Honey, I'm Chrome: Marvel prepares to take over TV with WandaVision
Last year, the notoriously secretive Marvel Studios did something unprecedented: It opened its set to visitors. WandaVision, the six-hour series about Elizabeth Olsen's reality-altering witch and Paul Bettany's charming android, takes inspiration from beloved TV comedies, from campy 1950s classics to the zany family shows of the '90s. So for its premiere episode, Marvel's first Disney+ TV show went full midcentury sitcom, filming in classic black and white in front of a live studio audience (all of whom signed very, very strict NDAs).
Crew members came to set in '50s-era clothing, and used period lenses and lighting to capture that dreamy vintage glow. The special-effects team employed wires and camera tricks straight from Bewitched or I Dream of Jeannie, making wine bottles appear to pour on their own and household appliances zoom about like magic. And when Vision's familiar maroon skin didn't look quite right in grayscale, the makeup artists painted Bettany blue instead.
Bettany and Olsen rehearsed their entrances and exits as if putting on a play, and at first, they say the notion of live performance terrified them more than any Marvel supervillain. But by the time they secured their first audience chuckle, the pair realized they might have missed their calling as sitcom stars. "It was insanity," Olsen, 31, says with a laugh. "There was something very meta for my own life because I would visit those tapings as a kid, where my sisters were working [on Full House]."
"We were all so high by the end of it, we wanted to keep on running the show," Bettany, 49, adds. "Maybe take it out on tour or something. WandaVision on ice."
WandaVision was never intended to kick off this new era of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After 2019's Avengers: Endgame closed out the Infinity Saga (and served as a dramatic retirement party for several of the franchise's heroes), 2020 was supposed to launch what Marvel calls Phase 4: Black Widow and Eternals were both slated to hit theaters, and a series about The Falcon and the Winter Soldier would debut on Disney+ in the fall, the first of many Marvel TV shows planned for the streaming service. But after the ongoing coronavirus pandemic shut down theaters and shuttered production around the world, it was the strange, sweet WandaVision that was closest to completion, and it will now be the first to bow, premiering on Disney+ this winter. [UPDATE: Disney has since announced that WandaVision will premiere Jan. 15, 2021.]
It was an unexpected shift, especially for a franchise that famously maps out its schedule years in advance, but ultimately, what could be a more fitting launch for this new stage of Marvel TV than a series that's about, well, TV?
"The show is a love letter to the golden age of television," explains WandaVision head writer Jac Schaeffer. "We're paying tribute and honoring all of these incredible shows and people who came before us, [but] we're also trying to blaze new territory."
Parent company Disney first came to Marvel about two years ago and tasked its creative team with developing new projects for its soon-to-debut streamer Disney+. Marvel had found TV success before, both with Netflix's Daredevil, Luke Cage, and Jessica Jones, which were produced separately, and with the ABC shows Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter, which followed characters directly from the big-screen Marvel movies. But these Disney+ shows would be something new: miniseries produced entirely by Marvel Studios, with full creative control and character-driven stories that would more explicitly tie in to their big-screen counterparts. Explains Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige: "It really energized everyone creatively at the studio, the notion that we could play in a new medium and throw the rules out the window in terms of structure and format."
It was Feige who came up with the idea to take Wanda Maximoff and Vision — two fan favorites from the Avengers movies — and set them in a strange fantasy world of suburban bliss. The exec is a self-professed sitcom nerd who grew up on Nick at Nite and has made a habit of watching MeTV reruns before starting his workday.
"I would get ready for the day and watch some old sitcom because I couldn't take the news anymore," he admits. "Getting ready to go to set over the last few years, I kept thinking of how influential these programs were on our society and on myself, and how certainly I was using it as an escape from reality where things could be tied up in a nice bow in 30 minutes."
