On Marvel's first Disney+ miniseries, Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany look liberated in their sitcom prison.

By Darren Franich
January 14, 2021 at 12:00 PM EST
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Credit: Marvel Studios

If you asked me to rank every single character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe from very favorite all the way down to Doctor Strange, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) would land right in the middle. The benchwarming Avengers were crucial plot points for three of the biggest films ever made. Their powers are eccentric: She's sort of telekinetic (plus also red energy beams), he's an android with radical density. A shared comics history offers weird-as-hell adaptation possibilities, and Bettany and Olsen are appealing performers. But the movies squashed them between cosmic twists and global ensembles, leaving their romance as vague as Wanda's disappearing Sokovian accent.

All of which makes the miraculous season premiere of WandaVision a real feat of chaos magic. The first two episodes of the nine-part miniseries launch Friday on Disney+. At the beginning, the familiar Marvel Studios logo fades to black and white. An opening title sequence introduces Wanda and Vision as a "regular husband and wife" newly arrived in suburban Westview. The town's a '50s retroscape lousy with nosy neighbors and gruff bosses. Vision worries the fellas at the office will find out he's not quite human. "I'm a regular carbon-based employee!" he sputters, while the studio audience cackles. Wanda can move objects with her mind and bewitch-ify a chicken into an egg — but that doesn't help her cook a last-minute lobster thermidor.

Any resemblance to the Donna Reed or Dick Van Dyke shows is very much intentional. And something is obviously wrong. Today's date is marked on the kitchen calendar, and neither Wanda nor Vision can't remember why. There's a lot they don't remember. In the three episodes I've seen, nobody mentions that time Vision died in Infinity War. Strange sounds rumble outside. Curious color intrudes on the monochrome world: a beeping red light, a drop of blood.

WandaVision casts a spell with its rigid dedication to the throwback conceit. The first episode focuses on an old-fashioned misunderstanding: Guess who's coming to dinner! As chatterbox-next-door Agnes, Kathryn Hahn keeps pouring herself into the house. Agnes has a habit of mentioning her unseen husband, and Hahn somehow turns the name "Ralph" into a hilarious catchphrase and an eerie threat. You feel you're watching an actual legendary sitcom character — and then Debra Jo Rupp, an actual sitcom legend, shows up as the tetchy wife of Vision's boss (Fred Melamed).

Director Matt Shakman honors the rigidity of '50s multicam, only breaking from that format for an unsettling scene near the end of the premiere. Somehow, the artifice sets the lead actors free. Shorn of whatever emo thing she wasn't nailing in the movies, Olsen pinpoints a particular strain of daffy exasperation. There are wheels turning within wheels behind Wanda's domestic pirouetting. Her internal struggle is sort of a plot thing, but it's also a sincere homage to how Laura Petrie always looked streets ahead of Rob. Meanwhile, Bettany dials up his English as a desperate-to-please goofball husband. And WandaVision cleverly keeps shifting the landscape under their feet. Clothes, furniture, and even camerawork evolve forward a decade per episode. Part 2 is suddenly the '60s: Wanda in pants, scenes shot outside, the historical invention of sex. By episode 3, the opening title sequence advertises "WandaVision in Color!" and Vision's got sideburns.

Along the way, Wanda befriends another Westview newcomer supposedly named Geraldine, played by Teyonah Parris. (Her actual identity is a matter of record.) Great to see Parris, who's no stranger to vintage between Mad Men and If Beale Street Could Talk — and she has a monologue that left me in stitches. Still, a prominent Black character arriving in a meticulous midcentury caucasiaverse opens up questions I'm not sure WandaVision can answer. There are more urgent concerns, maybe. How did the superheroes get here? Where is here? The neighbors start whispering. A voice calls out in the darkness. Is this cheerful suburban domesticity some sort of prison?

Yes, duh: That's the point of every novel ever written about American suburbia. And getting trapped on a TV sitcom is nothing new. It happened twice last year, on an absurdly entertaining DuckTales and a Legends of Tomorrow episode literally titled "The One Where We're Trapped on TV." WandaVision adds opulent visual gloss and the patience of a megafranchise on a victory lap. Creator Jac Schaeffer has a ball building her pleasantville into a netherworld of familiar clichés: poolside planning committee meetings, the way '70s television kept discovering new colors to paint on walls, uh oh the Vision swallowed some gum!

The assumption is that viewers coming off an 18-month MCU drought will groove onto a serialized enigma buried beneath layers of meta-parody. A good assumption, and WandaVision is already the best original series on Disney+. I should point out that I have many dear friends who get such joy from The Mandalorian, whereas I watched that show's second season premiere and had the sudden urge to crush every screen in my house with a hammer and take with my family to a faraway land untouched by the lobotomizing scourge of blockbuster television, like maybe we could move San Luis Obispo. The streaming brand for Disney's other cosmic saga is nostalgia overload, whereas Marvel Studios is cheekily unafraid of tossing out its own history. (A good example: Wanda's accent, which really did have to go.)

That instinct explains WandaVision's in-your-face strangeness, which pulls freely from the characters' previous screen appearances and comics canon while sending its own story line in some unexpected directions. Free of any obvious plot requirements, Bettany and Olsen get to fire up some real chemistry. Their beautiful light twisted fantasy wavers between sweetness and sorrow. You start to worry what secrets their laugh track is hiding. "Is this really happening?" Wanda asks her husband. "Yes, my love," he promises, "It's really happening."

Is it, though? There's a small problem in these opening episodes. I can't decide if it's a problem future episodes will fix — or if the problem is, like, the entire purpose of the miniseries. WandaVision keeps pulling back to suggest the underlying wrongness of their domestic reality, clockwork nudges that grow a bit dull from repetition. Whenever you catch a glimpse of the "real" world, it looks notably lamer than the lusciously imagined blandness of sitcom land. Episode 3 has a sequence where something scary is supposed to be happening, and the whole mood turns generic: spooky choirs on the soundtrack, lights from the sky, one expressive actor's face suddenly sternly mysterious like they're setting up a cliffhanger that won't pay off for weeks.

There's a lot of stuff to enjoy in WandaVision, and I haven't even mentioned the period-appropriate theme songs by Frozeneers Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. But if you pop the hood of this overlit comedy twilight zone, I worry that the central mystery is a bit standard. 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. Consider WandaVision an unusual first step for this new Marvel phase. The best parts lovingly conjure the mood of very old television shows. The worst parts feel like just another movie. B+

Related content:

WandaVision

Marvel’s first Disney+ series centers on Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) living in a world of domestic bliss that’s part kitschy sitcom, part trippy comic book adventure.

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  • TV Show
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  • 1
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  • Disney+

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