Has WandaVision peaked too early?

Marvel’s hit spin-off started out as a series of airtight and ingenious sitcom parodies, writes Louis Chilton. But before you could say ‘cinematic universe’, the show began suffering an identity crisis

Friday 19 February 2021 06:47
Trick or treat? Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro (Evan Peters) in episode six of WandaVision
Trick or treat? Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro (Evan Peters) in episode six of WandaVision
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What happens in Westview stays in Westview… until, of course, it doesn’t. When WandaVision debuted on Disney Plus a month ago, it seemed like a sequence of carefully blown bubbles. Its opening episodes, focusing on the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Wanda Maximof (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) as they live out an eerie sitcom-style reality in a quiet New Jersey suburb, committed entirely to their premises. Far from the MCU’s usual cacophony of overlapping characters and stories, these were singular and methodically crafted episodes, each one parodying a specific US sitcom era with affection and attention to detail. The hints at a bigger picture – the suggestion that Wanda and Vision’s sitcom reality might conceal some more sinister truth – were parcelled out sparingly, like the opening act of The Truman Show.

WandaVision entered its fourth episode having slowly built an impressive amount of intrigue; its central mystery (namely, “What the hell is going on?”) remained nebulous. It was catnip to the sort of Marvel fans who thrive on theories and speculation. But then, in a snap worthy of Thanos, the mystery was gone. The show slammed on its brakes to let the audience catch up with it, and has been struggling to even keep pace ever since.

Through the outside characters of Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) and Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), we were given a bird’s eye view of Westview’s supernatural sitcom anomaly (the “Hex”), and quickly deduced that it is indeed Wanda herself who is behind the supernatural shenanigans. From that point on, the intrigue that made WandaVision such an alluring hit at the start had vanished; it has been coasting on momentum ever since. As the show nears its endgame, the central mystery has fallen away, leaving only smaller, less compelling questions that must be academically answered before some final CGI-splattered boss fight.

Honey, I’m home: Wanda (Olsen) and Vision (Bettany) are a picture of domestic bliss during WandaVision’s opening episode

Gone, too, is much of the humour that made the first few episodes such a delightful throwback – and allowed Bettany and Olsen to flex their comic muscles. There are a couple of reasons for this. As the stakes get raised, Wanda and Vision become, by narrative necessity, increasingly disengaged with their chipper sitcom personalities, lapsing instead into the flatter, self-serious affect that characterised their Avengers roles.

However, WandaVision also suffers as its parodies have become less purposeful. WandaVision’s first, 1950s-styled episode was one of its strongest, and that’s largely because it was ripping off shows like I Love Lucy – a landmark in TV comedy whose influence on the genre is beyond question. Episode two tackled another classic slice of TV history, namely Bewitched, and the sheer aptness of the premise – Wanda being both witch and housewife – made for another superb half-hour.

As the show graduated through the decades, however, its inspirations became somewhat more impeachable. All in the Family, The Brady Bunch and even Malcolm in the Middle are not only less fondly remembered but less remembered altogether. Most of the best sitcoms towards the end of the 20th Century don’t fit within WandaVision’s two-handed domestic remit – increasingly, the sharpest, most significant US sitcoms were ensemble pieces, often set in a workplace (such as Taxi, or Cheers), or among a group of peers (Seinfeld; Friends). By the turn of the new millennium, the husband-and-wife domestic sitcom was mostly a thing of the past.

As the outside world begins to encroach on Wanda’s sitcom bliss, the parodies also become less whole. Episodes five and six were broken up with scenes featuring the investigators outside the Hex; the show has stopped committing to its central idea. Episode six feels more like an episode of Under the Dome than it does an episode of Malcolm in the Middle, so piecemeal and adulterated is its parody.

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The abyss gazes back: Vision (Bettany) stares at the border of the “Hex” in episode six of WandaVision

There are still plenty of clever touches to be found – and, on a meta-narrative level, I suppose it works perfectly having the sitcom pastiches break apart just as they are breaking apart for Wanda. In terms of pure throwback enjoyment, however, it’s a shame that the series couldn’t have held on a little longer. A lurch towards Marvel’s familiarly bombastic style was inevitable, but it came too early in the show’s run. It was fun while it lasted – but it barely lasted at all.

WandaVision continues on Fridays on Disney Plus

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