When the new television series WandaVision premiered Friday on Disney+, it had been exactly 563 days since Marvel Studios released a new production into the world. In the Before Times, Marvel was the engine driving the global box office, with its 23rd feature film, Spider-Man: Far From Home, alone earning US$1.1-billion worldwide. But when the entire industry broke down last spring, it took Marvel and its wonderful toys with it, and the next time we might see one of its superhero tales on the big screen is anyone’s guess. (Technically, Black Widow is scheduled to open in theatres May 7, but c’mon.)
So: Is the future of Marvel riding on WandaVision? In a way, yes. But the entire Hollywood ecosystem is also being tested here. Will locked-down audiences continue their migration to streaming? Will Disney+ subscriber growth be substantial enough to economically support the type of big-budget Marvel and Star Wars and Pixar adventures audiences are used to consuming en masse? Oh, and will these experiences be any good, stripped of the big-screen, communal, high-energy spectacle blockbusters have forever been engineered around?
To use the first three episodes of WandaVision as a case study ... I honestly have no idea. The new half-hour series is a strange, intimate, uncomfortable concoction: not intentionally developed for our pandemic era but feeling of a piece with our moment in time regardless. The first true Marvel Cinematic Universe production explicitly designed for the small screen under the guiding hand of MCU mastermind Kevin Feige – previous efforts such as ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Netflix’s sextet of Daredevil/Jessica Jones/The Punisher/Luke Cage/Iron Fist/The Defenders were budget-deficient afterthoughts churned out sans Marvel Studios’ creative direction – WandaVision is certainly an interesting way to kick off a new storytelling/franchising venture.
While its series premiere boasts that familiar, pulse-pounding animated Marvel logo, WandaVision is not a globetrotting A-to-B superhero epic. It is more of an inside joke riddle, wrapped in a comic-book mystery, inside the enigma of a sitcom. The first episode opens with two of the MCU’s lower-tier Avengers, telekinetic Scarlet Witch Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and flying robo-man Vision (Paul Bettany), stuck in black-and-white 1950s suburbia, playing house. The two exchange one-liners and endure pratfalls while a canned studio audience yuks it up. Think Bewitched meets My Favorite Martian meets I Dream of Jeanie meets the seemingly-forgotten-by-everyone-except-me 1992 John Ritter movie Stay Tuned.
Occasionally, Wanda and Vision shake themselves loose of the sitcom world that they’ve inexplicably found themselves somehow stuck in – one that comes complete with commercial breaks advertising the latest products from Stark Industries, and guest stars familiar to contemporary network-television audiences – and stop to wonder just what they’re doing in this fantasy-land. After all, didn’t Vision die in Avengers: Infinity War? How come the show sometimes shifts its aspect ratio, from the boxy sitcom style to a widescreen image? What exactly is going on here?
Audiences might wonder the same thing, as the meta-contextual gag that showrunner Jac Schaeffer and director Matt Shakman let loose here threatens to run itself into the ground or maybe through Wanda and Vision’s faux-kitchen wall, Wile E. Coyote style. Basically, WandaVision is the MCU’s attempt at crafting a love letter to a very specific kind of television viewer. Or more likely television critic.
Three episodes in, though, it’s difficult to say whether WandaVision is a success – whether in pulling off this particular kind of medium-specific satire-lite story, translating the overall MCU sensibilities to the small screen, pushing forward the long-running Avengers arc in a post-Endgame narrative, or helping Disney boost its bottom line to ensure many more years of ancillary franchises.
I’d say stay tuned. But I feel that is just what Disney might want me to do. Dang superheroes. They’ve saved the day once again, at least for now.
The first two episodes of WandaVision are available to stream on Disney+ starting Jan. 15, with subsequent episodes arriving Fridays
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