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One of the smaller side-effects of the COVID-19 pandemic—besides worldwide devastation and economic plummets—is the fact that we will never truly know if the global culture would have grown tired of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2020. After Avengers: Endgame, the season finale of an 11-year series, you could sense the “franchise fatigue” setting in. Superhero films as a genre could still go the way of the Western: destroyed by their own samey, oversaturated market. Instead, we had several months of MCU drought, and WandaVision was there to greet us afterwards. Marvel Studios has notoriously been risk-averse—a presumable by-product of being part of Disney, a monopoly that literally builds castles in its conquered regions across the world—but this first step in the new era of Marvel series shows a step in the right direction.
Set three weeks after the explosive climax of Endgame, the series finds the titular Wanda and Vision in a rather different place to where we last saw them—most notably, Vision no longer has a hole in his robotic head and is seemingly content to live out his life as a dutiful spouse to his magical missus in the decade-hopping suburbs of Westview, New Jersey. Instead of saving lives or blasting foes, the pair are enrolled as the leads in a number of period-piece sitcom antics; though not all is as it seems.
The first few episodes are a slow-burn of paranoia and suspicion, where even the most innocuous gesture feels loaded with sinister intent. WandaVision walks the line between parody and satire very well, at once pointing out the tropes of the sitcom and recreating them with earnestness. The tension of the series comes mostly from the supposedly “normal” elements of these American Dreams: the Coalition smiles, the hair-too-long pauses in dialogue, the claustrophobic small town where everyone seems to know everyone… it keeps the audience on their toes, perpetually waiting for the other shoe to drop.
When that shoe does drop, it comes in the form of Monica Rambeau, an agent of S.W.O.R.D desperately trying to help Wanda and make sense of the “Westview anomaly”. She, along with a handful of other name characters from across the Marvel mythos, act as audience stand-ins: reacting appropriately to the sitcom-cross-horror and asking the questions we want answers to. Whilst this aspect of WandaVision’s story is essential, it is far from the show’s strength. The S.W.O.R.D characters can at times feel more one-note than a studio audience, their quips too pithy and meta, and it can detract from the tension of the show. It’s arguably a positive, however, that WandaVision’s flawless aesthetic and gradually creeping unease feel more grounded than the outside world.
At its heart, WandaVision is a character story. When stripped of the interconnected threads and bombastic action of the MCU, the series has a genuine tenderness through basing everything in the personal tragedy of Wanda Maximoff. Elizabeth Olsen gives a heartfelt and powerful performance in the role, taking full advantage of the character being given centre-stage for the first time—though not at the detriment of her castmates. Paul Bettany captures the humanity of the Vision even under inches of makeup, Kathryn Hahn is a delightful presence as she ducks in and out of episodes, and there are a handful of pleasantly surprising performances thrown in throughout.
Verdict: It is safe to say that WandaVision has staved off the heat-death of the superhero genre for at least the eight weeks of its runtime. Subversive, deconstructive and engaging; it highlights a welcome step away from the Marvel formula of old. 4/5