WandaVision’s Marvel Cinematic Universe roots undercut its puzzle-box ambitions

WandaVision’s Marvel Cinematic Universe roots undercut its puzzle-box ambitions
Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen star in WandaVision

The success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is an undeniably complicated thing: a vast, multi-billion-dollar clockwork creation of interconnected franchises, carefully deployed star power, and precisely timed scheduling, all backed by the production might of the world’s largest and most omnivorous media conglomerate. The reasons for its success are a whole lot simpler, though: Marvel movies give people—a lot of people—what they want, exactly when they want it, and in regular and generous doses.

Wanna see Spider-Man swinging across New York with his surrogate daddy Iron Man cracking quips on the fly? You got it, fan. Want to see the Hulk get in touch with his inner rage, kicking seven kinds of alien dragon ass? It’s all yours, True Believer. In the expertly machined satisfaction engines of the MCU, if there’s a hammer on the mantlepiece in the first act, you had damn well better believe that Captain America is going to start swinging it in the third. (Or 11 movies later, as the case may be.) And none of this is bad—indeed, it’s almost supernaturally satisfying. But that same urge to serve up a family-sized platter of dopamine to hungry audiences is an impulse that now threatens to complicate the mega-franchise’s first “official” foray into TV (after all those other forays into TV), Disney+’s WandaVision.

It’s worth examining, three episodes into its run, what kind of show WandaVision is, and what TV trends it’s pulling from. Whereas Disney Plus’ first major called shot, The Mandalorian, achieved success by boiling its billion-dollar parent franchise down to its DNA, serving up a steady slew of well-made space-based adventure stories, WandaVision has quickly proven itself far more ambitious in its reference pool. Move beyond the series’ (excellent, charismatic, and legitimately funny) mimicry of classic sitcom tropes, and it’s pretty clearly the Marvel version of a mystery-box show, with lead characters trapped—to varying degrees of awareness—in a sort of epiphanic, invisible prison. It’s Lost, but in soothing Brady Bunch color tones. Westworld with a laugh track. The Prisoner, if No. 6 was trapped in Dick Van Dyke’s kitchen.

It’s a fantastic premise, honestly, one informed by Wanda Maximoff and Vision’s complicated comic book history, as well as 70 years of beloved sitcom sandboxes for the show’s cast and crew to play in. But it also sits in direct opposition to the MCU ethos, which can tolerate a mystery for exactly as long as it takes its antsiest audience member to start to squirm. To withhold information—to withhold anything—is counter to what turned these films into a pop culture institution, and that necessity to provide gives WandaVision the sense of a show being pulled in even more directions than its already bifurcated premise might suggest. Black-and-white trappings or no, WandaVision exists fully within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and in the MCU, even the subtlety must arrive in capital letters.

Hence the most consistently distracting element of the show’s first few episodes: the decision to divide its visual presentation cleanly between the parts in service of its sitcom half, and those firmly beholden to its mystery half. The occasional flashes of color that creep into the monochrome palette are obvious early on, but even more distracting is the camerawork, which strictly delineates itself between a classic, multi-cam setup, and the one you might call the Hey, Something Weird Is Going On Here! camera. You know which one we mean: It’s locked to Fred Melamed’s and Debra Jo Rupp’s faces during the dinner party sequence that ends the show’s first episode, capturing every ounce of horror leaking through the edges of Rupp’s hysterical laughter as her husband slowly chokes. After a whole episode of being kept at a cool classic-TV remove from the action on the screen, the sudden close-ups are claustrophobic, unnerving, and deliberately affecting. They’re also, well, SUBTLE.

Part of the genius of the Marvel films is the universality with which they can be read. Hundreds of millions of people can go see an Avengers movie and walk away with almost identical comprehension of what happened on the screen, for all the chaos of the battles and the dozens of named characters fighting it out. (To the point that, when the films do indulge in a bit of rare ambiguity, as with the time-tossed epilogue of 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, the debates that crop up online can be immediate and fierce.) The franchise’s clarity is a virtue, but not, necessarily, when there’s a mystery afoot. WandaVision understands that it must, by the strictures of its genre, hide, obfuscate, and tease—but consistently does so by shouting, “Clue! Go Google this clue!” at the top of its lungs. It’s as subtle as a bunch of magic rocks shoved into a golden mitten; worse, these intrusions often distract from the legitimately wonderful work its leads are doing in their homage to classic comedy styles.

None of this makes WandaVision a bad show, really, even a little. Paul Bettany has a genius for slapstick (that magic show!), and Elizabeth Olsen is so good at projecting her inner Mary Tyler Moore that, when she does allow the cracks to show—as in the moment in the third episode where the happy homemaker façade falls away, and she briefly, heartbreakingly, mourns her brother Pietro—it does far more to establish the show’s true aims than a dozen HYDRA or SWORD logos slapped on home consumer goods ever could. But it does make for a lousy mystery. Lost, the show that helped codify this genre in modern TV, took a lot of flak over the years for not knowing where it was going for pretty much most of its running time. WandaVision has the opposite problem: You can almost imagine the spreadsheet it’s pulling its meta-plot elements from, algorithmically sprinkling a few details into the mix every week to keep the audience content. There’s no mystery here, no possibility that uncertainty could possibly persist—just a rapidly diminishing list of things we haven’t been shown yet. This is a Marvel show, after all. And in the MCU, satisfaction is always guaranteed.

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