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Josh Reviews WandaVision

Marvel Studios has kicked off what looks like a vast array of Disney+ shows with the nine-episode WandaVision, and I couldn’t be happier.  This series was a delight; it was everything I wanted it to be.  It shined a well-deserved spotlight on two characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Wanda and the Vision, who were important, well-loved characters who nevertheless hadn’t actually gotten a tremendous amount of screen-time in the movies.  The series flowed smoothly from where the movies had left off, and in fact was drenched in fun connections to the movies.  It also stood on its own, as an interesting and satisfying story in its own right.  We got movie-quality visuals combined with the adventure, humor, and character-based drama that has made the MCU such a success.  What more could I ask?

I was excited about WandaVision but also nervous.  Marvel has tried several times before to spin off its movie successes onto our TV screens.  When Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. launched on ABC in 2013, I was excited for the unprecedented idea of a TV series that would run in continuity with the movies.  The pilot was even written and directed by Joss Whedon (coming off his triumph as the writer/director of The Avengers)!  And yet, I never got into the show.  I watched for a long time — three seasons — but then finally threw in the towel.  I never found the characters or stories as interesting as I’d hoped; there was an (understandably) made-for-TV cheapness to the look of the show that distanced it from the films; and after catching up to the Hydra reveal from Captain America: The Winter Soldier late in the first season, the show and the movies didn’t have much to do with one another (a result of the corporate schism between the TV and film departments at Marvel).  A few years later, an entirely separate series of Marvel shows launched on Netflix.  Here too, I entered into the experience with great excitement, and the first seasons of the first two series, Daredevil and Jessica Jones, were spectacular!  These were serious, adult shows, and I was enthralled.  But then the quality dropped; the subsequent seasons and other series weren’t as good, and the big crossover series The Defenders fizzled.  The shows were all cancelled in 2018.

And now comes a new wave of Marvel shows.  For the first time, these series are being overseen by MCU boss Kevin Feige.  There’s certainly a hugely exciting slate of shows in development for the next few years!  So that all bodes well.  Would WandaVision actually be any good?

Thankfully the answer is a big YES.

First off let me say that I am hugely impressed by the creativity and gutsiness of kicking off these MCU Disney+ shows with a show as weird as WandaVision.  The series is framed around a wonderfully unexpected and off-kilter conceit: the idea that, in each episode, we’d see Wanda and the Vision living out a story in the style of an episode of a TV show from across the decades of the history of classic TV.  I love that the first Disney+ Marvel TV show was also such a delightful love letter to the world of TV shows!  I was delighted watching the early episodes and seeing how perfectly the WandaVision cast and crew were able to recreate the look and feel of TV series such as Bewitched, The Brady Bunch, and more… complete with opening credits sequences and commercial breaks.  What a bonkers idea!

It was executed beautifully.  Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany were extraordinary in each episode, beautifully mimicking the specific styles and mannerisms of these characters from the days of TV past.  They each demonstrated comedic chops I didn’t know they had!  I love fully how the series embraced this concept, with the first three episodes very rarely breaking from the idea that we were were watching a classic sitcom episode play out, albeit starring Wanda and Vision.  Those early episodes were even filmed in front of a live studio audience!  The attention to detail was amazing, in the costumes, props, set design, and camerawork.  No detail seemed out of place to me.

I’ve read a little complaining online about the balance of these fake TV shows to the series’ actual plot.  Some people were impatient with the early episodes that were almost all sitcom… while others complained about the later episodes, wanting to see more of the recreated TV shows then we got.  Myself, I thought the creators (led by creator Jac Schaeffer as well as Matt Shakman, who directed all nine episodes) struck the perfect balance.  I loved the way the first few episodes threw the audience right into this sitcom idea, without stopping to hold our hands and explain everything.  The first episode to break with that format was episode four, “We Interrupt this Program” (by the way, I loved all of the episode titles, each of which was a fun reference to a concept or phrase from TV history!) which came at exactly the right time to stop and backtrack so as to answer many of our questions and give context for what we’d been seeing.  And it made sense to me that in the back half of the season, we’d spend less time in the fake sitcom world as the events taking place in the real world started to heat up.

