After nearly a year of teases and delays, Disney+ is finally getting around to properly exploiting its Marvel Comics IP. Now, in addition to serving as home to the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Disney+ is sporting its first full-fledged Marvel spin-off series. Although the intriguing “WandaVision” may not have quite the widespread cultural impact as the Star Wars spin-off “The Mandalorian,” it’s an eagerly awaited cult oddity for fans of comic book superheroes.
For those into timelines, “WandaVision” is set between the tragic events of Avengers: Infinity War and the universe-shattering consequences of the upcoming Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. But continuity is a bit hard to get hold of in this mind-bending TV puzzle. You see, Wanda Maximoff (the magical mutant known as Scarlet Witch) and Vision (the “synthezoid” built by Ultron out of Tony Stark’s computerized butler) are now husband and wife—and living in a black-and-white TV sitcom.
“WandaVision” deserves a great deal of credit for boldness of concept. The show doesn’t spoon-feed itself to audiences. Two episodes in, and we have very little idea of what’s actually going on. Instead, the series plays its concept entirely straight-faced. (At least as straight-faced as a retro-styled sitcom about a super-powered housewife and her android husband can be.) “WandaVision” does a pitch-perfect job harkening back to the Golden Age of television, mashing up such domestic sitcoms as “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “I Love Lucy,” “Bewitched,” “I Dream of Jeannie,” “The Munsters” and others. Well-worn TV tropes such as “bringing the boss home for dinner” are well explored. At the same time, anachronistic jokes poking fun at things like the heavily moralistic Hays Code (which prevented husbands and wives from sleeping in the same bed on TV) are snuck in between canned laughs.
But what the heck are Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen, reprising her role) and Vision (Paul Bettany, back again) doing in a TV sitcom instead of fighting supervillains? That’s the nagging central question behind “WandaVision.” Pay close attention and you’ll notice something sinister trying to poke its way in around the edges of the show’s concept. A wacky dinner party takes an uncharacteristically dark turn. A scratchy radio broadcast intrudes into a scene, and a concerned voice from far away asks, “Wanda, who’s doing this to you?” Unwelcome pops of color sneak into frame. Even the show’s built-in television commercials seem to sport a sinister import. By the end of the second episode, Wanda appears to suffer a nervous breakdown, and the entire show bleeds into a crude Technicolor—a shift seen on mid-’60s TV shows like “Gilligan’s Island” and “Bewitched.” Glimpses into future episodes indicate that the setting of “WandaVision” will continue to age its way through the history of sitcoms—from the ’50s to the ’60s to the ’70s and on into the ’80s.
Narratively speaking, it’s clear that Wanda and Vision (who, it should be pointed out, is actually dead in the MCU) are trapped in some sort of alternate universe/reality and that certain forces (represented by a distinctive logo that serious Marvel fans will undoubtedly recognize) are trying to help/rescue them. But what’s actually happening and what got them there remains a mystery of David Lynchian proportions.
At least part of “WandaVision” is inspired by Tom King and Gabriel Walta’s groundbreaking 2015 comic book Vision, in which Vision gives up the superhero gig and tries to live a normal, suburban life. Fans are speculating that the series is also influenced by Marvel’s epic 2005 storyline House of M, in which Scarlet Witch has a mental breakdown and uses her reality-altering powers to change the fabric of the entire universe. Although “WandaVision” can’t encompass much of the House of M storyline (The X-Men have yet to be introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, for starters), it’s worth assuming that at least some of what’s happening in “WandaVision” is the result of Wanda retreating into a world of her own creation. (The title alone sorta spills the beans on that.)
It’s an unfortunate fact that the heavily historical references of “WandaVision” may be lost on younger viewers. If you didn’t at least grow up watching “Nick at Night,” the antiquated sitcom style may test your patience. But stick with it. As the patently phony facade of “WandaVision” starts to crack, the underlying mystery grows deeper, darker and more intriguing. If Disney+ is willing to experiment this heavily on its first Marvel series out of the gate, odds are we’ve got loads of inventive and original comic book content awaiting us in future series “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” “Loki,” “Hawkeye,” “Ms. Marvel,” “Moon Knight,” “She-Hulk” and “What If…?”.