Back in 2007, now Marvel creative officer and household name Kevin Feige had an idea. Why wouldn’t he take every property the company owned, put them in the same sandbox and let loose the world’s greatest collection of superheroes on the same screen, at the same time?
Eleven years, 23 blockbusters and over $20 billion later, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) quickly blossomed to become the biggest cultural force in the entertainment industry leading up to its third phase conclusion “Avengers Endgame” in 2019. It was a true spectacle from directors the Russo Brothers, with fun callbacks to previous MCU accounts, dozens of CGI battle sequences and a conclusion that refused to leave any fans with a dry eye in the house. The brand seemed to be at the peak of its powers as the curtains closed on Tony Stark’s Iron Man adventures (sorry – spoiler alert) and couldn’t possibly seem to get bigger than it already was.
On the big screen, that is.
In September 2018, Marvel announced they were developing a bevy of limited series for Disney’s new streaming service Disney+, part in parcel to expand potential audiences as they entered the content wars but also to focus on more “second-tier” characters from the series. Unlike prior ABC installments like “Agents of Shield” or Netflix co-productions like “Daredevil," Feige was on record saying he would be directly involved in the production of these new shows and that what unfolded in them would be considered canon. He also mentioned that actors who portrayed the chosen characters in MCU films, including Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Anthony Mackie (Falcon) and Elizabeth Olsen (Scarlet Witch) would each reprise their roles in the series.
Marvel was continuing to expand, and nothing seemed poised to take them down.
Skip ahead 18 months, and the streaming revolution, as it happened, had only just begun. The pandemic and subsequent social and financial collapse of theaters forced Marvel to delay the release of Phase Four entries “Black Widow," “Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings” and “The Eternals” until the latter half of this year, as well as forced them to stop and start production on several of the series they had planned to roll out throughout the course of 2020.
Halting the release of its most recognizable properties, while Netflix and other industry giants continued to roll out new content during the worst months of the late spring and summer, it felt as though the cultural zeitgeist that Marvel managed to capture for so long was beginning to dwindle. After reaching a story and financial peak as high as the closing moments of “Endgame," uncertainty concerning the franchise’s new direction was apparent, and I – along with many other devoted fans – was nervous to see how they would forcibly respond.
All of those worries changed on Jan. 15 when Marvel released the first of these streaming forays in “WandaVision”, a nine-part tale written by Jac Shaeffer and directed by Matt Shakman that brings back both Olsen as Wanda Maximoff and Paul Bettany as Vision in their attempt to settle into a comfortable suburban lifestyle in Westview, Connecticut. Opening with a fairly simple plotline about Wanda and Vision’s spontaneous dinner party with Vision’s new boss (Fred Melamed) and one of everyone’s favorite television moms, Debra Jo Rupp — otherwise known “That ‘70s Show” Kitty Foreman — the first episode pays homage to classic 1950s sitcom “The Dick Van Dyke Show” in its set design, staging and other surface elements including a hokey laugh track and sight gags to drive home the vibe immediately — all before pulling back the curtain through an aspect ratio shift in the final moments to reveal that someone else has been watching everything viewers did from a retro television in the distance.
A nod to those who always expect the unexpected in MCU, this reveal is only the beginning.
While the first episode only features a lone “WTF” moment that’s expected when watching a show about a human-android synthesis and telekinetic reality bender attempting to blend into normal suburban America, it still manages to keep you hooked even when there’s not quite much to unpack — something that both these characters, and Marvel at large, benefit from inside the new medium. The extra runway afforded by weekly installments help viewers settle into a new setting and relies upon the familiarity of wacky sitcom tropes and situations to produce a lightheartedness behind the series’ unique logline, all the while continuing to hinge on the reveal of a larger purpose and insidious struggle behind Wanda and Vision’s new reality.
In layman’s terms, the half-hour format makes it more than palatable until it becomes utterly terrifying — a trick Marvel had yet to accomplish through its many epics over the past decade.
From the moment I watched the first 20 minutes, I knew the studio had cracked the code yet again on creating a genre piece amongst the larger superhero narrative — more specifically surrounding two characters we really hadn’t learned about through limited time on big screens.
As sitcoms decades and plot-lines pass in middle episodes and we’re transported to the living rooms of “The Brady Bunch”, “Full House” and even contemporary entries like “Malcolm in the Middle,” Schaeffer and team effectively manage to provide more revealing looks into Wanda’s motivations by contrasting the sublimeness of the sitcom with the typical bureaucratic elements that frequent other Marvel properties.
Supporting turns from “Ant Man and the Wasp” character Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), SWORD captain Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), and “Thor” alum Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) as a trio of sleuths give us plenty to hold onto within canon and showcase Marvel’s character-swapping comfortability, while also doing the bulk of work to find out why Wanda is satisfied to live out her existence in this artificial reality.
Had we only been given one perspective into the narrative as viewers, I think the show would suffer as a down-the-middle secret agent/bottle episode/side quest first venture into television for the brand. Yet by providing us vantage points into both sides of the story, we’re treated to the wider consequences of what Wanda has created in little old Westview — helping to push along the storyline for MCU fans desperately waiting for another chapter after the euphoric highs of “Endgame” subsided and keeping the door open for larger comic theorizing and easter egg hunting on a weekly basis. Redditors, trust me — this is open season for investigative work.
As “WandaVision” unfolds and the mystery behind how the powerful pair ended up inside the strange sitcom universe becomes clearer, it becomes even more evident that there’s also more room for Marvel to unpack deeper subject material when given the space and time. Latter episodes, featuring lengthier and more — eh, illuminating — appearances from Kathryn Hahn (“Bad Moms”) as nosy nearby neighbor Agnes, reveal the extent of suffering Wanda has faced as a result of the death of both her parents and brother Pietro (Quicksilver) in earlier MCU entries. They also demonstrate how beneficial Vision and his sentient empathy were toward her grief-stricken existence and heartbroken state through an emotion-stirring scene in the penultimate episode last week.
Thanks to this inclusion, which would’ve never made the final cut in the high-volume exploits MCU heroes normally find themselves in, the show effectively touches on the impacts of sustained trauma, depression and loneliness in a world that refuses to let Wanda possess what she most desires. “WandaVision” as a whole reveals itself as a fascinating character study into one of the universe’s most powerful — and troubled — super-powered beings.
If this is the package that Feige and company promised when they first announced the expansion to TV as part of genuine MCU canon, it’s more than just a home-run for Disney, but rather a grand slam for any medium-swapping universes across the entertainment industry.
The ease of the transition Marvel provides here makes it feel as though most anyone with ideas (and funding) large enough in Hollywood can weave together parallel accounts across both mediums without missing a single narrative step, something that I didn’t believe was truly possible after the vigor behind the brand’s future seemed to be an artifact of pre-COVID times.
There’s no way of knowing what impact this will have on other properties beyond Marvel or Star Wars content for Disney+, but with release dates set for the arrival of the action-packed “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” miniseries on March 19 and dimension-hopping god of trickery “Loki” show on June 11, the money-making train Feige founded is full steam ahead towards future that will be radically different than what initially allowed Marvel to become what it has.
Will they be successful? I’m not 100% sure, but after what they’ve managed to capture culturally with “WandaVision” here in the past two months, I’m more than excited to find out.
You can check out the all nine episodes of “WandaVision” streaming on Disney+ right now