Feige tapped Schaeffer (who worked on Black Widow and Captain Marvel) to serve as head writer, Mary Livanos as coexecutive producer, and Matt Shakman as director. (Shakman's involvement added a meta layer: In addition to directing shows like Game of Thrones and Fargo, he was a child actor on the Growing Pains spin-off Just the Ten of Us.) Together, they sought to nail down WandaVision's irreverent tone. Just as Vision himself is an odd amalgamation of both the homicidal robot Ultron and Tony Stark's wisecracking computer J.A.R.V.I.S., so too is WandaVision a mash-up, marrying epic superhero action with small-town sitcom silliness.
"It really does feel like we're all programmed to know and love and understand these suburban family sitcoms," Livanos says. "So, to mess with expectations has been really fun."
For Olsen, who joined the MCU with 2015's Avengers: Age of Ultron, WandaVision promised a chance to explore Wanda's past and the full capabilities of her telekinetic powers. (In initial conversations about the show, Feige won her over by referencing specific Scarlet Witch comic story lines — although she won't reveal which ones, due to spoilers.) "It's been the biggest gift that Marvel's given me, getting to do this show," the actress says. "You get to just focus on her and not how she felt through everyone else's story lines."
Over the past five years, Olsen has traced Wanda's journey from Sokovia to suburbia, evolving from a traumatized antagonist who lost her entire family to violence, to a formidable hero who could make even Thanos quake in his oversize purple boots.
"I already felt like I had ownership of her because Marvel always encourages you to be part of the process," Olsen says. "But even more so now, I feel I have a really strong sense of ownership. If anyone wanted to ask me a question about the future or just a question about what she would think, I feel like this time has provided that."
WandaVision came as an even bigger surprise for Bettany, especially since — spoiler alert — Vision croaked not once but twice in Avengers: Infinity War. After Thanos plucked the life-giving Mind Stone out of Vision's forehead, Bettany assumed his time in the MCU was over, especially since it had lasted much longer than he anticipated: He was first cast as the disembodied voice of J.A.R.V.I.S. in 2008's Iron Man, before joining the Avengers full-time as Vision in Ultron.
"I thought I was being brought in to be let go," Bettany admits. "I thought Kevin was doing the decent thing and bringing me in, and he and [executive producer] Louis [D'Esposito] were going to tell me, 'It's been a great ride, and it's over.' So it was a really pleasant surprise for me and my bank manager, too, obviously."
Olsen and Bettany have formed a close friendship since Ultron, and the pair joke they've only had one argument in the years they've known each other, an event they've dubbed "Snotgate": While filming a particularly emotional kiss in the cold weather for WandaVision — before the pandemic, they hastily add — someone's nose started running, and neither can agree as to the culprit.
"She'll tell you a crock of s--- about whose snot it was," Bettany says with indignation. "I know the truth, and people shouldn't be fooled by her story."
"When he has that makeup on, he can't really feel his leaking fluids anyway, like I can," Olsen retorts. "I was like, 'You can't even tell you're snotting! I can! You can't feel your face 'cause it's covered in paint!'"
Set after Endgame, the series starts with the married witch and android living in the idyllic town of Westview. "We find Wanda and Vision living a blissful suburban existence, trying to keep their powers under wraps," Schaeffer teases. (A show about escaping into the soothing world of television seems particularly, uh, timely in 2020.) But as the newlyweds cycle through the decades — and the familiar TV tropes — they realize their white-picket-fence life may not be as gleamingly picture-perfect as it seems.
Even with all the sitcom shenanigans, the series remains grounded in Wanda and Vision's tender romance. "They've had a long and gentle love affair, right?" Bettany says. "It's a pretty quirky relationship. She's a witch, he's a robot. Or artificial person, or synthezoid, or whatever your preferred name tag."
"It's always so appealing when outsiders find each other," Schaeffer adds. "They're both different with capital Ds. Wanda has so much pain, and Vision has so much curiosity."