WandaVision was released weekly, and I praise Marvel and Disney for making this choice, rather than dumping the entire season at once.  Just as I have loved the experience of watching The Mandalorian weekly, so too was its a great pleasure to have to wait a week between each episode of WandaVision.  I loved the anticipation, and the time to unpack the series’ mysteries and clues and speculate as to what was to come.  I’m so glad this is how Disney+ is releasing these shows.

I loved that WandaVision was a show packed full of mysteries and Easter eggs.  It was so much fun to watch carefully to see what I could spot and to guess from week to week as to where the story was going.  And I appreciated that the show was careful to answer almost every question it raised (something many mystery-based shows fail to do).

I praised Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany above, and I think it’s worth spending a little more time emphasizing how great they both were in this series.  WandaVision did exactly what I really want these Disney+ shows to do!  Over the course of these nine episodes, we’ve suddenly spent a LOT more time with Wanda and the Vision than we ever have before in the movies!  Both Ms. Olsen and Mr. Bettany more than rose to the challenge.  I loved their chemistry; it was every bit as good as the movies had suggested.  I loved the way this series allowed us to explore their love affair far more deeply than the films ever did.  I was particularly delighted by the way episode eight, “Previously On,” connected the dots of many different bits of Wanda’s backstory into a rich, coherent story of her trauma-filled life.  What a beautiful way to pull together so many different strands of continuity in a way that gave us a much deeper understanding of Wanda’s character than we’d ever before had!  That was so satisfying.  I loved the revelation that Wanda had powers before being exposed to the Mind Stone.  Is she a mutant?  Now that Disney owns the X-Men, this is possible!  Wanda is definitely a mutant now in my head-canon, at least!  And I was particularly delighted by the idea that it wasn’t an accident that the Stark bomb was a dud — a story Wanda told in Avengers: Age of Ultron that we got to see depicted here — but that Wanda used her powers to alter probability to prevent the bomb from detonating. Not only do I like getting an actual reason for that event, rather than it just being a big old coincidence, but it’s a wonderful call-back to the comics, in which Wanda’s powers were originally probability-altering powers!  I was also thrilled that the finale called back to what Wanda’s powers were when she was first introduced in the MCU in Age of Ultron, the ability to give people nightmares based on their deep dark fears.  It was fantastic seeing Wanda pull that mental whammy on Agatha!

I loved how connected this series was to the movie continuity!!  I was thrilled when it was revealed that “Geraldine” was actually Monica Rambeau, the young girl from Captain Marvel now all grown up.  I loved seeing Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings, reprising her role from the first two Thor movies) and Jimmy Woo (Randall Park, reprising his role from Ant Man and the Wasp) again.  Their presence really elevated the S.W.O.R.D. scenes, which could have easily been boring exposition if that had been done by two characters we’d never met yet.  I also have to report that I laughed with delight when Jimmy made his card appear from out of his sleeve when he first met Monica.  That was a tiny moment, but I was so happy to see that connection to the joke in Ant Man and the Wasp that he wanted to learn magic.  What a clever bit of connection for the fans who would notice!!  That made me so happy.

I loved getting to actually see what happened after the Hulk reversed Thanos’ snap in Avengers: Endgame, and the trauma and chaos of when people returned to life five years later.  (My one huge complaint with Avengers: Endgame, a film that I otherwise loved, was my dissatisfaction with the idea that everyone returned five years later, after the rest of the world and their loved ones had lived with the trauma and suffering of their disappearance for five long years.  That seems like a very problematic and unsettling turn of events for most of the world, despite it’s simplistic happy-ending presentation in the film.  Spider-Man: Far from Home basically treated this as a joke — which seemed like perhaps the best way to handle this potentially ugly and problematic idea.  But I loved that WandaVision actually addressed the potential horror of those events.  The revelation of the sad fate of Monica’s mother Maria — such a great character from Captain Marvel — was heartbreaking.)

Speaking of Monica, Teyonah Parris (Dawn from Mad Men!) was terrific as Monica Rambeau.  I loved this character from the comics, and when we met her in the past as a kid in Captain Marvel, I got excited for the potential of adult Monica eventually entering the MCU.  Her appearance here did not disappoint.  I loved that we got her super-hero origin here.  I can’t wait to see her in action in a future show or movie!  (I loved the Monica Rambeau version of Captain Marvel from the eighties in the comics!!)  (One question: why did every character on this show pronounce her last name like they were saying “Rambo”??  That feels like a mistake to me.)

