Hello, my Phoenix-reading friends! Welcome to the first edition of “Dani’s Thoughts on TV Shows and Movies.” Every two weeks, I’ll be reviewing a show or movie that I have thoughts on (which means I could review “Avatar: The Last Airbender” next week or the new “Dear Evan Hansen” movie. There’s no rhyme or reason to what I choose other than that it piques my interest!). For this first edition, I’m going to review the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first Disney+ collaboration and one of the best shows I’ve seen this year: “WandaVision”.
A Brief Synopsis (Spoiler-Free):
“WandaVision” is a limited series released on Disney+ that begins Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The show follows Wanda Maximoff and the Vision in what seems to be a sitcom focusing on their relationship as they realize that not all is as it appears to be (as far as synopses go, that’s about as much as I can say without spoiling anything). The show was created by Jac Schaeffer, directed by Matt Shakman, and produced by Chuck Hayward. It stars Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany as the titular Wanda and Vision respectively, and Kathryn Hahn, Teyonah Parris, Randall Park, and Kat Dennings as part of the supporting cast. It is still streaming on Disney+. Critically acclaimed, “WandaVision” was nominated for 23 Primetime Emmys and won three (Outstanding Fantasy/Sci-Fi Costumes, Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics, and Outstanding Production Design for a Narrative Program (Half-Hour)).
Dani’s Thoughts (Spoilers Ahead):
Before I get started, if you haven’t watched “WandaVision” and you plan to, stop now, don’t read any spoilers, and go watch it. While there are some shows where you can get plenty of spoilers and still enjoy the full experience, this isn’t one of them. In my opinion, the best way to watch “WandaVision” is to have no earthly idea what’s going on as you watch it. So, if you haven’t yet watched it, read on at your own peril.
Here’s a more complete synopsis: Wanda and Vision find themselves in an alternate (and televised) world where they have to try to blend into their suburban surroundings. Every episode is inspired by a different decade of television, with the first drawing its inspiration from the 1950s and I Love Lucy, the second from the 1960s, the third from the 70s, etc. As strange occurrences start happening in this reality, amid the domestic plots that unfold (Wanda and Vision have twins!), Vision begins to realize that Wanda is the one who has constructed the world in which they live and that she has mind-controlled an entire town of people to create the perfect life she wants. Eventually, Wanda comes to realize that she isn’t the only witch in town and has to contend with the deliciously villainous Agatha Harkness, who has been pretending to be the nosy next-door neighbor and reveals herself to be an equal match for Wanda’s powers.
Meanwhile, back in reality, the FBI and the fictional Sentient Weapon Observation and Response Division (S.W.O.R.D.) are investigating the disappearance of the small town of Westview when they realize that no one in the surrounding area remembers that Westview exists. Monica Rambeau (a S.W.O.R.D. captain and the daughter of S.W.O.R.D. founder Maria Rambeau) gets sucked into Wanda’s reality (and then kicked back out) and uses her knowledge to help FBI Agent Jimmy Woo and visiting astrophysicist Darcy Lewis figure out how to help Wanda, Vision, and the Westview residents.
Let’s get to it.
“WandaVision” is a show primarily about grief and an inability to cope with loss. Watching it in the middle of a pandemic that has claimed over 600,000 American lives has felt at times like a reflection of my own sense that we couldn’t catch a break (from a difficult election season, to the Jan. 6 insurrection, to the Delta variant, to breakout cases, to family being sick, etc.). I might have found the sitcom-through-the-ages gimmick annoying in another show, but “WandaVision” took advantage of the sitcom format in a way that gives great depth to the plot. The sitcom setting allowed the writers to flesh out Wanda and Vision’s romance, explore Wanda’s past, and explore the idea of escapism as a coping mechanism. Watching a show that contains the line “What is grief, if not love persevering?” might have been much more painful if the format wasn’t so delightful.
One of the things I appreciated the most about “WandaVision” was its attention to detail. From the ads that intersperse Wanda’s TV show that become increasingly unhinged as her mental state devolves to the painstaking way that the fourth episode (“We Interrupt This Program”) brings together the two worlds, it was clear that the writers of “WandaVision” were 100% committed to their gambit. And it paid off. Consider the pun in the title of the show, the television-esque appearance of “The Hex,” and the homages to sitcoms of every era; “WandaVision” left no stone unturned and missed not one opportunity to pun. The show also holds up extremely well upon subsequent rewatches. There are subtle details that become more noticeable once you know how “WandaVision” ends, such as the tension between the Harts and Wanda in the first episode (“Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience”). Having rewatched a scene in which Mr. Hart asks Wanda, “Why have you come here? Why?” and then subsequently begins to choke, I now wonder if he had temporarily escaped Wanda’s mind control and had taken his chance to confront her.
My biggest criticism of “WandaVision” pertains to the last episode, and I feel like I’m solidly in the majority of Marvel fans when I say it was somewhat of a disappointment. To be clear, the ending didn’t ruin the show for me, nor was it the kind of disaster of an episode that left me scratching my head at my TV (à la Sylvie kissing Loki in Loki). For a show, however, that has consistently gone there, the finale gave me the sense that the writers pulled their punches on what would otherwise have been a phenomenal anti-hero arc for Wanda. Even the name of the episode, “The Series Finale,” is lackluster compared to episode names such as “On a Very Special Episode…” and “Previously On.” My biggest frustration stems from the fact that a show that had so intentionally leaned into the moral ambiguity of its main character suddenly did a heel-turn and tried to make her the tragic hero. What Wanda did to an entire town was not ethically justifiable. That doesn’t take away from her trauma or suffering, nor does it make her story less compelling. Perhaps Marvel should learn what young adult authors are well aware of: audiences can and will root for well-written morally gray characters, sometimes even when those characters become villains.
My other frustration is that Marvel tried to make a big to-do about the fact that they now own the rights to the “Scarlet Witch” name, so much so that the writers had Director Hayward point out in the fourth episode that Wanda Maximoff has no superhero alias in a clumsy attempt to set up the reveal of her new moniker. Though nobody could deliver the “…and that makes you the Scarlet Witch” line better than Kathryn Hahn, this particular plot point (if you could call it that) falls sorely flat. Why? Because — I’m sorry Marvel — but Wanda Maximoff has been known as the Scarlet Witch since years before she entered the MCU. It doesn’t really matter if she’s never been called that in this particular universe; those names are almost as interchangeable as Steve Rogers and Captain America. Side note: I would be remiss if I didn’t remark on how Kathryn Hahn stole the show. Her performance was riveting and she made a meal out of lines that would otherwise sound cheesy or contrived. I really, really hope Marvel brings Agatha Harkness back in the future.
Final episode aside, “WandaVision” was a masterpiece. When I think of “WandaVision” side-by-side with other good shows, I immediately think of another one of my favorite sitcoms: “The Good Place.” Both shows handled difficult topics through unconventional storytelling. Both “WandaVision” and the first season of “The Good Place” depend on the viewers’ lack of knowledge. The big reveal in “The Good Place” bears similarities to Monica Rambeau’s “It’s Wanda. It’s all Wanda” moment and to the song “Agatha All Along.” But I think what truly ties the two shows together in my mind is that the creators of both shows were intentional in their choice of genre, which ultimately paid off when the curtain fell. Like “The Good Place,” “WandaVision” aimed high and delivered on the promise of its concept and the satisfaction of the twists and turns along the way. Marvel should keep making shows like this.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.