REVIEW – WandaVision season 1 (2021)

If you want to avoid spoilers then let me say in this paragraph that WandaVision is a fantastic series from go to wo, which thrilled me from week to week without the need for filler or feeling like filler in of itself. Almost looking the part of a cinematic experience, not only is it the best example of bringing the serialised comic book sensibilities to the screen but also for the first time in years a Marvel Studios property can legitimately be considered an “experiment.”

This write-up will mostly be a review of what many have dubbed “season 1” of this limited series but I’ll also be covering and expressing my thoughts surrounding THE DISCOURSETM.

SPOILERS FROM HERE ON…

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been described as an “experiment” in filmmaking and franchise building and for a while that was true when it came to interconnecting and overlapping narratives (as well as marketing) that mirrored their comic book origins. But things ceased being “experimental” around the end of Phase 2 when the MCU officially became a guaranteed cash cow for Disney as well as part of the popular zeitgeist dominating the globe.

WandaVision definitely earns back that “experimental” description especially in how the first three episodes were presented without explanation. Some people were apparently confused by this and yet that was the damn point as it slowly unravelled the mystery over the course of the mini-series, dropping hints that something was amiss. This is why it premiered on Disney+ with two episodes, it’s why episode 4 gives a different perspective on what’s going on to provide context. Sadly, as one commentator quite rightly observed, those impatient with the show after only TWO episodes really did forget how to watch week-to-week television in only a few short years of “binge” culture.

But from the get go I loved how those first few episodes were pitch-perfect renditions of American sitcoms from bygone eras, utilising all the tropes and jokes that audiences around the world are so familiar with and doing so without being overly satirical. It was (mostly) played straight, even down to the length of the episodes themselves (albeit with 10 minute-long credits). They were so committed to recreating the authenticity of it all that premiere episode actually had a studio audience for the recording.

It’s the subtle hints and gradual way that each episode broke out of the sitcom formula (sometimes with that Alfred Hitchcock Dutch angle) that slowly unravelled the mystery that I really enjoyed. I was compelled enough to want to know more and stick around to find out and still be entertained enough because as a child of the 80’s it took be back to after school watching all those re-runs… almost exactly as Wanda did as a child (this was one of the only out-loud bits of speculating I did and it was a favourite detail from episode 8 – the stereotype of how East-Europeans consume American TV and culture and idolise and aspire to it).

While not without its flaws and perhaps a few unanswered questions by the end, the overall story and arc was so much fun and thrilling too. It did so well to build up to a (small scale) cinematic climax worthy of a feature length brethren and that’s perhaps the strange of Marvel Studios being at the wheel with Disney money behind them. Unlike the adjacent Netflix shows or Agents of SHIELD (which I enjoyed for a while), not a minute was wasted nor did anything really feel like filler. Daredevil and the like always felt like 8 episodes of story stretched out into 13, whereas WandaVision had the luxury of of a tighter run, which resulted in a tighter story.

Some have noted that these comic book stories might be better suited to the episodic format as it allows characters to breathe and develop more . Not to be a dick but this amuses me considering that comic books and televisions shows are both forms of serialised storytelling. In fact WandaVision feels very much like a one-off limited run comic series that eventually gets reprinted in trade paperback form. That’s kind of the point.

There’s been a lot of hyperbole about the cast especially Elisabeth Olsen’s performance and it’s an understandable reaction even if I don’t quite share the same level of enthusiasm. Olsen did a fantastic and near-seamless job in portraying the various versions of “sitcom mom” and it really did enhance the authenticity of those era-specific episodes. When we find out Another commentator made the observation that Paul Bettany is somehow so suited to the 70’s version that he truly seems like a man out of time. He too was wonderful as Vision an watching him slowly discover the truth behind the mystery. Both he and Olsen carried this show so well and you become invested in them.

My two favourites and standouts have to be Darcy Lewis (played by Kat Dennings) and Agent James Woo (played by Randal Park). To have these previously supporting characters from the films pop up and play more prominent roles, flesh out their characters was a great juxtaposition to the weirdness and the superpowered stuff. They served as more of an audience POV as well as provide some very welcomed levity.

WandaVision acted as sort of an “origin story” for Monica Rambau (played by Teyonah Parris), a character we last saw a a child in Captain Marvel. If some folks felt underwhelmed by her arc, just keep in mind they are almost certainly saving a lot of it for the Captain Marvel sequel as was hinted in the very final post-credits sequence. But she was also great and served to be another part of the audience POV trio balancing out the other two by being more serious. Keep in mind, none of those characters felt like they didn’t belong there, they were all capable in their jobs despite the humour.

