Written By: François-Noël Vanasse
Two years ago Marvel Studios finished the storyline it began haltingly in 2008. Critics and fans were left to wonder where the entertainment behemoth was going to go next with its ambitious insistence on perpetual film and television releases. A lot has changed, since then, in the media landscape. Disney’s merger with FOX went ahead and Marvel Studios as a result absorbed a great number of old Marvel Comics intellectual property rights including the X-Men and the upcoming Fantastic Four. A pandemic swept through our world and while some hope lies on the horizon, work stoppages brought most entertainment production to a halt and stay-at-home orders upended box office returns and may have permanently changed the way films are distributed. Disney also launched a paid subscription service on which its Fox, Star Wars, Disney and Marvel Studios properties can be streamed. As part of “phase four” of its continuing Marvel Cinematic Universe projects, Disney+ is meant to play host to a number of new Marvel series.
The world isn’t a stranger to Marvel Cinematic Universe television. Netflix once had a pioneering deal that resulted in some well-received series which had a noticeably darker tone than the main line of films. Those shows have since been cancelled and their continuity is unclear. ABC also aired seven seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. which ostensibly revived fan favorite movie character Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg). Because the production of Marvel’s television and film efforts were not consolidated the mainline films never acknowledged the shows. Meanwhile any change to the status quo indicated by the films sent Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. into a spiral trying to keep up. With all this in mind the announcement of upcoming Disney+ projects set in the MCU led people to wonder what to expect. Another neglected step-child running on a TV budget? Strictly-controlled pablum filled with wheel-spinning plots that threatens to go nowhere? Of course the hope was always for something meaningful and significant but we’d all been here before.
Enter Mandalorian. The Mandalorian (2019) is the brainchild of directors Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni. It was also immediately taken over by fans. The entertainment landscape is dominated by fans whether it’s corporations deliberately cultivating hype through FOMO and winking references to popular fan theories or creators being young enough to have grown up on the properties they’re currently creating. The success of the show and its promise to bring back fan favorite characters attracted people who convinced themselves that somehow it was going to matter to the larger continuity of Star Wars. Since the show is still promising new future seasons and spin-offs these fans have not yet had the rude awakening that S.H.I.E.L.D. or Netflix’s Daredevil fans have. As a limited series event, however, WandaVision fan theories that involved changing the landscape of the MCU were doomed to failure.
WandaVision (2021) is primarily a show about Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) coping with her grief over the death of her erstwhile lover Vision (Paul Bettany). We’re also introduced to SWORD agent Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) reeling from the loss of her mother Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) whom we first met in 2019’s Captain Marvel and Agatha Harkness (Kathryn Hahn) a very old witch pretending to be Wanda’s wacky next-door neighbor, Agnes. The conceit of the show is that some sort of psychotic break has caused Wanda to use her reality-bending powers to take a small town in New Jersey hostage and force them to act out a series of pat American sitcom plots starring her and her husband Vision. As her control over the town deteriorates the audience is introduced to agents and personnel on the outside working to understand what is happening and how to stop it. Eventually Wanda overcomes her sadness, defeats the bad guys, and frees the townsfolk, flying off into the distance with a new world-ending prophecy and evil magic book in hand.
A lot can be said about the introduced retcons, for example, to justify its series of parodies of famous American television shows from Bewitched to Malcolm in the Middle the writers had to pry apart Wanda’s character, inject a deep and abiding love of foreign television, and sew her back up again. Or supposed “mistakes” such as where a 10 year old born in 1989 got DVD box sets which weren’t released until well into the aughts. Or even about creative decisions that rub the wrong way like the casting of Evan Peters as “Fake Pietro” AKA Ralph Bohner, Wanda’s dead twin brother Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). But one gets the sense of tilting at windmills from trying to nitpick a tv show like this. A show where metaphor, reality and wink to the camera are chaotically tangled up together.
It’s a show that’s unnecessarily complicated to describe because of its running conceit of humorous homage to American television and its sudden shifts in tone. What’s surprising is how well it holds together. The actors are great, across the board. From the supporting cast of Wanda’s mindscape being asked to jump between effortless smiles and abject terror with the waning of the mind control puppeting them, to the quirky gang of misfits outside the “hex” trying to save the town. Director Hayward (Josh Stamberg) is a cartoon but his is the thankless role of villainous stooge. Parris blows the doors down as Rambeau. Her sense of empathy born of suffering makes the show. Randall Park and Kat Dennings show up as their old MCU characters for comic relief and do a bang-up job. There are completely bearable kids in this, shout-outs all around. Evan Peters is shockingly compelling as the snarky man-child. Kathryn Hahn has always been great and hopefully now will be upgraded from “oh hey” status. Of course the real stars of the show are Olsen and Bettany. Bettany, a long time favorite here at Porkchop, is a fantastic actor and it’s wonderful to see him in the MCU get to stretch his legs a little as the hapless male lead even if they insist on giving him that silly digital paint job for much of the runtime. Olsen, frankly, nails it to a startling degree. Wanda may have no godly reason to know much about US sitcoms but Olsen sure does and she knocks it out of the park every time. Flawless performance.
It’s unclear where the MCU will go from here. The reality-warping nature of Wanda’s powers, her previous reality-crunching exploits in the comic books, and the hyped up episodic nature of the weekly released series have frankly caused an embarrassment of fan speculation. Suffice it to say that the status quo of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has not been upended and talks of mind-blowing guest stars, new Big Bad villains, or merged timelines have been greatly exaggerated. Elizabeth Olsen is slated to return to the role of Wanda Maximoff, now canonically branded Scarlet Witch, in the upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness directed by Sam Raimi. There’s a half-Vision out there somewhere trying to find himself, or maybe kill himself. And Monica Rambeau now has superpowers and has been summoned to space by Skrulls. Presumably on behalf of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) whom we last saw on a Skrull spaceship at the end of Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019).
The legacy of WandaVision for fans and critics will be that we now understand Wanda a little bit better. It’s hard to get to know someone when you’ve only met them doing a heel-face turn in an ensemble picture and a couple of minutes put together in a couple other movies. Her team-up with, or possibly against, the Sorcerer Supreme in the Doctor Strange sequel that keeps threatening to get made hopefully has a bit more weight to it now. She’s one of the more morally grey characters in the MCU despite her 11th hour heroics and our sympathy for her plight. Of course, that legacy is contingent on the films acknowledging the character development featured in a television show, and the big ask of expecting theater-goers to “keep up” with a TV show at home in order to follow along. Such barriers have kept the MCU films isolated from the MCU shows in the past, and character arcs were reset continuously over the course of the Avengers films even as the plot careened forward. Many fans have announced “checking out” of the Marvel movies, since the death of Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) and the retirement of Captain America (Chris Evans) means they are no longer there to draw audiences. To be perfectly honest the perpetual nature of these stories has also begun to wear. With no end in sight these films, though entertaining and lucrative, can begin to feel like chores even as experimentation shields them from the factory pipeline accusation that they are “all the same”. WandaVision (2021) as untied as its last minute threads remain, at least, with its focus on emotional stakes and sitcom-trope heartstrings-plucking, offers something in the way of genuine closure.