The first episode of a new television show has a series of very specific jobs to do. Introduce the characters and their foibles, sow the seeds of the conflicts that will drive the plot, set up the rules of the universe that viewers will be inhabiting for the next however many seasons.
WandaVision, the new Marvel show released on Disney+ today, does something quite different. The first three episodes – two of which are out now, with the rest to follow weekly – are incredibly disorientating.
The show isn’t the first television series to be set in the sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe of Iron Man and Thor and Captain America, but it is the first one that’s been produced by Marvel Studios, the same people who make the movies. The mini-universe of Netflix-Marvel shows that came before this (including Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, Daredevil and the appalling Iron Fist), stuck to fairly safe ground: their protagonists kicked, punched and occasionally fisted their way to the truth. WandaVision is quite different.
It features two characters who will be familiar to fans of the Avengers saga: Wanda Maximoff (Scarlet Witch), who has magical powers including telekinesis and mind control, and Vision, the super-intelligent android last seen getting his skull cracked open by Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War.
Instead of duelling with genocidal aliens or malevolent robots, Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) find themselves living the suburban dream in Westview, an all-American town of neatly manicured lawns. The first two of nine half-hour episodes are a loving homage to the black and white sitcoms of the 1950s – family friendly entertainment heavy on pithy one-liners delivered with a nod to the camera, and comic misunderstandings when the boss comes round for dinner. She can do magic, he’s a hyper-intelligent robot, and they have to keep the neighbours from finding out.
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The production team pursued maximum authenticity – they interviewed the producers of shows from the 1950s, used the same type of camera lens to get the look of the show right, and even filmed in front a live studio audience – presumably now the most NDA-bound group of people in human history. (Interestingly, the show actually has more visual effects shots than Avengers: Endgame, which was basically one giant action sequence).
Even the script barely deviates from the tropes of the era, resulting in a slightly odd viewing experience – I kept waiting for something to happen that would break the sitcom wrapper and reveal the real show lurking underneath. There were flashes of what’s to come in the opening episodes – spots of colour bursting through the black and white like in Pleasantville, strange radio transmissions coming over the waves like in The Truman Show, an end scene that hints at a greater mystery to be unravelled.
Slowly (perhaps too slowly?) we get the impression that there’s something horribly wrong in Westview – something wrong with the flow, or with the people, or with Wanda and Vision themselves. But the opening episodes are light on answers – particularly to the key question, which is how Bettany’s character is alive when he was comprehensively unplugged.
New episodes of WandaVision will be released once a week for the next two months, with lots more MCU TV shows to follow in its wake on Disney+ – this interconnected universe of characters could soon dominate the small screen as it has the box office. It’s too early to tell whether the show is actually good or not – the sitcom stuff is fun, but sometimes it feels like a short sketch that’s overstayed its welcome.
The slow start might mean WandaVision struggles to draw in new fans – but then a spin-off about two minor characters was probably never going to do that. It’s one for the MCU die-hards – although it’s so tonally distinct from everything that’s come before it that it may land awkwardly even with them.
In the third episode, the set decor jumps from the 1950s to the 1970s – the hair gets longer and bushier, the clothing more colourful. More eras are apparently going to follow – Bewitched, The Brady Bunch and Malcolm in the Middle will all get the visual treatment. But the show that I was reminded of the most while watching was Lost – in that a lot of the time I didn’t have a clue what the hell was going on.
Amit Katwala is WIRED’s culture editor. He tweets from @amitkatwala
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