WandaVision: Episodes 1 + 2

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Ep.1: Written by Jac Schaeffer/ Ep.2: Written by Gretchen Enders
Directed by Matt Shakman
Release Date: 15th January, 2021

Disney+

Given that it has been over a year since we last had anything from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Spider-Man: Far From Home), it maybe explains why seeing the Marvel Studios logo in full display (with a wonderfully imaginative tweak) carries with it a surprising sense of nostalgia and even, dare I say it, emotion.

WandaVision isn’t Marvel’s first foray into television. That honour goes to ABC’s Agents of SHIELD, (although if you wanted to be pedantic I could go on about the likes of The Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man from the 1970s), while Netflix delivered a plethora of darker adult series featuring Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Daredevil, The Punisher and the other guy.

There was also, of course, Agent Carter, the sadly cancelled before its time showcase for Haley Atwell’s popular character and the only series up to now that had been produced by Kevin Feige.

Feige’s lack of involvement with the Netflix series as well as Agents of SHIELD precluded those shows from ever crossing over wholesale with the big screen mothership. There were elements of SHIELD that referred to events from the movies but the relationship between that show and the silver screen was very much one-sided. Feige’s involvement in Agent Carter on the other hand explains why Atwell still showed up for cameos in some of the movies, not to mention James D’Arcy as Jarvis showing up briefly in Avengers: Endgame.

That all changes now with the advent of Disney + and the premiere of WandaVision which comes with Feige’s involvement which at this point feels like a seal of approval not least because he has signed off on it, but which means he’s had substantial involvement in the creative side. On top of opening with the Marvel fanfare, it also features an elaborate end credits sequence and orchestral Christophe Beck score that feels like it would belong right at home in a movie theatre.

While the MCU has found itself at the centre of much debate in recent years about its cinematic value, not least after comments made by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola as to whether or not they constitute ‘real cinema’ (they are), there’s always been a pleasing sense that in some respects the MCU has a televisual feel.

Feige for all intents and purposes has a showrunner-like allure to his status as the key architect of the franchise, each movie is like a new episode, with some movies being stand alone, others being mythology tales that further elements of the story arc (to use an X-Files analogy).

It only stands to reason that the studio would make some move to television. The Netflix shows began promisingly; the first seasons of Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage all started brilliantly and for the most part worked wonders, even if they somewhat ran out of steam by the time they reached the last third of their respective first seasons.

Each show ran into problems with their second seasons, the other one (alright, Iron Fist) didn’t even have the luxury of a great first season, while attempts at an Avengers-like crossover event, The Defenders, didn’t exactly set the world of fire. Daredevil gained traction again in season three, but Luke Cage and Jessica Jones struggled with their follow-up seasons and as such the Marvel Television Universe, which was effectively shepherded by Jeph Loeb (Smallville, Heroes) ended with a whimper after beginning in a blaze of publicity and hype. Daredevil after all felt different, dark and adult, not to mention decidedly R-rated, while Jessica Jones and Luke Cage dealt with themes such as racism, sexual violence and consent in a way that were intelligent and adult and a million miles away from the popcorn flavourings of their silver screen equivalents.

It was just a shame that they couldn’t quite sustain their momentum, although they still win points for having antagonists in each of their shows that were substantially more interesting to watch than the villains in some of the movies.

It leaves one wondering what a high-profile series from Feige himself might look like. We have had a taste of it with Agent Carter. The period settings and spy-fy atmosphere were a joy, but it still felt tonally in line with the first Captain America film.

Right off the bat with WandaVision the viewer is hit with just how different this whole endeavour feels from anything else that Marvel has ever done. For starters, it’s not technically a superhero series. It’s a 50s sitcom that happens to feature Wanda Maximoff and Vision in a I Love Lucy-style comedy that is written, shot, filmed and edited exactly like a series from the period, even down to being in a 4:3 academy ratio, a world away from the CinemaScope framing of the likes of the Avengers and Captain America films. It’s in black and white and all shot on a stage that one can imagine is being viewed by a studio audience on the other side.

Like Gary Ross’ 1998 film Pleasantville, it revels in in 50s sitcom tropes and clichés and works with them in a post-modern fashion (although thankfully nowhere near as problematic as that movie does. I loved it when it was first released but it now feels decidedly tone-deaf in a very uncomfortable way).

The episode plays for the most part like a plot that would engulf the Ricardo’s, but then a sense of modern reality comes into force beautifully during the final moments. A disastrous dinner with Vision’s boss comes to a head when he starts choking and with it a break in the sitcom filming format. We get commercials for a Stark Industries toaster in the middle of it all and fake end credits before a Truman Show-like hint that someone or something is instigating everything.

It’s a fantastic opening to the show for sure, and pretty much has you running to the second episode immediately which takes the audience right into a credit sequence paying tribute to the one from Bewitched.

The episode is filmed less like a sitcom and more of a conventional comedy drama by this stage, although it still has a laugh track and sitcom set-pieces, but there is a darker charge just hovering over the edges of some scenes, with Olsen, Bettany and the supporting cast which consists of Kathryn Hahn, Teyonah Parris and Emma Caulfield playing everything to the sitcom tilt but with just a hint of something more elusive just waiting on the periphery of everything.

There’s a pleasing mystery box feel to proceedings which ensures that you’ll stick around. The episodes being dropped weekly might come as a source of frustration for some, but it leaves you chomping at the teeth for the next one, but it also ensures that you’ll be wanting to come up with theories as to what is actually going on.

Better yet, for what is perhaps the most high-profile move to television yet for Marvel, the series is awash with love and nostalgia for the small screen and its history. We may not have an idea yet of what is going on for sure, but the end of the second episode hints that Wanda is perhaps more aware of what is happening than we might realise. How appropriate would that be? A Marvel character in a Marvel television series opting to stay put in the fantasy world of the small screen.

As openings go, this is does gets its hooks into you nicely. It might prove somewhat confusing to some, and the lack of big set pieces, which is actually a quite welcome change of pace, might end up making the series feel sluggish for anyone who wants everything to blow up every twenty minutes, but making the move to the small screen should do something that maybe Marvel has been somewhat reluctant to do for a while on the big screen and that is to be somewhat challenging.

The movies are still entertaining for the most part, but after taking a massive chance with Iron Man 3 and being met with a confrontational fan reaction, the movies themselves got into a more comfortable rut where they still remained enjoyable but seemingly didn’t want to shake the boat too much. 2014’s double whammy of The Winter Soldier and the first Guardians of the Galaxy film retained a touch of the risk factor, but after that the films became increasingly safer without any major consequences (at the time of writing it’s being hinted at that Chris Evans will be returning to the role of Steve Rogers despite his character having made an exit in Endgame).

The fact that Vision is back might be another example of that, but that has its own layer of mystery and it is possible he is part of the cheery façade that has no basis in reality, but that’s speculation on my part. Point is, making the move to the smaller screen means, at last on the basis of this, that Feige and the MCU might be more open to delivering something more off-kilter and original, and not only does that suggest great things for WandaVision, but also to the next batch of MCU shows.

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