It’s only fitting that Marvel Studios’ first foray into television is a tribute to the medium itself.
Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany reprise their roles as Wanda Maximoff (Scarlet Witch) and Vision, first seen in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and throughout subsequent films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). For reasons unknown, these heroes are dropped into the world of old-school multi-camera sitcoms in the sharp new TV series, streaming its first two chapters Jan. 15 on Disney+.
Studio President Kevin Feige told Variety that Wanda and Vision “are great characters in the comics that we don’t scratch the surface of in the movies.” So when he read the 2016 comic miniseries “The Vision,” by writer Tom King and artists Gabriel Hernandez Walta and Mike Del Mundo, he knew he had to bring to life the image of the Android coming home to a wife and a white picket fence.
And the first three episodes brilliantly capture the oddball imagination of the idea, taking viewers through the evolution of the sitcom with its cheesy humor, live audience laughter and signature screwball mishaps. Marvel Easter eggs are plentiful, but it’s an especially fun viewing experience for fans of classic television – in addition to being an incredibly smart strategy to make the transition from the movie theater to the living room.
With theaters closed and some straight-to-streaming options making us long for the big screen, “WandaVision” is perfectly suited to the small one – by design. It was brilliant to ease the record-breaking, action-packed film franchise off the big screen into a tightly-written, clever watch-at-home format, leaning away from cinematic, crash-bang superhero expectations to something slower and smaller.
“It felt great to do something that could only be done for television,” Feige said. “I spent an inordinate amount of time as a child watching TV and syndicated repeats of lots of sitcoms.”
The detailed images of sitcoms past are enough to garner their own re-watch, with subtle and silly nods to sitcoms of old. Detailed set designs and nuanced humor will make avid, keen-eyed sitcom watchers happy. But the writers also have you wondering what’s lurking underneath – and with Marvel, you know it’s usually something big. Even as you shake your head at its cleverness, you understand it is simply a unique medium to tell a deeper, darker story – and it’s fun to feel in on the joke.
From showrunner Jac Schaeffer and director Matt Shakman, this show wasn’t meant to be viewed on a 20-foot-tall screen with hundreds of people, but on your couch. And you need not worry if nostalgia isn’t your thing – “WandaVision” seems to be as much about searingly mocking the genre as it does about perfecting it. Clearly these characters are in this world for a reason, and it will be undoubtedly compelling to know why, as nine 30-minute installments unfold over the next few months.
With empty theaters and darkened screens, it’s comforting that “WandaVision” was meant to be watched at home, on television – a word that’s ever changing in the Internet age. The medium it pays tribute to was originally built to entertain millions of families – to make them laugh, if not always wonder what was going to happen next. This series offers both.
And the show itself is smart, aptly-titled and written by a mostly female staff. Because it is written by women, it hilariously mocks the uneven gender roles of classic sitcoms when wives – always wives, never just women – were often the butt of the joke. Kathryn Hahn is ridiculously funny as quirky neighbor Agnes, who cracks jokes about her useless husband Ralph (but who some fans believe is not what she seems).
Olsen is effortless, and Bettany is genuinely funny, nailing the kind of quirky faux-happiness of those suburban shows – but the pure joy of them too, in the days when millions of families would laugh at the same Rob Petry line or the famous scrapes of Samantha Stevens. This is the way we used to watch television together, and the pandemic has made that even clearer with the widespread success of “Ozark,” “The Mandalorian,” and “The Queen’s Gambit.” This is appointment television, and “WandaVision” is no exception, even as we have no water coolers around which to gather.
The “Avengers” offered us a shared cinematic experience, when everyone was on the same side for a night at the movies. Maybe in 2021, this is as close as we’ll get to that. A throwback to a time when there were just a few channels, and no fast forward. A time we miss, especially now, as Thanos-shaped villains stomp through our universe, along with a rampantly-spreading silent killer that robs people of breath and has devastated millions worldwide. Mobs and riots are forming, except in this world, the good guys wear masks and superheroes work in hospitals.
It sometimes feels like the world blipped – like we’re in the third act of an “Avengers” film, and no one knows what’s coming. It’s felt like that for almost a year now. We need heroes, but we need humor, too. And we need to be entertained in this new way – while poking tremendous fun at the old.
Maybe I’m being far too sentimental – the underlying mysterious plot of “WandaVision” will no doubt be what most people remember about it. But for now I’m just thankful to laugh – to remember a time when we would bond over characters, and know that no matter how bad things get, there will always be heroes.