A few weeks ago, my colleague Andrew Sanford discussed the way Marvel movies have “a tendency to explain everything to the audience” and have thus conditioned audiences to expect instant gratification and resist change. He was talking, of course, about WandaVision, and the impatience some viewers expressed at having to wait to see what cards the show is holding, and how it will impact the rest of the MCU. Impatience that, as we finally approach the home stretch of the show’s first (only?) season, has crescendoed to deafening levels. Who is the villain?! Why haven’t they literally said the word “mutant” yet? Is Monica friends with Reed Richards? What is WandaVision setting up for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness? Is… is THIS the multiverse? What does it all mean, and why do we have to wait a whole week to watch another episode, only to have to wait some more?!
The frustration is obvious, as is the reactionary frustration amongst viewers that are enjoying what WandaVision seems intent on delivering amidst the easter eggs and mysteries — namely, a show about trauma centered on a woman who is processing her grief through extreme denial. Denial that happens to be taking the form of sitcoms. That alone would be impressive enough, frankly, and I wholeheartedly agree with the faction of fans who are satisfied simply by having Marvel give space to the internal life of Wanda Maximoff — only the second woman to get her own MCU franchise after Captain Marvel (and before the long-delayed Black Widow film). Over the course of four blockbusters, all we had time to learn about Wanda was that her parents were killed, she was manipulated and experimented on, she chose to help The Avengers and lost her brother in the process, then she lost her new-found barely defined love interest in the fight with Thanos. That’s a lot of pain! In fact, pain is sort of all we know about her. The MCU had barely even established the full extent of Wanda’s powers beyond some nightmarish telepathy, telekinesis, and assurances that her woo-woo was very powerful stuff indeed. Now we know that she can rewrite goddamn reality! So much of Marvel’s storytelling has been at Wanda’s expense, without giving her time to grieve or grow or for us to even know who she is — until WandaVision came along to fill in those gaps.
What both sides of the fan discourse about WandaVision are missing, however, is the very simple thing that makes the show so special in the first place: The very fact that it IS a television show and it IS a part of the larger MCU. It’s both, and that in and of itself is entirely new territory. Of course, WandaVision is not the first Marvel television show, as you’re no doubt aware. Netflix had a whole slew of them, a set of heroes who could play in a separate sandbox that eventually built into its own crossover effort, The Defenders. The quality varied from the wrongheaded (Iron Fist season one) to the downright astonishing (Jessica Jones season one), with most falling in the territory of “pretty good” and — crucially — they were bingeable. Thirteen episodes a season that launched on the same day, so you could consume them in a weekend and move on. We also complained about pacing back then, the dreaded Netflix bloat, but I don’t remember people saying they weren’t television or should have been movies. There are hints that perhaps Disney will salvage some of those characters and bring them into the MCU — particularly Charlie Cox as Daredevil — but that doesn’t change the fact that the shows themselves lived and died under a separate umbrella.
Then there’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the ABC network drama that was kinda sorta supposed to be connected to the MCU… almost. They took a beloved movie character, Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), who died in The Avengers, brought him back to life and spun him off into a whole new series of adventures. In the first season, there was a lot of buzz around how the show would be reacting to the events of the movies, particularly the fallout of the big HYDRA reveal in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but it soon became clear that the interconnectivity fans hoped to see was destined to be a one-way street. The difference between a network series and its 22-episode production schedule versus the elaborate plotting Kevin Feige was managing on the movie side was irreconcilable. The movies would never acknowledge the events of the show — not even when the show introduced The Inhumans, which got a whole-ass separate television season and even an IMAX premiere that nobody remembers. Eventually, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. basically gave up trying to pick up whatever MCU scraps it could and wound down its final seasons in relative obscurity — though fans who stuck with the show know that it found a lot of freedom and fun in doing its own thing (shit got WILD, yo). Likewise, Agent Carter spun off specifically from the first Captain America film, and because it took place so far in the past it didn’t really have to worry about interfering with the present timeline occurring in the films.
