Warning: this review contains full spoilers for WandaVision.
Following a series of release-slate shuffles and Covid-related delays, WandaVision has found itself debuting not only as Marvel’s first Disney+ series, but also the start of the MCU’s much anticipated Phase 4. Easily the most unconventional entry in the franchise to date, WandaVision‘s sitcom homage brings the stakes back down to a human level, while delivering a mostly effective story of reality-bending weirdness.
When last we saw Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), she had just come back from being blipped out of existence, gone toe-to-toe with Thanos, and started the process of mourning the Vision (Paul Bettany). As such, it’s pretty jarring that her next appearance is as a 1950’s housewife, facing classic sitcom problems with a seemingly alive again Vision.
Over the course of the season, Wanda and Vision find themselves in a range of sitcom settings, reminiscent of everything from I Love Lucy all the way up to Modern Family. Of course, this bizarre occurrence doesn’t go unnoticed by the rest of the world. Outside the Westview Anomaly, the newly introduced S.W.O.R.D agency assembles a ragtag team of MCU side characters to investigate, including Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), Dr. Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) and an all grown up Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris).
While recreating a different era of classic sitcoms every episode could easily have felt like a cheap gimmick, showrunner Jac Shaeffer and her team steer clear of parody with their unrelenting earnest and reverence. The sitcom aesthetics are pitch-perfect, with framing, colouring, comedy and conflicts all feeling very period appropriate, and most episodes get a fantastic throwback theme song, courtesy of the Frozen song-writing duo, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez.
The downside to this commitment is that the story can feel slow getting started. After a few creepy cracks in the illusion, the opening of episode 4 with Monica’s return from the blip crashes the story back into the real world at breakneck speed. While mostly the split between sitcom and real world work well together, the need for more exposition as the façade shatters does cause some slumps in pacing, and the finale has so many plates spinning going in that it feels very rushed in reaching its conclusion.
Olsen and Bettany take to their starring roles effortlessly, carrying the series through each decade with their spot-on sitcom performances.
Whenever the show stumbles in delivering its narrative effectively, it can always fall back on its excellent character work. In each of the sitcom eras, especially the 50s/60s stuff, everyone is giving it 100%, but the main cast really sell the show. Olsen and Bettany take to their starring roles effortlessly, carrying the series through each decade with their spot-on sitcom performances.
The addition of the twins Billy (Julian Hilliard) and Tommy (Jett Klyne), and the seemingly resurrected Pietro (Evan Peters) leads to some fantastic family-based sitcom scenarios, and makes sense in the course of the story, as well as the progression in sitcom history. In particular, Peters’ relationship with his nephews brings an anarchic energy that hits just the right tone for the 90s era Malcolm in the Middle-inspired episode.
The light-hearted levity contrasts well with the shadow of the reality from which Wanda and Vision are trying to escape. These moments, where their fragile fantasy threatens to crash about their ears, lead to several incredible interactions between the pair, and easily rank among some of the most affecting scenes in all of the MCU. Olsen especially gets some great scenes as she transitions fully into the Scarlet Witch (complete with excellent costume), with her despair and isolation forming the key emotional drive for the series.
Dennings and Park are both very welcome returns, bringing plenty of charm to early episodes, as well as some great continuity for their characters, in the form of Darcy’s shiny new PhD and Jimmy’s mastery of close-up magic. As central as they are to the plot, both are side-lined as the show goes on, to the point where their stories feel unfinished by the time the final credits roll. Parris gets more to do, with a pretty decent emotional arc sewn into the main plot, but with everything going on, the origin story of Monica’s powers feels rushed and shoehorned in, especially as they barely factor into the story.
And then there’s Agnes. Kathryn Hahn is delightful as the nosy neighbour, but things get really interesting when Agnes reveals herself (via a catchy theme song) to be a powerful sorceress named Agatha Harkness. Devious, diabolical, and having a ball doing it, Hahn is even more mesmerising in full antagonist mode, despite the relatively short time she gets to do it. Thankfully, WandaVision eschews the MCU foible of prematurely offing great villains, so it’s likely that this isn’t the last we’ve seen of this particular wicked witch.
Jimmy, Darcy and Monica have such great chemistry that the internet now wants them to get their own X-Files-style, mystery-solving series.
While its original concept is refreshingly different to the rest of the MCU, WandaVision is ultimately part of a larger beast, and like Wanda’s sitcom utopia, it can’t remain isolated forever. For the most part, these connections work in the show’s favour – in particular, the sidekick Scooby Gang of Jimmy, Darcy and Monica have such great chemistry that the internet now wants them to get their own X-Files-style, mystery-solving series.
Looking ahead, the series also introduces several intriguing elements that could play into the MCU’s future. The Darkhold, Agatha’s demonic-looking book of the damned, is tied to many comic characters, including Mephisto and Ghost Rider, and you can bet that the newly reawakened White Vision will show up again somewhere. With all these exciting surprises, it’s disappointing that the end credits teasers, setting up Secret Invasion and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, respectively, felt pretty generic.
After a whole season of very internalised conflict, the third-act switch to external threats also falls pretty flat. As fantastic as Olsen and Hahn are, and with all the possibilities of reality-altering magic, their fight essentially boils down to the pair throwing different coloured lights at each other. While the Vision scrap also feels pretty uninspired, it does at least end with a fantastically creative character moment, as the Hex-Vision uses a metaphysical thought experiment to defeat his albino counterpart with logic.
With all the weighty expectations of starting Phase 4, as well as debuting Marvel’s Disney+ series’, WandaVision is a remarkable deviation for a franchise that has been criticised for formulaic approaches. While there are a few rough edges, the series succeeds for the most part as a devastating story of grief and loss, wrapped up in a few decades’ worth of sitcom tropes. With Falcon and the Winter Soldier due up next, there is already a high bar set for Marvel series’ going forward.
Verdict: 4/5 Paddles