Equally delightful, if not more: Kathryn Hahn as Agnes/Agatha.  I have been a huge fan of Ms. Hahn for forever, and it was fantastic to see her bring so much fun energy to this show.  Ms. Hahn took some big comedic swings (that maniacal laugh after the “Agatha All Along” song!!!) and I loved them all.  I was surprised that this show — which otherwise was so faithful to the comics — chose to make Agatha into a villain, since she wasn’t in the comics.  I kept waiting for a reveal in the final episodes that maybe Agatha wasn’t the Big Bad.  But it works for the show, and Ms. Hahn was certainly a memorable antagonist.  I hope we get to see her again down the line.

I loved that Debra Jo Rupp (That ’70s Show) and Fred Melamed (In a World…), two fantastic comedic performers, popped up in the early going as houseguests for a dinner-party gone awry.  I wish we’d seen more of them after that episode!  (We did get a few glimpses of Ms. Rupp’s character… I wonder why we never saw Mr. Melamed again…?)

One of the best moments in the series was the arrival of Evan Peters as Wanda’s brother, Pietro.  This was a brilliant moment, that electrified me with its audacity.  (At the same time as Wanda’s brother Pietro was appearing in the MCY in Age of Ultron, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, the character was also appearing in the Fox X-Men films, beginning in Days of Future Past, played by Evan Peters.)  That the Pietro from another Marvel movie universe might be brought into the MCU (just as the MCU appears poised to embrace the multiverse concept, after the animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and with the coming Doctor Strange and Spider-Man sequel films both rumored to involve the multiverse in their stories) was a tantalizing idea.  (Sadly the WandaVision finale dropped the ball on this… more below…)  Mr. Peters himself was perfect.  He seemed to understand the role his character was playing perfectly, and he fit right into the show.  I loved every second he was on screen.

Until the finale (which I’ll get into in a moment), pretty much my only complaint with WandaVision was that the S.W.O.R.D. chief Hayward was an underwhelming, bland villain.  I didn’t care for him right from the start.  He just seemed wooden and one-dimensional to me.  I kept hoping he’d be revealed to have more depth, but he was pretty much just one-dimensionally evil throughout.  I wish he’d been smarter, and I wish the series had made him a little more nuanced, perhaps giving him better reasons to be so antagonistic towards Wanda and Vision.  Oh well.  (It was also fun to see S.W.O.R.D., from the comics, be brought into the MCU.  But I wish the series had better fleshed out S.W.O.R.D.’s role in the MCU and relationship, or lack thereof, to S.H.I.E.L.D. — for instance, was S.W.O.R.D. not controlled by Hydra the way S.H.I.E.L.D. was…??)

I loved the music throughout the series.  The various different TV show opening theme parodies were amazing, every single one of them.  And the “Agatha All Along” song??  Spectacular!!  Songwriting partners Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (who were responsible for, among many other things, the music of Frozen) knocked these themes out of the park.  (Click here to read more about the many WandaVision theme songs!)

I adored how deep the layers of the series were.  I really appreciated the attention to detail, and the many references to the comic book history of these characters.  I loved Wanda and Vision’s halloween costumes, in the style of their classic looks from the comics.  (I also loved how Wanda’s vision of the Scarlet Witch, when she was in contact of the Mind Stone, beautifully recreated Wanda’s classic look from the comics!)  I loved Pietro’s halloween costume as well, which also perfectly mimicked his classic look from the comics (including his crazy hair!).  I also loved the way Wanda’s kids’ outfits mimicked their costumes from when the teenaged versions of those characters were in the Young Avengers.  (The MCU seems to be building to an eventual Young Avengers team-up.  We’ve already seen Scott Lang’s daughter Cassie in the Ant Man films, and we saw Hawkeye’s daughter in Avengers: Infinity War — and she’ll also apparently have a large role in the upcoming Hawkeye Disney+ show.  So I wouldn’t be surprised to see teenaged versions of Wanda’s twins reappear somewhere down the line…)

The only place where WandaVision let me down was that I was underwhelmed by several of the choices of the finale.  For instance, I was bummed to learn that the Evan Peters version of Pietro was actually just a guy from town.  I guess the writers intended that to be the payoff of Agnes’ repeated references to her never-seen husband Ralph.  But I wanted to believe that this version of Pietro had actually been pulled from across the multiverse, from the Fox X-Men universe, into the MCU.  I didn’t expect the show to ever actually confirm that (because why would they explicitly reference another studio’s movies), but I’d hoped they’d keep that option open for fans to image, rather than giving us this completely mundane explanation.  Oh well.

