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'WandaVision': The Next Era Of The MCU Will Be Televised

In Disney+'s <em>WandaVision</em>, Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) find themselves in a disturbing situation ... comedy.
Marvel Studios
In Disney+'s WandaVision, Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) find themselves in a disturbing situation ... comedy.

It's been a while since we saw the logo of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — those fast-flipping comics pages, that stirring anthem of strings and brass and clashing cymbals — and I'm pleased to report that it retains its power to act as visual appetizer, whetting our collective palate for the mix of iconic, larger-than-life, vibrantly colored acts of selfless heroism, cosmic stakes and petty intra-hero squabbling that is the Marvel brand.

It's tacked to the opening of all nine episodes of WandaVision, the Disney+ series that finds Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and a mysteriously reconstructed Vision (Paul Bettany's character died at the end of Infinity War, you will be forgiven for not remembering) starting a quiet life in the suburbs — the suburbs of 1950s America, in particular: tract houses, subdivisions, cul-de-sacs and white picket fences.

The disconnect between the pulse-pounding MCU logo and the pilot's' I-Like-Ike setting is jarring, yes — imagine a meal starting with a spoonful of Massaman curry followed by a PB&J — but that's purely intentional. Because the suburbs in question aren't strictly those of 1950s suburbia as it truly existed, but rather how it was depicted at the time, in American sitcoms.

Given that the next phase of the MCU is moving to Disney+, it makes sense that its first installment should take the form of extended homage to television itself. And given the lead characters involved — two Avengers whose romantic relationship, though long-established over decades of comics, only managed to snatch a few minutes of MCU screentime — it's also logical enough that the sitcom in question should be of the domestic variety, in which a young couple navigates the demands of the office (him), social demands (her, mostly) and kids (again: her, mostly).

But here's the challenge: The audience is ahead of the characters. From the opening shots, as the spritely theme song kicks in, we know the deal. Something or someone has trapped these characters in this clean, freshly scrubbed, laughtracked, black-and-white virtual Levittown (Westview, technically), and it's only a matter of time before they figure it out, escape, kick said something/one's butt, and reconnect to the greater MCU.

The trapped-in-television thing has been done before, in and out of superhero fiction, many, many, many times. Sometimes as pure parody, sometimes as pastiche or homage, but always as a plot device — a trap to be escaped from, a hurdle to be cleared so they can get on with their lives.

The makers of WandaVision seem to be betting on our savviness in this regard, and our impatience. The tactic they have chosen to combat it is to withhold what they know we're clamoring for — big superhero action, wider Marvel universe interconnectivity — and instead double down on the details of the execution of this sitcom universe.

The first three episodes of the series made available to the press dole out any clues to what is really going on outside the characters' sitcom Purgatory with a frustrating parsimoniousness. Importantly, however, the revelations that do come — usually in the last few minutes of any given episode — are different enough in kind and in scope to deepen the mystery, rather than merely reiterate it.

The gamble the team behind WandaVision is making is that if they truly commit to the reality of Wanda and Vision's unreality — if they treat the sitcom simulacrum not as a joke or a plot point, but instead embrace its every aspect without irony, then we will too.

What they've created, as a result, is in many ways an American Studies seminar focusing on the sitcom's status as a reflection of cultural change. The pilot's a 1950s sitcom — think I Love Lucy/Leave It To Beaver. Episode Two offers a subtle shift into the television comedies of the sixties — The Dick Van Dyke Show shading into Bewitched, in particular. The third episode explodes in a riot of Brady Bunch colors and polyester and shag carpeting — and, presumably, so on, through the following episodes.

What is striking is how straight this conceit is played, and with what assiduous attention to detail it is wrought. In interviews, the cast has talked about the "sitcom boot camp" they attended, which consisted of studying episodes of sitcoms from different eras. It shows: Watch how the great Kathryn Hahn, playing nosy neighbor Agnes, holds her arms as she talks, how her pinkies remain preternaturally extended. Listen to how Olsen's wry delivery in the first episode slides into something more earnest and bubbly in the second. Notice how the series' special effects — as when Wanda must use her telekinesis to whip up a quick meal — remain rigorously period-appropriate (the wires holding up the mixing bowl and the whisk have been CGI'd out, but the stiff artificiality of it all remains). And, mostly, take note of how unsettling it becomes at those moments when the pilot's bright multi-camera, shot-before-a-live-studio audience mis-en-scene abruptly switches to a single-camera close-up of a character's face steeped in foreboding shadows.

It's effective, this dedication to the tone, look and feel of the sitcom genre. How else to explain why, despite knowing it's all an illusion, we find ourselves truly invested in the frippery of a given episode's ostensible plot — Will Vision's boss be impressed when he comes to dinner? Will their powers get revealed? Will they win the town's talent contest? Etc.

There will be plenty of Marvel fans who'll prove unwilling or unable to suspend their impatience long enough to get to what is sure to be an impressive fireworks factory, down around episodes eight or nine or so, probably. It's a lot to ask of people who aren't sufficiently interested in the sitcom as a genre to appreciate the series' deep meditation on that most American of texts, and nod approvingly at, for example, its production design — at the way, in early episodes, Wanda and Vision's home smashes together the Bewitched living room and the Dick Van Dyke Show kitchen.

But for others — perhaps most especially those who are given to bemoaning the MCU's formulaic, predictable quality — WandaVision's commitment to confounding expectations might offer something few franchises as hoary as this one ever do — a fresh, surprising way in.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.