I bring all of this up because it highlights that while WandaVision isn’t the first Marvel show, it can be considered the first real MCU show. The problems of interconnectivity that the company shunned before, it’s now embracing — shattering its own self-erected barriers and making the different storytelling formats sync up. So consider the unique challenges that WandaVision creator Jac Schaeffer faced in creating this show. The central characters had already been established in previous Marvel movies, not to mention the decades of comics lore behind them. That work was already done. And Wanda, at the very least, has to be set up to appear in the upcoming Doctor Strange sequel and other movies. Unlike your average television debut, this series is completely boxed in by the demands of MCU itself. For a show where everything seems predetermined, I’d say the fact that we do have fans clamoring for answers means it has done a very good job keeping people guessing. Yet it is also, in a mere 4.5 hours of screentime — roughly the length of the Snyder Cut, mind you, and nothing compared to the length of a network or even Netflix season — behaving exactly as a television show should. There are cliffhangers and easter eggs, reveals ready-made to be spoiled over coffee on Friday mornings, but those are not the substance of the show. In between the stuff the MCU has primed you to anticipate is a moodiness and emotional honesty that’s unexpected and that requires time to build. It’s easy to ask “Is Wanda the villain?” because in every other example of a Marvel property there is a villain, and I’m not here to chastise people for doing what they’ve been trained to do. But what if WandaVision is proof that the MCU is trying to break us out of our own expectations, and we’re uncomfortable because it’s succeeding? What if the question we should be asking is, “Is Wanda actually happy right now? Is this what Wanda really wants?” What if we aren’t supposed to worry about whether she’s Good or Evil, but whether she’s OK? The surprise here isn’t that Wanda might be nothing more than a supremely powerful being coping with enormous pain, it’s that Marvel has made room for that kind of storytelling to happen.
Schaeffer’s reliance on the sitcom gimmick is cheekily self-aware, practically screaming “IT’S A SHOW, GET IT?”, while also forcing the series to at least attempt true episodic storytelling — or perhaps its episodic structure is essential to its serialized story. The conceit that the credits are bound to roll and WandaVision will reset itself each week is essential to the narrative at play. Sitcoms provide an easy framework for Wanda’s delusions, and a cultural touchstone we can all relate with: comfortable familiarity, where all our problems will be solved in a half hour. Who doesn’t retreat to our couches when life gets hard? It’s hard to argue that the show should or could have been a movie instead when its form is so clearly following its function. Even the evolution of sitcoms sets a natural pace for the season as we watch the sitcom format get messier through the decades, from I Love Lucy to Malcolm In The Middle, at the same rate that the cracks begin to show in Wanda’s own construct. For example, after Vision realized that going head-to-head with Wanda wouldn’t work since she could re-write reality on the fly, he found a way to work within the role he’d been given in “All-New Halloween Spooktacular!” In order to explore Westview without Wanda’s influence, he lied and told her he was acting as a part of the neighborhood watch — and she couldn’t refuse him because, due to her own machinations, it had already been established that he was a member of the neighborhood watch. It was already a plot point in the sitcom, one that she had created as part of her perfect little domestic livelihood. Puncturing through Wanda’s superpowered delusions requires a subtler approach (kinda like therapy!), and the show is taking its time to establish the extent of her construct — and thus her trauma — while simultaneously creating the circumstances for its downfall.
Again, we know Wanda’s adventures in Westview will come to a definitive end, because we know Wanda will be in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. We may not know the particulars of how it will wrap up, but the idea that there is some grand mystery here that NEEDS to be REVEALED right NOW is a bad faith complaint. If you’re only concerned with how this show will set up that movie, then just tune in to the finale. There isn’t a show on television with a more definite outcome than WandaVision, because it literally can’t NOT be definite. It’s all been preordained on Feige’s whiteboard. Maybe Wanda will really break bad, or maybe Mephisto is behind it all, or maybe Reed Richards will arrive and solve everything. Does it matter? Whatever actually happens in the last moments won’t diminish the storytelling we’ve seen take place here. That’s the beauty of television! The LOST finale didn’t ruin the years we spent talking about it around the ol’ watercooler, and even the Game of Thrones finale couldn’t undo the thrill of those early seasons. Hell, I sat through 15 seasons of Supernatural (coughttwicecough) and let me tell you, it is entirely possible to watch the same shit happen over and over and over and over again and still enjoy the journey, you know?
So no, all the X-Men cameos and easter eggs, and all the online buzz they generate, don’t justify WandaVision’s existence in the MCU. Nor do the quiet moments, the dread and uncertainty and emotionally shading, even the fun the show has with its own style somehow negate its place in the larger Marvel tapestry. It isn’t a mistake that WandaVision is being told as a television show, but it is impressive that it is doing so while also balancing its need to propel the MCU forward. It also gives me hope that upcoming series like The Falcon and The Winter Soldier and Loki will also fully take advantage of the opportunities that longer-form episodic storytelling offer. There doesn’t have to be a conflict between film and television. We’ve lived with both for a very long time. Marvel is just finally figuring out how to have the whole dang pie, as monopolies are wont to do. And I for one can’t be mad at the fact that a weird, quirky quasi-sitcom about one woman’s inner life is going to be the standard that the MCU has to rise to on both fronts — as an essential piece of an interconnected universe, and as television.
Header Image Source: Marvel Studios/ Disney+