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

wandavision-marvel-cinematic-universe-elizabeth-olsen-paul-bettany-review-jac-shaeffer-matt-shakman-dr-strange-captain-marvel

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).

wandavision-review-marvel-technicolour-television-sitcom-homage-hd-wallpaper-dr-strange-multiverse-madness-captain-marvel-2-thor-ant-man

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?

You can find more of my writing about television here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed this article – or if you didn’t – please consider leaving a tip on ko-fi.

Spitting Image is lazy, self-satisfied, and ultimately hollow

boris johnson spitting image britbox 2020 matt forde dominic cummings review

Barely a minute passes before Spitting Image offers a covfefe joke. Donald Trump has tweeted thirteen-thousand, one hundred and seventy-five times since that infamous 2017 typo, closer to the start of his presidential term than to today (and presumably done little to inspire criticism or mockery in that time). It’s hardly the sort of joke you’d expect from a cutting-edge satire with its finger on the pulse – nor is the extended riff on Prince Harry dressing up as a Nazi, over fifteen years ago – but the Spitting Image revival is not a cutting-edge satire with its finger on the pulse.

Rather, it’s a dull, self-satisfied piece of television – and that opening covfefe joke is typical of the deep laziness that defines Spitting Image, constantly reliant on easy jokes while clearly expecting big laughs. It offers buzzwords rather than punchlines, reaching for the dim thrill of recognition in place of, well, anything else: you’re supposed to laugh because they said “cultural appropriation” or “mansplaining,” and that’s often about as much effort as Spitting Image puts in. (Both terms are also, inevitably, misused.) Very quickly, the show starts to feel like a relic – not of its 80s heyday, but of all the awful jokes you’ve already read weeks ago on twitter.

More damning for a political sketch comedy is how feeble and subdued its satire is. Consider this scene in particular, which casts Home Secretary Priti Patel as a dominatrix and sees Michael Gove (with a much stronger Scottish accent here than in real life) visit her for “unpopular Conservative opinions only you can get away with”. The joke, such as it is, is that Patel can more easily express reactionary views than Gove can – Patel can call to limit all immigration “because you’re Asian”, to restrict abortion access “because you’re a woman”, and so on and so forth. Per Gove’s puppet, “we think it, you say it”.

It’ll be news to the Spitting Image team, then, that Michael Gove has in fact argued to limit immigration, and has voted to restrict abortion access. (It’s not entirely clear what he thinks of Marvel’s Black Panther, though apparently “it’s a bad movie” is another of those opinions only Priti Patel can say publicly.) Even more of a shock, presumably, will be that the Conservative MPs – considerably more of whom are white men than Asian women – in fact campaigned to limit immigration at the most recent General Election. Yes, Priti Patel is one of the more reactionary voices within the current cabinet, but she’s far from the only one who can get away with those so-called “unpopular Conservative opinions” (if they’re even unpopular at all).

Spitting Image’s approach to Boris Johnson is similarly superficial. Here, Johnson is a basically harmless buffoon, baffled by simple puzzles, and reluctant to pursue the harsh economic policies of his predecessors; meanwhile, the extra-terrestrial Dominic Cummings insists on cruel and authoritarian legislation in the knowledge he’ll never be fired, even if he eats a baby. Again, it’s low-hanging fruit, the first and most obvious joke with no more thought put in than the bare minimum. Dominic Cummings is an oddball: it’s hard to argue with that. (Whether he’s quite that type of oddball is another matter.)

But in depicting Cummings as, literally, an alien influence, it’s obscuring the realities of Johnson’s own ideologies and his own politics: he is not, in fact, a basically harmless buffoon, and doesn’t need to be prompted by Cummings to advocate Conservative policies, as he did in his many years as an MP and as Mayor of London. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine the real Prime Minister being especially bothered by his Spitting Image analogue – the bumbling puppet feels like such a natural extension of Johnson’s own carefully curated persona he could’ve written it himself. Much like the aforementioned Priti Patel sketch, Johnson and Cummings are being treated as the exception rather than the rule – it’s not a sharp critique, but almost a deliberate softening.

Elsewhere, few of the other sketches are especially noteworthy, or even at times explicable (why Elton John in particular is trying to liven up Keir Starmer’s image is unclear). Occasionally, a joke or two might land, but the success rate is distressingly low for a twenty-two-minute comedy, and much of the show has the sense of a first draft about it (surely Matt Hancock’s instruction to “hunt grouse, stay healthy” needs another sentence to evoke the government’s three-part slogans?) The biggest crime Spitting Image charges its targets with is, seemingly, perceived hypocrisy – it’s often more critical of celebrities like Lewis Hamilton, the Rock, or Kevin Hart than it is any of the authority figures featured. (With the exception of Jacinda Ardern, who again is charged with a sort of hypocrisy; apparently, it’s actually very easy to manage the novel coronavirus in a country like New Zealand, and everyone is giving her far too much credit.) In turn the show takes on a strikingly cynical, moralising bent; there’s a very self-satisfied and superior tone to it all, far more than a show that mocks Greta Thunberg can really justify.

Ultimately, Spitting Image rings hollow. Not just because it isn’t very funny – though it isn’t – but because it doesn’t say anything. The show calls to mind, as much political satire now does, Chris Morris’ question: “are you doing some kind of exotic display for the court, to be patted on the head by the court, or are you trying to change something?” For twenty-two listless, empty minutes, Spitting Image seems not just content but proud to perform that empty court jester role – in the end, it’s all faintly embarrassing.

Related:

Space Force is too deferential to be satirical

Film Review | Brexit: The Uncivil War (2019)

You can find more of my writing about television here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed this article – or if you didn’t – please consider leaving a tip on ko-fi.