WandaVision

3 out of 5

Created by: Jac Schaeffer

I’m not sure what I wanted out of WandaVision, the first Disney+ original series to add to the MCU canon, and that probably puts it in a tough spot to sell me on what creator Jac Schaeffer was cooking. It’s potentially as difficult as a sale as the streaming platform’s Mandalorian – a series in its Star Wars franchise – but at a high level, I care less about Star Wars than I do Marvel, and a little less me-centric, I think that show actually had the benefit of a hugely-successful-but-maybe-less-than-we-wanted-it-to-be set of films; that is, Disney putting a pause on their continual rollout of SW movies was to Mandalorian’s benefit – it sort of allowed it to be its own entity. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, on the other hand, though having – at the time of WandaVision’s release – completed their first phases of major storytelling, is still guaranteed box office bank, and is still telling a cohesive story with a set roster of characters. Nothing gets a pass as an exclusive side story any longer: it’s all part of the narrative.

And I think that’s why I approached WV with some uncertainty – it reminded me of an element of Big Two comics that kinda sorta turned me off: crossovers. Both Marvel and DC have a tendency to trot out huge, title-spanning “events” several times a year, and they generally don’t change much of anything except to interrupt whatever storyline you were actually enjoying in the affected titles. It’s not been unclear that Marvel realized they could do something similar with their movies ever since phase one, but it was pretty cool and novel to see it happening on screen, and it was a more tolerable – and enjoyable – endeavor when it wasn’t “requiring” the purchase of 3 or 4 comics a week to tell the whole story. With the advent of Disney+ and the announcement of a slate of TV shows which would further inform the MCU, though, it started to bleed into the other part of crossovers that bugged me: the spinoffs. Spinoff titles generally feature lower-tier characters – hey, Scarlet Witch and Vision! – and deliver a quirky idea that gets to exist solely because of the main event – Scarlet Witch has ensorcelled an entire town into acting as though they’re in TV reruns! – but they’re almost always limited because of that event as well. The page count is similarly limited – these are mini-series, or one-shots – and the job of these spinoffs, besides trying to earn money simply by promising some piece of the larger story, is to support some smaller detail in the main books. That is: these things are ephemeral, and whatever fun and cool concepts they can conjure will be sacrificed to fuel the machine.

That’s… pretty much exactly how I felt about WandaVision. It’s “mysteries” – how is Vision alive? Why is Wanda doing this? – never incited much intrigue, because, in and of themselves, they don’t matter; this is all just precursor to something brewing in the larger Marvel world. This compounds with Disney+’s playing-it-safe mentality to make each half-hour-ish episode very harmless. Part of that is smartly coded in to the setup – by mimicking television shows of different eras (starting from the 50s, and moving forward decade by decade), there’s inherent censorship – but it nonetheless has the same gloss as the movies, forever limited to PG mentalities with some PG-13-baiting violence if heroes are feeling especially punchy. That hasn’t prevented some awesome spectacle from occurring on the big screen, for sure, but the reigns are held tighter on Disney+, at least for now.

And “harmless” also doesn’t preclude the show being enjoyable: Elizabeth Olsen gets room to add depth to Wanda, and show off some well-earned mug-for-the-camera comedy chops but also play up the drama as it dawns on her character that she may not be as in-control of this town as she thinks. Paul Bettany, as the resurrected Vision, also gets to ham it up much, much more than the movies would’ve allowed, and he fills out his role well. Kathryn Hahn’s kooky neighbor Agatha injects weekly kookiness, and, outside of the witch-powered town, Teyonah Paris’ Monica Rambeau, working as an agent of S.W.O.R.D., does right by the MCU by making her character engaging to watch, week-to-week – as she’ll surely be a focus in material to come.

It’s a fun show, it looks great, and director Matt Shakman leaned just enough into the weekly TV shtick with the dressings of larger mysteries such that neither part of the equation felt overbearing, or too convinced of its own cleverness. But: it’s still a spinoff, cut off from proving itself fully on its own terms, and further boxed in by Disney+’s feeling out of the audiences it plays toward.