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In America, you binge TV. In Sokovia, TV binges you!

By Darren Franich
March 05, 2021 at 01:54 PM EST
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Warning: Spoilers ahead for all of WandaVision.

The scourge of comfort TV will ruin us all. Those lucky enough to retreat from the world will bury themselves in delusions of yesteryear, streaming old shows until their existence resembles a neverending binge. Their life becomes eternal cosplay untouched by cruel reality. When anyone suggests this is not very healthy behavior, violent outbursts erupt.

This, it turns out, was sort of the story of WandaVision: Nostalgia as a weapon, lobotomizing you senseless or bombing your neighborhood back to the cultural stone age. In suburban Westview, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) created a memory-shard version of Vision (Paul Bettany), and mind-hexed a population into her supporting cast. Meet your new neighbor: An invader, body-snatching. In the darkness on the edge of town, government officials kept running outside to stare dangerously at Wanda's red wall. Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) wanted to help. She got back-up from Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) and Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings). There was also another Vision, remember? The finale forgot all about him midway through. Guess Wanda hexed the writers.

I enjoyed the Disney+ series' first three episodes, which combined a rigid episodic structure — every week a new sitcom era! — with longform mystery. Goofball antics kept iceberg-tipping into all-encompassing unpleasantness. In the premiere's stunning climactic dinner, Fred Melamed's crusty boss almost chokes to death. His wife (Debra Jo Rupp) begs him to "Stop it, stop it, stop it!" while she laughs and laughs and laughs. Terrifying! Delightful! "I worry that the central mystery is a bit standard," I wrote at the time. "Success will depend on whether the eventual answers are satisfying — and whether all those fancy sitcom adornments are just a long wind-up to an overly familiar superhero smash-up."

If only the smash-up had merely been familiar. Friday's finale is a five-ring circus of pointless showdowns. Two Visions duel in the sky — and then one Vision uses his powers of Brain Fingertouching to settle everything. Wanda doesn't understand how to use her godlike abilities — and then she does, because Agatha (Kathryn Hahn) spent last week's whole episode telling her potential enemy how witch powers work. Evan Peters' Quicksilver (or whoever) holds Monica prisoner with his powers, and then she just kinda beats him up. Jimmy calls the FBI. Darcy leaves early.

Much conversation will arise from the post-credits scenes. I'll leave that to the trusted experts. Instead, let's rewind a bit. Wanda Maximoff suffered trauma in three and a half acts. Parents killed, brother killed, lover mercy-killed by her and then resurrected by the monster of the cosmos for a skull-tearing execution: Heavy, man. In the Avengers movies, she didn't have much personality, beyond the kind of sad blank toughness Marvel usually leaves to DC. WandaVision revealed her past as a TV fanatic, so savvy she knew the precise moment comedy history invented man-children. Shiny sitcom America provided an escape for the little girl in war-torn Sokovia. It became another escape for the woman fleeing unimaginable loss.

This all came out in the very messy penultimate episode, which twisted Wanda's origin story into the sort of Chosen One gloop that even Marvel started making fun of years ago. Hahn narrated Wanda through an expository journey about How Her Powers Work — "You're even running illusions away at the edge of town! Magic on autopilot!" — like the proverbial celebrity voice hired to class up a videogame tutorial.

WandaVision
Paul Bettany as Vision and Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff in 'WandaVision'
| Credit: Marvel Studios

The flashbacks did, however, offer one brilliantly unsettling sequence. Young Wanda (Michaela Russell) and her brother Pietro (Gabriel Gurevich) sit on the couch with their parents, enjoying dad's bootlegged DVDs. The sitcoms are a kind of education tool, helping the kids learn English. A half-century-old laugh track fills the room — and then the room explodes. Wanda doesn't see her parents die, because she's watching television. The siblings, half-crushed in the ruins, watch a missile slam into the ground. On the side of the explosive is a brand name for a major U.S. weapons manufacturer. Foreigners enjoy American entertainment right before American munitions kill their parents: Boy, you could do a lot with a story like that.

WandaVision couldn't follow through on its sharpest instincts. I know, I know: This is supposed to be a superhero show, and some viewers tired of the sitcom schtick. At least the parody was a style. Episode 4 went outside the bubble, and WandaVision never recovered. Comic relief characters from two of Marvel's worst movies yammered about firewalls and Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation and the decay signature of vibranium. S.W.O.R.D. is just S.H.I.E.L.D. except more boring and just as corrupt. (Stop me if you heard this twist from Marvel in 2014: The top-secret agency is Not To Be Trusted.) Every scene in the high-security compound looked like any old network procedural where screens solve plot problems for bantering keyboard-typers. Josh Stamberg played the He-Man version of bureaucratic corruption, the megafranchise's worst villain since Ant-Man's Evil Business Scientist.

WandaVision used an Endgame flashback to emotionally link two characters. Wanda grieves Vision, while Monica returns from Infinity Stoned oblivion to discover her mom died years ago. Theoretically, the Rambeau material should have serviced this fan. When I started reading comics, she was the reigning Captain Marvel, one of those great utility Avengers who popped up here and there with all sorts of powers. (In 1996, she had to give up the "Captain Marvel" title to a bratty mediocre white dude because his dead dad was somebody important; the '90s sucked.) Unfortunately, the onscreen character's origin squeezed through a very stupid We need to stop the energy stuff! subplot, all climaxing with the heroic rescue of two children who don't exist.