I was also surprised we didn’t get a little more resolution in other areas.  I was surprised we never saw what happened to white Vision after he flew away.  It was weird to me that we didn’t get a final scene with Darcy, after she crashed into Hayward’s truck.  I was surprised we didn’t see a final scene of confrontation between Monica and her former friend Hayward, or a scene in which Monica acknowledged or addressed that she now seems to have superpowers.  I had been hoping for a cameo appearance by Doctor Strange or Wong; it’s weird to me that the world’s most powerful magicians wouldn’t detect and be drawn to Wanda’s magic the way Agatha was.

Finally I was a very surprised that we didn’t see more fallout from Wanda’s enslavement of the townspeople at the end.  I’d been wondering for weeks how the series would handle this.  I’d guessed from the beginning that Wanda had taken control of the town as a way of hiding from her grief over the Vision’s death, and so I’d been wondering for weeks how the show could possibly walk back those actions.  Wanda enslaved and tortured an entire town of people for weeks!!  This is horrible!!  So I’d been wondering since the start of the show how this could end.  Would Wanda end the series a villain?  Or in prison?  We get one scene in which Wanda walks through town square while everyone glares at her, but then nothing else happens.  I was frustrated that Monica completely left Monica off the hook in their final scene together.  This seems unbelievable to me in the context of this universe, and also like a huge cheat on the part of the series.  How can there not be consequences for Wanda’s actions??

(There are rumors that Wanda will appear in the next Doctor Strange film, In the Multiverse of Madness.  The log-line of that film reads: “After the events of Avengers: Endgame, Dr. Strange continues his research on the Time Stone. But an old friend-turned-enemy puts an end to his plans and causes Strange to unleash unspeakable evil.”  I’d assumed that “old friend” would be Chiwitel Ejiofor’s Baron Mordo.  But now I’m wondering: is Wanda the villain of the Doctor Strange sequel?  Agatha specifically says, in the WandaVision finale, that the Scarlet Witch is more powerful than the Sorcerer Supreme.  She also says other ominous stuff, about how Wanda doesn’t know what she’s unleashed, and how the Scarlet Witch has the power to destroy the world.  So is the ending of WandaVision all set-up for Doctor Strange: In the Multiverse of Madness?  Pre-pandemic, the original plan was for that movie to be released just a few weeks after the end of WandaVision.  I’m wondering if the end of this show was designed to be a direct lead-in to that film, and the problem is that it’s playing entirely differently now that we’re a year away from seeing the Doctor Strange sequel.  On the one hand, I do hope that film, or other future MCU stories, address the consequences of Wanda’s actions here.  On the other hand, whatever is coming in the future, I wish we’d gotten a more satisfying conclusion to Wanda’s unhinged actions in this series.)

So, while I loved almost every single moment of the first eight episodes of WandaVision, the finale left me a little bummed.  It’s interesting to me that I had the exact same feeling watching both seasons of The Mandalorian, where the finale of each season didn’t quite rise to the level that I’d hoped.  Watching both those season finales, I also felt the show dropped some of the story threads that I’d been hoping would be better resolved in the end.  So what’s the lesson here?  I guess it’s a reminder that making great TV is exceptionally hard!

Overall, I am extremely happy with WandaVision.  The show was a delight.  I loved the way the series drew so strongly from so many of the classic comic book stories featuring Wanda and Vision (with references to, among other things, both of the Vision and the Scarlet Witch mini-series from the eighties, the classic “VisionQuest” story by John Byrne in West Coast Avengers, as well as more modern stories such as Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s wonderful The Vision mini-series from a few years back).  While honoring the long comic book histories of these characters, WandaVision also a complete original, crafting a type of story we hadn’t yet seen in the MCU, and telling a story that was deeply rooted in the connected history of the MCU.

What a great beginning to the era of MCU-connected series on Disney+!!!  Now, bring on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier!!

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