The greatest strength of the Marvel Cinematic Universe—especially post-Avengers, when its basic structure and rules has been been established and widely accepted—is the potential to do new things and tell new kinds of stories. Marvel Studios hasn’t historically always taken advantage of that potential, but the best and most beloved films in the MCU are the ones that take characters we know from previous movies and use that existing familiarity to gently push them into unexplored territory. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a superhero movie, sure, but it’s a superhero movie that plays like a conspiracy thriller. Thor: Ragnarok is deeply invested in the Asgardian mythology that was a bore in the preceding two Thor movies, but twists it into a gleeful sci-fi romp that doesn’t take itself too seriously. WandaVision, the first Marvel Studios series on Disney+ and (thanks to the coronavirus) the first new addition to the MCU at all in over a year, just might be the ultimate expression of this potential.
Case in point, the last time we saw Vision (Paul Bettany) was when Thanos ripped the Infinity Stone out of his head and killed him in Avengers: Infinity War. The last time we saw Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) was in Avengers: Endgame, when she used her magical abilities to remind Thanos of just how damn powerful she is. Compare that to WandaVision, in which Vision accidentally swallows gum in one episode, which screws up his robot machinery, which then threatens to derail his performance at a big charity talent show with Wanda. It works, and the reason it works is because—as absurd as it is, even for this unusual couple—we know who Wanda and Vis are.
It starts pretty silly, but in its early going, WandaVision actually serves as an elaborate tribute to television history. The first episode is essentially an homage to The Dick Van Dyke Show, right down to Vision phasing through an ottoman in the opening, and the second episode (the one where Vision swallows a piece of gum) transforms into an installment of Bewitched or I Dream Of Jeannie. Those two episodes are an absolute delight, with hoary old sitcom gags that somehow kill—chalk it up to the aggressive laugh track or the fact that Kathryn Hahn really knows how to deliver a joke about her unseen loser husband—and it’s all a nicely weird, novel way to have fun with these character that we usually only get to see when they’re fighting Ultron drones or members of Thanos’ Black Order.
Of course, the goal isn’t really just to have fun with Wanda and Vision, and the series does show a surprising amount of restraint in holding back the obvious twist that everything is not as it seems in the duo’s idyllic suburban life. The fact that everything has turned into a retro sitcom should be a tip-off, but they’re too enthralled in lovey-dovey bliss to notice. Little cracks begin to appear here and there, but there is a moment where someone says a particular name… a name that nobody in the MCU has said in a while… where the proverbial dam breaks and WandaVision starts to reveal the actual game it’s playing. That chilling moment, which we’re stepping around to avoid spoilers, could quietly be one of the best “Oh damn, they’re doing the thing” MCU moments in a long time.
And that’s where the last of the three episodes screened for critics ends. WandaVision is very clearly building to something, and while Marvel fans might be able to formulate some educated guesses (there are a couple of things that the Scarlet Witch is very famous for in the comics, but we’ll say no more), it’s hard to really predict how successful that will all be once everything is revealed. We don’t know where it’s going, but little clues appear in the first three episodes, like a man in a bee suit, the repeated image of a sword (or is it a S.W.O.R.D.?), and some curious breadcrumbs in the form of in-universe commercials—interested in a Strucker-branded watch, anyone? There’s also the unacknowledged fact that Vision is dead, having been killed by Thanos before the Mad Titan snapped out half of all life in the universe, which means something other than Hulk using the Infinity Stones in Endgame has brought the android back.
With two episodes that are fun sitcom parodies and a third that ends as a vaguely horror-flavored take on a Marvel movie, WandaVision has the makings of what could be a riveting entry in the MCU canon. After all, where does a TV show go when it has already been madcap black-and-white sitcom, a slightly saucier high-concept comedy, and a super-powered mystery with possibly enormous repercussions for the wider universe? It’s hard to say, because such a feat’s never really been done before, and it only makes sense now because of the seemingly bottomless—yet often sparingly utilized—storytelling potential of the MCU. WandaVision is tapping into a power that the MCU has been sitting on for a decade, and like Wanda ripping Thanos apart in Endgame, it’s about time we see what this thing can really do.
Reviews by Stephen Robinson will run weekly beginning January 15.