Warning: Contains Spoilers!
Of all the series that have made it big in the era of streaming, none has been so suited to the new medium as the Disney+ series WandaVision. Although they may appear outwardly similar, network TV and streamed TV are two very different beasts; a networked show has to sell itself in its very first episode in order to ensure that the audience will return for episode 2. For this reason, the first episode – which is quite often also a pilot to sell the idea to the network – is a statement of intent, designed to set up the characters and the tone that will continue throughout the series. Even series with a mystery at their centre, like Twin Peaks or Britain’s own Life on Mars, still set out their stall in the first episode by way of explanation.
WandaVision starts out as an early-60s American sitcom; black and white, with appropriate acting and a laughter track, and until the very end of the episode, there’s nothing to indicate it is anything other than that. Now, I’m not suggesting that your average network TV audience is so stupid as to think, “Duh, dis is an old rerun of der Dick van Dyke show or sumptin’,” and switch off half way through, BUT the TV executives are probably sufficiently paranoid over ratings to think that could happen and stamp out such a show before it airs. Because of the nature of streamed TV, it doesn’t rely on those overnight ratings; it can be watched any time, so it can build up a following slowly by word of mouth or quickly by hype, but either way it has the luxury of developing at a more stately pace than network TV.
A spin-off from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, more specifically the Avengers franchise, WandaVision takes the characters of Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch, and her late partner the Vision and places them in a scenario that initially appears very different. It’s very, very, very loosely based on the House of M storyline from the comics, in which a grieving Wanda Maximoff uses powers she didn’t know she had to rewrite the entire universe; this version is more parochial, with Wanda taking over a small town and recreating it in the image of her ideal life with the Vision, which happens to be that of a cosy sitcom that she used to watch with her parents and twin brother in childhood, before everything went to hell.
It starts off very much in the style of Bewitched, the suburban witch sitcom starring Elizabeth Montgomery that ran from 1964 to 1972, complete with nosey neighbour (Kathryn Hahn) and a disastrous visit from Vision’s boss. Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany display previously untapped talents for light comedy, which allows the recreation of a 50+ year old series to be completely authentic. As the episodes go on, the style drifts forward in time, moving into garish colour as the series starts to homage The Brady Bunch in the 1970s, Family Ties in the 1980s, Malcolm in the Middle in the 1990s… all the way up to Modern Family, as things start to fall apart in the final episode. Every one of them is fantastically well-observed and you could really believe that you’re actually watching a vintage sitcom.
Of course, sooner or later the audience has to observe Wanda’s idyll from the outside and in episode 4 (of 9), a character who gets too close to the truth is ejected from the fantasy and finds herself in a military encampment around the weird dome that is protecting the town of Westview. Enter Monica Rambeau, last seen as a child in Captain Marvel, but now all grown up and if the comic books are anything to go by, destined to become Pulsar (or Photon, or Spectrum, or another Captain Marvel). She’s not the only character from the movies making an appearance, there’s also Jimmy Woo (Randall Parks) from Ant-Man and the Wasp and Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) from the Thor movies. It’s good to see Marvel Studio world-building with some of the less high-profile characters from the movies and the forthcoming Falcon and the Winter Soldier can only increase that.
It’s not all magic and mental illness though; we do get the obligatory villain towards the end of the series in the form of Agatha Harkness, a character who originated in the Fantastic Four comics and who looks a lot different to her comic book iteration. I won’t be too spoilerific, but her appearance leads to the kind of apocalyptic confrontation that this basically wouldn’t be a Marvel Studios production without. I’m normally the sort of person who is discouraged by hype, but this is a very good series and you don’t have to have any background in the comic books to enjoy it. In fact, it’s probably better if you don’t! And don’t listen to the hype either – enjoy this series because it’s fun, interesting and entertaining, not because some cellar-dweller with a garage full of unopened action figures, who at every other opportunity bad-mouths Disney, tries to convince you that this and The Mandalorian are saving Hollywood’s most powerful studio from bankruptcy.
Marvel Studios have stalled a little, being deprived of following up on the climactic opus Avengers: Endgame by something that could easily have been as apocalyptic as Thanos – COVID 19. But, in the best superhero tradition, they’re coming out fighting with a whole raft of TV and film productions planned for the next couple of years. WandaVision was a great opening salvo for their return to glory. They could so easily have fallen back on a series about muscle-bound blokes punching each other through buildings, but they didn’t. Instead they made a series that was unique, adventurous and surprisingly brave; a series which, as I mentioned at the start of this review, could only really have worked on a modern streaming channel. Disney + have TV series of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki lined up, but they also left the door open for further adventures of Scarlet Witch and the Vision, so I hope we see them again either on TV or in the next Avengers movie.
WandaVision is currently streaming on Disney+