels a little like getting the validation you’ve always longed for from your father. And if not that scenario, then slot in one from Cheers, Friends, The Office, Parks and Recreation, Family Matters, The Golden Girls, Community, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I Love Lucy, etc. If you love a sitcom, you probably love it because something about it gives you what you need—what you’re not getting anywhere else. We are all Wanda Maximoff when we binge these shows, especially right now.
The only reason WandaVision is able to successfully convey something this intimate is because the shows within the show (which, really, are the show) are executed with a miraculous attention to detail. The show is genuinely funny—and specifically funny in the minute ways that the sitcoms of each progressing decade were funny. Jac Schaeffer’s script for the first episode is nearly beat-for-beat a Dick Van Dyke Show rerun—but it isn’t just that. These episodes are not SNL-style parodies of old shows. Instead, they’re precise executions of those shows. They’re funny not because they’re snarking on Bewitched; they’re funny because they put these characters (a very human—NOT robot—husband complete with internal organs) in basic, sitcom-level situations (what if that human husband eats gum?).
And just to keep heightening the hurdles WandaVision had to clear to be as uniquely excellent as it is: a genuinely funny, era-appropriate script is nothing in the hands of actors that don’t know how to perform it. Comedy is hard. Sitcom acting is even harder, because you have to make the most scripted dialogue sound natural and funny. Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany did their homework and earned A’s.
I want to say they’re naturals, but it’d be nuts to think that that pulling off these subtle variations of evolving sitcom performance styles while staying true to these familiar characters was easy. They do make it look effortless, especially Bettany, who’s discovered a version of Vision that capitalizes on the actor’s innate rakish yet goofy charm. Olsen and Bettany, as well as Teyonah Parris (the mysterious Geraldine, a.k.a. Monica Rambeau) and everyone playing a Westview resident, are having a ball.
And then there’s Kathryn Hahn as the show’s resident mystery character. Is she just Agnes, a nosy next door neighbor? Or is she the show’s villain, as many Marvel fans suspect? Either way, one thing is clear: Kathryn Hahn is a professional’s professional. She completely embodies the entire busybody vibe of a Millie Helper or a Gladys Kravitz, but she plays those usually mousy roles with an unbridled confidence. She owns every soundstage she sets foot upon—and really, that’s why it seems likely that she’s going to go toe-to-toe with two Avengers. Delivering zingers is her superpower, and it is formidable.
With performances like those delivering scripts this tight, surrounded by period-accurate sets, lighting, effects, credits, costumes, etc., WandaVision is itself a masterclass in sitcom history and a sincere depiction of what the format means to people. This show is more than a Marvel show, and that’s evident from the first three episodes. They’re so deep in the sitcom world that the Marvel stuff, the helicopters and secret agents and whatnot, are very literally fighting to get airtime and attention (and generally losing). It’s completely unclear where the rest of the season will go, if the sitcom/Marvel ratio will go from 95/5 to something closer to 50/50. It’s clear that WandaVision is going to become a completely different show… but then again, it’s a different show in every single episode. And these first three episodes are strong enough to almost guarantee that we’re in for something wild, weird, and wonderful. Hey, that’s WandaVision!