Over the past 12 years, Marvel Studios has come to dominate Hollywood entertainment with its countless superhero franchises. Since the inception of the MCU in 2008 with “Iron Man,” 23 films have been released in one connected universe alongside television series on Netflix and cable TV. This explosion of content has shaped pop culture to such a degree that characters like Thanos, once a niche comic book figure, are now so mainstream that former Duke basketball players are wearing “Thanos inspired shoes” in NBA games.
The incredible popularity of the MCU has also led to immense earnings at the box office. In a list of the top ten grossing films of all time, Marvel movies comprise half of the list, including “Avengers: Endgame” which grossed nearly $2.8 billion at the global box office, making it the highest-grossing film of all time. Marvel has proven deft at producing highly profitable content and can undertake highly ambitious projects with unknown characters or actors with the guarantee that the “Marvel brand” will sell well. The studio’s most recent undertaking, however, could be its most bizarre product yet.
“WandaVision,” starring Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany, is the first Marvel Studios series to come to Disney+. The show finds the “Scarlet Witch,” Wanda (Olsen), and her husband the android, Vision (Bettany), as they are trapped in an idyllic American suburb called Westview. To make matters stranger, the show is designed as an evolving sitcom. While the first episode is set in the 1950s, taking inspiration from shows like “I Love Lucy” and “The Honeymooners,” by the third episode our characters are in full 1970s technicolor, modeled after sources like “The Brady Bunch.” Bettany described the show as “absolutely bonkers” and “Marvel’s biggest swing yet”
But the sitcom setting that most of the action takes place in is perhaps too idyllic. Even before the first episode, cracks begin to appear in the world, as the audience knows Vision is dead following the events of “Avengers: Infinity War” and Wanda is alive in present-day times. So far, the primary interest of the show has been figuring out what exactly is happening with these characters. The audience may not yet know the how or why, but there is obviously something wrong in Westview.
When the cracks in Westview’s reality begin to show themselves, Wanda often seems to push them away and reset her world back to its placid setting. In the third episode, Vision begins to recognize just how strange and bizarre his surroundings are when the film glitches and resets to a few seconds earlier, resulting in the fantasy being maintained. Wanda apparently can control the reality of Westview, being able to conjure objects from nothing and breaking the town’s power grid when she is severely stressed — could it be that she is creating this world for her own reasons?
In other MCU stories, Wanda has been through incredible hardships. She lost her country and brother in “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” inadvertently caused civilian casualties in “Captain America: Civil War” and lost her partner, Vision. Could it be that Wanda has pushed the real world away and assumed the “perfect life” of a sitcom character? Is it her grief and coping process playing out through the show? Why do important figures in Wanda’s life keep interrupting the show with “commercials”? By the end of the third episode, the audience has seen the outside world several times, but the mystery remains unsolved.
While the underlying mystery of the evolving town is the driving force behind the opening episodes’ plot, the sitcom scenarios Wanda and Vision find themselves in also serve as very interesting developments. In the second episode, the couple finds themselves preparing their magic act for the town talent show. Vision goes to a local restaurant to hang out with his mates, but accidentally swallows a piece of gum, which clogs up his machinery and leaves him acting intoxicated during the magic performance. While this is an absolutely absurd scenario, the basic premise could have been pulled from any number of midcentury American sitcoms. The finer details may be fantastical in scope, but the scenarios and presentation are classic television.
Through its first three episodes, “WandaVision” has been utterly strange and different from any previous Marvel project, yet very enjoyable. The central mystery and references to older segments of pop culture, as well as the terrific chemistry between Olsen and Bettany have driven it so far, and have me eagerly awaiting the next episodes and the answers they will hopefully bring.