Major props go to Katheryn Hahn’s performance as “Agnes” who we later discover is Agatha Harkness, the true villain and antagonist of the series. She too played the “nosey neighbour” so well and so authentically and while Olsen’s performance could easily be identified episode to episode being specific to that depicted era, “Agnes” felt very much like a suitable conglomeration of every quirky neighbour character we’ve ever seen. The MCU gets a lot of flak for not featuring interesting enough villains but, again, the serialised format allows for more development. And that reveal works so well too. In fact it’s rather reminiscent of one of my favourite MCU films…

Iron Man 3 doesn’t get enough credit for being a better movie than it deserves to be mainly because so many were incorrectly shat off at the change to The Mandarin (which honestly, I loved that reveal and they are doing things “properly” soon anyways). Both Trevor Slatery and Agatha share the same scene-chewing energy even if their subterfuges were slightly different. Both stories are also about how our protagonists deal with their trauma. With Tony it was about his PTSD in the wake of the events of the first Avengers movie. With Wanda it’s the grief she feels at the death of Vision in Infinity War.

That’s also another aspect that Olsen tackled so well in conveying what Wanda was experiencing once the sitcom facade had been torn down. The story itself tackles the situation in a very comic-booky way for sure but ultimately its asks what lengths would someone go to the process their pain if they confront it at all?

There’s been a few expressions of disappointment online mainly in regards to certain reveals or specific plot points and fan theories and I say this with as much kindness as I can muster – you’ve only got yourself to blame!

Fans speculating about their favourite shows has been part of geek culture for decades. But where it was once limited to internet forums has since broken out and taken over in such a manner there is a whole side of the industry dedicated to journalists making predictions over everything and anything just for the site clicks. It’s been a problem for quite a while but the issue popped to the forefront again with WandaVision as fan theories started to create incorrect and unreasonable expectations in segments of the audience and it’s been a certain detriment to how fans enjoy and consume their entertainment.

Apart from one gag, very little about the series was concerned with outright deceiving the audience. It was simply a mystery that was played out over 9 episodes. The closest thing to a “red herring” was the casting of Evan Peters, who played Quicksilver in the X-men movies, to be “Quicksilver” in this show. It resulted in people overthinking the reasons for that choice, theories about the multiverse, the introduction of mutants now that Disney own all the Fox Studios properties and therefore the Marvel Comics concept of mutants, but then they cried fowl at the actual truth of that character as the Ralph that “Agnes” was always referring to… and I BLOODY LOVED IT!

Credit to Marvel Studios though for not doing what some other have and instead sticking to their guns, not changing the script just to try and outsmart the online discussions. It was never a case of fans setting their expectations too high or Marvel’s inability to give the audience what they wanted, it was always about the audience’s unwillingness to manage their expectations and just enjoy the ride.

Look, maybe I’m being a tad harsh on those with legitimate criticisms. There are certainly some to be had but I would remind those that felt let down over certain aspects that this was never really about those bigger elements that some fans were theorising about. This was always about Wanda and Vision. It was always their story. As is tradition, connections to the larger MCU have always been small and sometimes throwaway references. Rambau’s superhero origin as “Photon” is an outlier in that but still that was kept small as a set up for something else. Also personal taste doesn’t always align with “thing good” or “thing bad” sometimes it’s just “thing not for me.”

As I mentioned before, the series is not without its flaws but they are so minor that I either have trouble remembering them off the top of my head or I enjoyed this show so much that I just don’t care. Come to think of it, when the townspeople come out of their “roles” they don’t seem as angry as a mob should be but then again that could be answered by just how drained they are or even how afraid they might be of Wanda to even attempt anything.

I’m betting heavily that whatever threads were left are deliberate set ups for the next time we see these characters.

While I’m hesitant to call it “spoon feeding”, the series did take time out to explain itself. A whole episode to explain the current plot (episode 4) and a whole episode to remind the fans of how Wanda got here (episode 8). Combine that with the “previously…” recaps, it helped with the call-backs, the context and the references (the setting up of runes was really clever and one of my favourite parts). Also, that briefing where Tyler Hayward asks whether Wanda has a “nickname” is jarring but excellent bit of set up as well as clarification that she has never been called “Scarlet Witch” in any of the movies, only in the marketing and the merchandise when you really think about it.

The other Marvel series on ABC in the US and Netflix were part of the television division of Marvel (and there is a lot of background drama regarding that). Setting that aside, WandaVision is Marvel Studios’ first proper foray into episodic television and they hit it over the fence for six. It was a small yet compelling story but with stakes you could understand and sympathise with. Characters you cared about (including the innocent townspeople), and after a year without anything from Marvel thanks to the pandemic, it was such a fantastic and thrilling return that makes me want to dive right back into the MCU.


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