Westview also introduces a few new faces: Kathryn Hahn stars as Agnes, the prototypical "nosy neighbor," who gleefully inserts herself into Wanda and Vision's lives. "I've always loved that gasp of human magic that they have," Hahn says of the Marvel Universe. "It's not like I had never done anything like this, but especially since becoming a mom, I have always been interested in those jolts of adrenaline and humanity."
Also new to the cast is Teyonah Parris, who plays the grown-up version of Monica Rambeau. The Louisiana-born Monica debuted as a young girl in Captain Marvel, and the show's creators are tight-lipped about how adult Monica fits into the weird world of Westview. The character has a long comics history: She was the first female African-American Avenger, and Livanos points out that she frequently fought side by side with Wanda and Vision. Over the years, she's gone by many heroic names, including Photon, Pulsar, Spectrum, and Captain Marvel (the first woman to use the moniker, predating Carol Danvers).
"I feel so special and honored to be able to walk in her shoes and bring her story to life," Parris says. "I hope that me playing this character (a) gives a group of people who are underrepresented a chance to see themselves, and (b) seeing my face and my Black body helps them engage with Black women and our humanity."
To prep the show's decade-hopping tone, Shakman and Schaeffer enrolled in sitcom school, immersing themselves in the trappings and styles of all things classic comedy. When possible, they even went straight to the source: Last summer, during Disney's D23 Expo, Shakman and Feige invited Dick Van Dyke to lunch at Disneyland, peppering him with questions about his five-season run as Rob Petrie.
"[The Dick Van Dyke Show] can be very broad with silly physical-comedy gags, and yet it never feels false, and I wondered how they did that," Shakman explains. "His answer was really simple: He basically said that if it couldn't happen in real life, it couldn't happen on the show."
WandaVision also filmed partly on the famed Blondie Street at the Warner Bros. Ranch in Burbank, home to classic sitcom houses from Father Knows Best, The Partridge Family, and Bewitched. It was also where Shakman shot parts of Just the Ten of Us.
"I was kind of surrounded by these ghosts of television past — including my own ghosts," the director says. "I had been there as a kid, and [it] was deeply moving to me that here we were doing something many, many years later. You can't find a real street that feels like Blondie Street. You need it to have that weird sense of fakeness."
When EW spoke to the WandaVision team in October, the cast and crew were rushing to finish the series' six hours, returning to set with new social-distance measures after the pandemic halted production earlier in 2020. Over the past decade-plus, Marvel has seemingly perfected the superhero blockbuster; now it aims to do the same with the superhero TV show.
"It's really incredible to be able to tell a long-form story the way the comics did," Livanos says. "In a sense, [a TV show] is a multi-issue comic-book run, which is something that, from the Marvel development side, we totally do understand."
"I was like, 'Oh, I thought we were doing a little show,' but no, it's six Marvel movies packed into what they're presenting as a sitcom," Parris adds.
Ideally, Marvel hopes WandaVision will be just the pilot episode of a long-running TV dynasty; the studio is already hard at work developing seven additional shows, with each one connecting to past and future films. WandaVision, Feige notes, will directly set up the 2022 film Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, with Olsen's witch playing a key role alongside Benedict Cumberbatch's sorcerer. With the pandemic shuffling release dates, Marvel is also taking extra care to ensure the new schedule won't spoil story continuity.
But for now, the Marvel Studios president just hopes fans will connect with WandaVision's trippy delusion of suburban comedy — much in the way that Disney+'s The Mandalorian rewarded die-hard Star Wars enthusiasts while also attracting new ones.
"If you haven't seen any of them and just want to step into this weird thing because you love The Dick Van Dyke Show, it's going to work," Feige says. "But if you've been tracking the 23 movies we've made and following along the stories into Phase 4, there'll be a wealth of rewards waiting for you as it all unfolds."
And hey, if it doesn't work out, Marvel can always take its new skills and pivot to full-time sitcom production.
"I thought, God, I've ruined my whole life," Bettany says with a laugh. "I should have been doing sitcoms all this time."
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