The S.W.O.R.D. material killed Westview's fun. All the exterior revelations turned Bettany into The Guy Slowly Realizing What The Audience Already Knows. He discovered very strange things happening on the edge of Westview, and kept getting roadblocked. "I believe Wanda is creating these impediments to stop me returning home," he said, finally catching up to four episodes ago. Artificially separating main characters, keeping a protagonist in the darkness, handing out amnesia like donuts in the break room: Understandable delaying tactics for a network serial, but quite sweaty in a nine-part saga.

In the finale, this version of Vision finally understood what was happening to him. And Bettany gave the character's last lines real emotion. I like these characters together; WandaVision was good when they were together! Except, except, except: The Vision isn't actually dead. Before the colorful Westview model flew out for the grand finale, he gave the decolorized zombie-bot all his memories back. I know a lot of people grooved onto WandaVision for its sorrow: "What is grief, if not love persevering?" We live in a world of sadness, so this struck a chord. But White Vision took everything the show was trying to say about grief and set it on fire. We can officially state that nothing about Avengers: Infinity War mattered. Loki gets a spin-off, Vision lives, the snap blipped. Now White Vision awaits a late-Phase reunion with his lady love. The fact that he just disappeared is lazy beyond reason, and tells you a lot about what Marvel expects from its audience. They won't care, we'll distract 'em with Skrulls.

Someone lost their nerve with WandaVision. Maybe creator Jac Schaeffer thought she had to give people answers, fast. Maybe upper-level corporate powers stuffed in more familiar characters. You have to remember, the MCU's third phase shook all this stuff off. Faceless security organizations, origin stories, immediate resurrections, the insistence that everything is some kind of Infinity Stone: That all faded in the franchise's 2017-2019 sweet spot. Now we're regressing.

WandaVision
Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff and Paul Bettany as Vision in 'WandaVision'
| Credit: Marvel Studios

In the flashback episode, we found out the Wanda-Vision relationship sprouted from watching TV together. A post-modern love story: Netflix and chill, emphasis on Netflix. This is the raw material for some kind of romance. (Further weirdness for anyone punk enough to care: The man Wanda loves is a product built by Tony Stark, whose last name was on that family-destroying missile.) But the villains were a problem, not least because they seemed conjured to make Wanda's actions seem comparatively un-bad. Beefcake J. SWORDwell, or whatever his name was, wanted to bring Vision's body back to life for science weapon reasons. This is precisely what Lex Luthor did to General Zod's body in Batman v Superman, not to mention what Stanley Tucci did to Megatron's body in Trans4mers, and sort of what scientists did to Data's (brother's) body in Star Trek: Picard, and exactly what the scientists did to Ripley's body in Alien: Resurrection. Are we sure these franchises should last forever? Should we worry so many of them depend on beating a dead corpse?

And then there was Agatha Harkness, an immortal witch pretending to be the wacky next-door neighbor. Hahn locked into the smile-till-you-scream sitcom masquerade better than anyone. Then she got her own origin story, a flashback to literal Salem with all the grandeur of a Monty Python sketch. I know, I know, her personal theme song was funny. Is this why we pay for streaming services? The goddamn memes??? By the end, Hahn got reduced to floating malevolence. She absorbed Wanda's energy until Wanda fired energy at her.

Olsen had a lot of fun early on, burying secrets behind a serene facade. The finale turned her arc into a cul-de-sac. If we trust the post-credits scene, Wanda didn't really move anywhere with her grief. She's apparently using her powers to resurrect her dream children. Class, what was her emotional journey? From not knowing how to use her powers to knowing how to use them? That's a montage, not a miniseries.

There has been an outpouring of thinkpiecery on what WandaVision means. It helps that the show has achieved the kind of popularity — previously embodied by Game of Thrones and, like, nothing else — where outlets write about its streaming service's tech issues. You can already find a wealth of literature about how this saga is all about Mephisto (which, we'll see) and how Quicksilver proves the X-Men franchise is part of the multiverse (which, AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA).

I don't think WandaVision had much to say about pop culture history, or the characters' history, or any kind of history. The show lingered on the notion that television was an escape for young Wanda. I'd argue a more crucial fact of her life is that time her miserable youth drove her from extreme political activism into one definition of terrorism.

Still, the season captured something about the evolution of entertainment. The premiere was short and snappy, hinting at strangely buried emotions with brevity and scary wit. Every episode from there got longer and more lugubrious, weighed down by franchise canon and relentless plot incident. It became a weekly cliffhanger, with digital effects expanding from quirkily modest flourishes into undifferentiated CGI battles. Is this a vision of the future? Very long movies that split a single story into ever-flabbier nodes of content, growing more dependent on celebrity guests, dead characters brought back to life, and the narrative equivalent of inline advertisements for future movies? That's not television. It's magic on autopilot. Series Grade: C

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