The history of Marvel TV shows to date is one of amiable confusion when it comes to canon: shows like Agents of SHIELD, Daredevil and The Punisher were reasonably well-made series which had lots of references to the events of the movies, but little or no love was ever sent back the other way. The closest the movies came to ever acknowledging the shows was when Agent Carter's Jarvis showed up briefly in Avengers: Endgame, played by the same actor as in the show, and one feels that even that might not have happened if the writers and directors of Endgame hadn't also been the main creative force on that show as well. The narrative connection between the two entities broke down entirely in the final seasons of Agents of SHIELD, where the film team's refusal to discuss their plans for Infinity War and Endgame effectively forced the show into a parallel universe altogether.
Thanks to the power of Disney+, the Marvel Studios team can now make their own TV shows, and the power of fortuitous (ish) timing has favoured them. With millions of people stuck at home, they're more willing to pay out for Disney+ and the slate of MCU-made-and-set TV shows coming down the pipe, starring actual actors from the films (and yes, Clark Gregg, Sam Jackson and Jamie Alexander did show up in SHIELD, but with a lot of caveats), has a much wider audience than they might have previously been expecting.
WandaVision is first up in the rotation and it's a curious show to launch this phase of the MCU (and of course it wasn't first choice, being moved up when The Falcon and Winter Soldier was unable to complete its original shooting schedule due to quarantine restrictions). For the first three episodes, viewers will likely be amiably confused. Wanda Maximoff (Elisabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) are the stars of a sitcom, also called WandaVision, and have to disguise their identities as superheroes from their neighbours, friends and work colleagues. At several key moments in these opening episodes (the first two of which are even shot in black-and-white), odd things happen that indicate that something is wrong with the world, or reality itself, but it's unclear what.
The fourth episode flips the format on its head, bringing in Randall Park and Kat Dennings to reprise their movie roles as FBI agent Jimmy Woo (from Ant-Man and the Wasp) and astrophysicist Darcy Lewis (from the first two Thor movies) and teaming them with Teyonah Parris as SWORD operative Monica Rambeau (a younger version of whom appeared in Captain Marvel). It's through this surprisingly effective team - who apparently already have a spin-off show in the development stages - that we learn what's actually going on from the perspective of the outside world. This storyline also gives us a glimpse of the absolute chaos caused by the "Blip" (or "Unsnappening"), when the world's population doubles overnight as a result of the events of Endgame.
The rest of the show unfolds in both formats, mixing the sitcom-in-a-show events in Westview with the more standard MCU hijinks as SWORD tries to work out what's going on and how to defuse the situation.
For much of the show's nine-episode run, it obfuscates exactly what is going on. Has Wanda gone insane or evil? Is someone else manipulating events from behind the scenes? How is Vision back? Answers to these questions are provided, although it takes a little while to get there. WandaVision is, I suspect, a show that will improve immensely in the binge format, where hours or minutes separate questions being raised and answered, rather than weeks.
At nine episodes, the story feels a little stretched, and a couple of the later sitcom episodes do feel a bit redundant. In fact, they could probably have ditched the sitcom elements after the third episode with their narrative purpose fulfilled, as the introduction of the standard MCU elements leaves the sitcom format severely under-utilised in later episodes. The episodes riffing on Malcolm in the Middle and Modern Family in particular feel like they don't take the sitcom structural format in any particularly interesting directions, because they're sharing so much screen time with events outside Westview that are filmed more traditionally. Still, it's hard to say that the show has much filler, especially given the episodes' modest run-times (with a couple clocking in at barely 20 minutes and most around 40 minutes).
The performances are excellent, especially Elisabeth Olsen as she shoulders the majority of the screen time and gets to explore her character in a manner that the films never really afforded. We get flashbacks to her childhood and her time as a "guest" of HYDRA, and we see more of her relationships with her brother and Vision, as well as her longing for a family and something approaching a normal life. Olsen does great work, especially as the show likes to keep Wanda's motivations ambivalent. Is she a villain, a victim or a misguided hero? The show does not provide easy answers to that question, but it certainly succeeds in defining the character better than the previous films in which she appeared. Bettany also gives a flawless performance as Vision, in both his familiar robot superhero and everyday husband guises. There isn't a bum note in the cast, although Josh Stamberg doesn't have much complexity to play in his role as SWORD director Tyler Hayward. The outstanding performance probably has to go to Kathryn Hahn for her portrayal as Agnes, the nosy neighbour who is more than she seems.
In terms of production values, the show looks epic, with vfx sequences that are a match for those of the films and the town of Westview repeatedly redressed to look like everything from the 1950s to the modern day and everything between. If WandaVision is meant to draw a line under all the shows that came before it and say, "No, now we're really playing in the world of the movies," it has certainly succeeded in doing that.
On the minus side of things, some casting choices, mysteries and story points feel almost deliberately designed to provoke online discussion, only for them to turn out to be red herrings or not really matter that much in the long run. For the sake of making for some fun discussion on the initial airing, this does make some story choices and ideas that don't feel entirely logical when viewed as a whole piece. Or to put it another way, the show occasionally feels like it's trolling the audience to evoke a reaction only to go in a completely different direction. There are a few story points here you suspect that they would have not made had they known that the entire show would air in one go.
Overall, though, the first and apparently only season of WandaVision (****) is a winner, with an exemplary cast and impressive production values propping up a focused story of loss, grief and healing. The show is nicely-paced (just nine episodes, many of them under 40 minutes in length) and visually inventive, but is let down a little by some subplots that don't really go anywhere. The show is available to watch worldwide now on Disney+.
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