WandaVision ★★★★

Credit where it’s due. As skeptical as I was about this project, I have also been complaining for years that Marvel is where originality goes to die and that their unparalleled success in franchising has instilled a vexing “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality at the studio. Even before “WandaVision” premiered on Disney+, their first original property worth the subscription price since “The Mandalorian”, it was obvious that this would be a novelty. Sure, it looked positively bizarre, but at least creator Jac Shaeffer thought outside the box for the first major showcase for the Elizabeth Olsen/Paul Bettany pairing after a decade of playing second fiddle. The result is a sometimes perplexing and tonally schizophrenic, but undeniably fascinating journey down the rabbit hole to a place Rod Serling would have felt at home at. Fair warning, I am operating under the assumption that nobody is still looking for opinions whether to give this a shot or not. If you are reading this, you either already watched it or don’t care enough about spoilers to avoid reviews.

There was a lively debate on the internet these past few weeks about whether the instant gratification model of dropping all episodes of a season simultaneously employed by Netflix and some of its rivals is really all that desirable to maximize satisfaction in your viewers. The consensus seemed to be that it’s not and that weekly installments, as frustrating as they can be in terms of cliffhangers, encourages word of mouth and allows people to speculate and possibly see their theories pay off a few days later. After “Game of Thrones” came to an unceremonious end in 2019, TV afficionados were worried whether we would see the emergence of a worthy replacement with similar buzz, but as long as Disney keeps churning out Marvel and Star Wars fare, any concerns about a content drought ought to be a thing of the past. “WandaVision”, with its sweeping aesthetical and tonal changes from week to week, lent itself to those discussions especially well. We are taken from one decade of TV influences on to the next and what starts out as a jovial 1950s sitcom soon transforms into something altogether more sinister.

Both Olsen and Bettany are asked to cover a large array of emotions, starting as a whimsical, newly married couple in a black-and-white universe in which their biggest concern is preparing a dinner for Vision’s boss and his wife. It’s the kind of innocuous challenge that would so often fill up a thirty-minute window, including commercials, in late 1950s, early 1960s prime time. But it’s all too clear before long that Westview isn’t some small-town oasis stuck in time, but a prison operated by a warden who in her grief took hundreds of people hostage. Wanda’s morals are a major question mark throughout these nine episodes, as it’s never entirely clear how much she has actually snapped. If she is fully aware of the torment she is inflicting upon her fellow denizens, her moral compass resembles that of a supervillain way more than that of an Avenger. If she can create parallel pocket dimensions without really trying, while living out her life in contentment with her resurrected husband and two imagined children, her abilities must be beyond description. And while I’m normally hesitant to embrace protagonists with virtually unlimited means at their disposal, it also creates an intriguing ideological conflict between a woman who set herself up as a deity and external forces eager to harness that power.

I tend to sound like a broken record whenever I’m reviewing the latest Marvel venture, but just to get it out there again, I am not especially well versed in this world. I haven’t seen some of the earliest films in close to a decade and have only rewatched a handful of them in general. So what fans see as brilliant easter eggs tends to go right over my head. I had honestly forgotten so much of even the basic plot of “Captain Marvel” that the reintroduction of adult Monica Rambeau elicited little more from me than a shoulder shrug. Which isn’t to take anything away from Teyonah Parris’s performance, who nails her initial presentation as a character in Wanda’s show, only to be revealed as an outside force that punctured her reality bubble. Even I grasped the significance of Evan Peters ringing the doorbell at the end of Episode 5, a development that broke the internet for a week and fizzled out by the end with a copout that allows Marvel to defer the major implications of fusing its two superhero canons. Which leaves Kathryn Hahn as Wanda’s scene-stealing nosy neighbor Agnes. Hahn, to borrow a phrase she popularized in this show, has a gas as the initially loyal, but duplicitous shoulder for Wanda to cry on whenever something in Westview spirals out of control. Even if comic book laypersons didn’t have the luxury of having decades of source material at their disposal to venture guesses about her real identity, it’s obvious you don’t cast someone with her ethos to just drop in on the proceedings occasionally.

Practically everything up until the end of Episode 7, when we find out that it was Agatha all along, is impeccable and a commendable achievement for Marvel in slowly unpeeling a delightfully eccentric concept. The final two episodes regrettably drop the ball a bit and don’t make the most out of its promising setup, even if there are some overdue payoffs concerning Wanda and her superhero identity. Episode 8, “Previously on” is mostly superfluous, essentially an episode-long flashbacks that provided few new insights into Wanda’s background. And the series finale wraps up some key elements of the show with disappointingly little fanfare, including the identity of Pietro, the foiling of SWORD director Hayward’s plan and the appearance of a white Vision secretly assembled in a SWORD laboratory. But it does right by the titular couple and allows Olsen and Bettany to shine in several scenes, proving that the general idea of allowing side characters from the Marvel properties to flesh themselves out in multi-episode television projects is a worthy endeavor.

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