WandaVision is an escapist fantasy, but there’s no freedom from Marvel’s machine

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WandaVision wasn’t meant to be Marvel Studios’ first television show. That was supposed to be The Falcon and the Winter Soldier: an action-driven piece branching off from Marvel’s most popular movies, the most straightforwardly sensible pick for the franchise’s Disney+ debut. Production on the latter wasn’t finished in time, though, with filming delayed because of the novel coronavirus, in turn meaning that WandaVision was brought forward.

WandaVision also wasn’t meant to be the first Marvel content released in over a year: with twenty months between it and 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home, WandaVision’s arrival marks the end of the longest Marvel drought in a decade. Again, plans were disrupted because of the global pandemic, with Black Widow and The Eternals removed from their scheduled 2020 release dates. As a result, WandaVision took on a significance it was never intended to bear – but the series makes for an unexpectedly appropriate return, though.

Structured as a collection of sitcom homages, each new episode of WandaVision (with a few notable exceptions) has advanced through the decades of comedy history – the series began by mimicking The Dick Van Dyke Show and Bewitched, and in more recent weeks modelled itself on Malcolm in the Middle and Modern Family. The tension at the heart of WandaVision is the push-and-pull between these sitcom trappings, and a much more recognisable set of tropes drawn from the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe: Elizabeth Olsen imitating Mary Tyler Moore or Julie Bowen is intercut with Randall Park going through the motions of a Clark Gregg/Cobie Smulders role.

On one level, this is a little less unusual for a Marvel property than it necessarily appears – those films have always, at least ostensibly, styled themselves as different genres. That’s part of the appeal, and a big part of how they sell themselves: Captain America: The Winter Soldier is nominally a 70s style political thriller, Ant-Man is loosely a heist film, Spider-Man: Homecoming is broadly a John Hughes movie, so on and so forth. Exactly how well they live up to those inspirations almost doesn’t matter – changing the surface level iconography and applying a different aesthetic sheen to each film, even if they can be all be reduced down to something functionally very similar underneath that, is what sustains the MCU. (Or, put another way, you can make Iron Man twice if the second go around he’s a magician.) WandaVision goes further with this, a much more faithful recreation of its inspirations than its predecessors are of theirs, but it’s still operating in the same milieu as the rest of the Marvel universe. In and of itself, arguably the only innovation WandaVision has introduced is to literalise that question of genre, the puzzle box structure asking “what is this show, really?” being applied to something usually left only as subtext (or, if you prefer, marketing speak).

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What’s perhaps most striking about WandaVision, then, is essentially an accident. As many people have noted, the idea that Wanda is seeking refuge from her grief and pain by throwing herself into the television she loves is especially resonant now – it’s exactly what a lot of the audience will have spent the past twelve months doing themselves. (A stray reference to quarantining in the seventh episode takes on an odd resonance; WandaVision is about a traumatised woman who has to stop binge-watching sitcoms and face the real world, here defined as a Marvel movie, but it might as well be an instruction to the viewer at home.) After over a year without any new Marvel content, the franchise’s big return is a show about, on one level at least, the Cinematic Universe eating sitcoms from the inside out: the superhero genre dominating and subsuming that which thrived without it, demanding you pay attention to it again.

WandaVision is a show about its own impact on popular culture, and in a sense that’s what makes it such an inadvertently perfect piece to re-establish the Marvel Cinematic Universe after a period away. Where the past year saw a paucity of Marvel content, the coming year brings a flood: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will air later this March, with Loki, What If…?, Hawkeye, and Ms Marvel to follow, while films Black Widow, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, The Eternals, and Spider-Man: No Way Home are all planned at least to see release too. Without really meaning to do so, WandaVision ended up setting the stage for that return – decades of television history slowly turning into the latest Avengers spin-off, diegetically as well as literally.

On its own terms, WandaVision is best when it commits to its central conceit, when it embraces the idiosyncrasies that made it so distinct; the show loses that sense of verve and flourish when it’s focused instead on spinning six different MCU plates all at once. There’s a marked contrast between the earlier episodes and the later ones – the WandaVision that ties into Thor: The Dark World, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Captain Marvel 2, and Dr Strange and the Multiverse of Madness is dull and flat and lifeless compared to the WandaVision dedicated to exaggerated hijinks and slapstick humour. (You can feel that on screen, sometimes; Kathryn Hahn is a delight as nosy-neighbour Agnes, but it’s obvious she wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic about playing Agatha Harkness.) It’s hard not to wish WandaVision had gone even further with its sitcom stylings – mimicking late-2010s dramedies like Fleabag with its eighth episode, putting a little more emphasis on jokes at the beginning – but by the point the show devolves into a blurry CGI mess, it’s easy to appreciate the time the show did spend as a comedy homage.

WandaVision loses something when it becomes so entirely of a piece with the rest of its franchise; a little less focused on character, a little less emotional clarity, a little less sense of its own identity. It’s a shame, not least because of how good Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany were when given the chance to do something new. It wasn’t exactly a surprise: the sitcom homage turns into a superhero film, just like the political thriller and the John Hughes movie did before it. For the most part, WandaVision has done what it was always expected to, sacrificing its charm and quirks in favour of an obligatory reversion to a familiar mean – but it’s hard not to read into the metanarrative there, as Marvel reasserts itself in the real world by telling a story about Marvel reasserting itself in a fictional one.

Or, put another way, what is WandaVision if not the Marvel Cinematic Universe persevering?

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