Sonntag, 21. März 2021

WandaVision

Warning: This review contains mild spoilers for the first four episodes of WandaVision.

Watching WandaVision, the new Disney+ series seeking to lift from the shadows two characters marginalised by the Marvel Cinematic Universe's overplotted big-screen spectacles, is a deeply weird experience. Marking the Disney-owned Marvel Studios' return from a pandemic-induced 18-month release hiatus, Jac Shaeffer's nine-episode limited series serves both as a much-needed corrective to a franchise formula that has gone a little stale in recent years and as an uneasy reminder that we would have been perfectly fine if the hiatus had continued indefinitely.

In fairness, WandaVision can be read as an honest attempt at wrestling with the emotional shortcomings of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), starting with its very premise: it casts as its protagonists the telekinetically gifted Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and her android love interest Vision (Paul Bettany) – two superheroes who have played a somewhat active part in the first decade of MCU movies, most notably in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018), but who have, overall, remained largely ancillary characters, their relationship mostly relegated to blink-and-you-miss-them scenes of interpersonal development. So to use these characters to well and truly get the MCU underway again, after the quasi-franchise reset of Avengers: Endgame (2019) and a likely industry-changing pandemic, is a bold move, to say the least.

Yet for three episodes or so, creator and head writer Jac Shaeffer, along with director Matt Shakman, delivers – and improves upon – the kind of gentle stylistic and tonal self-innovation by which the MCU's very best entries distinguish themselves. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) gestured towards Alan J. Pakula and Sydney Pollack; Ryan Coogler's Black Panther (2018) dabbled in afrofuturism; James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy-in-the-making plays fast and loose with the boundaries between goofy adventure comedy and earnest pathos – while WandaVision pays tribute to the history of scripted American television entertainment, with just a dash of the uncanny surrealism with which Casper Kelly's brilliant 2014 short Too Many Cooks skewered the grotesque world of 1990s sitcoms.

Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) in "Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience."
© Disney
The first episode, "Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience," after fittingly retro opening credits, finds Wanda and Vision settling into their new house in picturesque Westview, New Jersey, in what appear to be the 1950s. Plunked in the cosy plainness of a domestic set borrowed from the likes of I Love Lucy (1951–1957), dressed in the period-appropriate garb of middle-class WASPs, filmed in black and white, framed by 4:3 aspect ratio, and accompanied by an overeager laugh track, the two newlyweds have to navigate that most archetypal of low-stakes sitcom kerfuffles: Vision's boss (Fred Melamed) and his wife (Debra Jo Rupp) come for dinner and must not find out about their hosts' extraordinary abilities. Misunderstandings and main course-related emergencies ensue, naturally.

On the one hand, this is a fairly startling break with what the MCU, particularly under Infinity War and Endgame directors Anthony and Joe Russo, has accustomed its audience to – no more breathless exposition, followed by competently choreographed, if hopelessly overlit CGI action, followed by even more exposition. On the other hand, "Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience" also works as a charmingly antiquated piece of comfortable wind-down television, with just the right measure of intrigue and eerie wrongness about it – a red dot of light in a sea of greys here, a small sliver of Lynchian horror there – to suggest that there is more afoot than cheery, tongue-in-cheek nostalgia.

Episodes two and three, "Don't Touch That Dial" and "Now in Color," essentially follow suit, and add to the overarching narrative mystery by seemingly moving forward in time: "Dial," with its animated credits and Stepford Wives-adjacent view of suburbia, invokes the witch-out-of-coven high jinks of the 1960s classic Bewitched (1964–1972); while "Color" dials up, in true 1970s Brady Bunch fashion, not just colours and collars, but the familial hullabaloo as well.

Wanda and Vision's sitcom world seems to be moving through the decades.
© Disney
Part of what makes these first episodes such a delight are the game performances Shakman gets out of the series' leads. Olsen and Bettany are clearly having the time of their lives channelling Lucille Ball and Dick Van Dyke, delivering even the corniest of zingers with infectiously joyful conviction, expanding upon the scant depth the MCU has so far afforded their eminently likeable characters.

However, Marvel storytelling and franchise filmmaking being what they are, it hardly comes as a surprise that what happens in Westview doesn't stay in Westview. Before long, the town's environs are crawling with military personnel and assorted scientists, desperate to figure out what is happening inside the force field-like haze that surrounds Wanda and Vision's new home.

It's at this point, right at the end of episode three, where it becomes clear that WandaVision won't reach escape velocity; that it will inexorably be brought back down to the terra firma of MCU convention. After the wholesome, at times unsettlingly hyperreal strangeness of the opening three episodes, episode four, "We Interrupt This Program," while still reasonably intriguing, mainly plays like patronising reassurance: 'don’t worry, you will get answers to all your questions, and in a familiar fashion at that.' That familiar fashion being, of course, overlit exposition.

That's not to say Teyonah Parris, Randall Park, and Kat Dennings, who play our alternative, 21st-century, 'real life' heroes, aren't an appealing trio. In fact, their office space banter serves as an amusing contemporary echo of Wanda and Vision's carefully calibrated quips: what are 2020s comedy tropes, if not Lucille Ball and Mary Tyler Moore persevering? But the trio are a chop off the old Marvel block nonetheless – plucky vigilantes who help the military rid itself of a scheming bad apple seeking to use its power for evil. The all too well-worn motifs, story beats, and in-universe winks and nods are out in full force – a move exemplified by the fact that Dennings, in playing astrophysicist Darcy Lewis, is reviving a character last seen in 2013's Thor: The Dark World.

Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) embarks on an investigation into what is happening with Wanda and Vision.
© Disney
While this is not catastrophic in and of itself – after all, it would be naïve to expect a Marvel-produced streaming tentpole not to eventually return to what made its studio the juggernaut it is – it is not a little disappointing how readily WandaVision abandons what made it so unique in the first place. Yes, the sitcom samples don't just disappear post-"Program": there are variations on Growing Pains (1985–1992), Malcolm in the Middle (2000–2006), and Modern Family (2009–2020). But as a result of the impact the external military machinations have on Wanda and Vision's slice of TV suburbia, they are far less dominant in terms of style and narrative, far less playful in how they advance the overarching plot than the earlier ones.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, much of the intrigue evoked in the more formally adventurous episodes dissipates once WandaVision scales back the experimentation. One major casualty of this development is the central relationship between the two titular characters. Although the series visibly reaches for bittersweet poignancy, particularly in the final two episodes ("Previously on" and "The Series Finale"), Wanda and Vision cannot seem to fully cast off their status as underexplored MCU bit players: the sentiments that are expressed are vaguely touching, but they still end up lacking the emotional grounding and the sense of character for those sequences to really land.

It certainly doesn't help that "Previously on" and especially "The Series Finale" are, to a considerable extent, a blandly typical third act in the Marvel mode: villains are revealed, evil plans outlined, numerous seeds for future franchise fodder planted. The action feels perfunctory too, even by the standards of the MCU, where, it seems, every standout sequence – the opening to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017), the Led Zeppelin-enhanced brawls of Thor: Ragnarok (2017), the battle royale of Infinity War – comes at the cost of three forgettably non-descript ones. Here, Wanda and Vision face off with their respective nemeses in the most generic of ways: hands shoot differently coloured lightning bolts, while bodies smash into the pavement. A series that started with Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany cracking jokes about flying saucers in front of a live studio audience could hardly have ended in a more anticlimactically unimaginative way.

Rambeau is joined on her mission by astrophysicist Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) and FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park).
© Disney
So this is Marvel, one year on from its COVID-delayed resurgence after Endgame, with another two Disney+ series (The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki) and another two movies (Black Widow and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings) coming out or set to come out over the course of the next six months. "Phase 4" of the MCU is raring to go, by the looks of it.

Yet if WandaVision is anything to go by, I don't know if this is a prospect I relish, personally speaking. For while it is a serviceable miniseries (even if it runs almost exclusively on fumes by the end), its ultimate effect is a sobering one: it's difficult to appreciate and admire Shaeffer's attempts at breaking with the Marvel formula when the series that was marketed as 'the weird, experimental one' ends up back on square one, ready for the next piece of franchise media to pick up where Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019) left off. Is this as good, or rather as unconventional, as things are going to get? And if that is the case, why bother? Of course, WandaVision is, in a sense, incidental to this thought process. It just had the misfortune of being the thing that ended the MCU's compulsory 18-month break – and, by virtue of being more diverting than convincing, confirming my own personal impression that I never felt a distinct yearning for that hiatus to end.

Where do we, where does Marvel go from here? The latter question isn't difficult to answer: WandaVision was a streaming hit, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is shaping up to be one as well. If the international COVID vaccination schedules hold true, Black Widow will be perfectly positioned to be part of a first wave of blockbusters waiting for cinemagoers in a tentative 'post-pandemic' world.

Not even sitcom suburbia is safe from the trappings of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
© Disney
The first question, meanwhile, requires some personal, non-generalisable introspection. For my part, I can say that, in the wake of "The Series Finale," I found myself feeling nostalgic for Iron Man 2 (2010), of all MCU titles – even though I barely remember what happened in it, beyond Mickey Rourke cracking electric whips and Samuel L. Jackson starting to assemble the Avengers.

What I do remember, however, are the circumstances I saw it in: it was early May of 2010, the week before my last day of high school. My dad and I took a miniature road trip to another city to see the movie, because it was only playing in a dubbed version in my hometown. Before heading into the cinema, we walked along the lake at dusk and ate the hot panini we got from a takeaway. During the film, I occasionally leaned over to him to quickly explain stuff to him. Even though it was a full cinema, I was the only person who stuck around to wait for the post-credits scene. After it was over, I went outside and told my dad how excited I was by all the Avengers build-up happening in plain sight. The next day, I tried my hand at a video review that fortunately never saw the light of day.

Overlit action, you were not missed.
© Disney
More than a decade later, I realise that my excitement for the MCU probably peaked with The Avengers (2012); that many of the positive feelings I associate with the franchise may be inextricably bound up with experiences like the one above and the nostalgia resulting from them; and that my emotional investment in these movies likely reached its natural endpoint with Endgame and Far from Home.

Given all of that, it's doubtful that WandaVision could ever have hoped to shepherd me back into the dedicated Marvel fold. Still, I find it quite telling that, 13 years into one of the most ambitious ventures in longform cinematic storytelling ever attempted, the franchise is at its most exciting when it embraces the surreal comfort of television sitcoms, and at its most tiresome when it promises even more franchise.

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