It makes sense that Marvel—a studio that makes movies like television, telling connected stories over a series of feature-length episodes with a rotating cast of core characters—would make its first sitcom be about television itself. WandaVision, out January 15 on Disney+, is a show within a show that plays with the tropes and formulas of the medium to create…something. An exploration of the American nuclear family in the nuclear age, perhaps? I can’t be sure where the story is headed from the first three episodes, which were made available to review, but there’s potential for greatness. Charming and a little romantic, WandaVision is a delight to watch.
You don’t need to know every in and out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to follow the show, but I’m not sure it makes much sense unless you understand the basics of the two main characters, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany), so here they are: Wanda is the Scarlet Witch, a telekinetic/magical Avenger from the former USSR who was experimented on along with her twin, who also had powers but died. Vision used to be Jarvis, an artificial intelligence that Tony Stark created, but thanks to some sort of technological event (possibly alien?) he became a man of sorts. He doesn’t eat and he has a crystal in his head that, in one of the Avenger movies, is removed by the villain, which kills him. (Apparently Vision’s “return from the dead” will be explained in a future episode.) Wanda is a witch; Vision is her robot lover. Let’s get to it.
WandaVision introduces us to the two as happy newlyweds moving to the suburbs in 1950s America. Visually and tonally, the first and second episodes replicate I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners, though plot-wise hew closer to ’60s-set Bewitched as the couple’s secret powers threaten their efforts to assimilate into the neighborhood. It’s classic sitcom shenanigans: Vision brings his boss home for dinner on the night Wanda thought was their anniversary, then gets drunk (from chewing gum) on the day they’re supposed to perform at the local talent show.
What I found the most impressive is how they played with sitcom tropes without mocking them. At work Vision doesn’t know what his company does, only that it has to do with data. It’s a send-up of post-war America, when a generation of men returned home to find that while they’d been trained to save the world (Vision too has performed heroic functions), they were now expected to be pencil-pushers in gray suits. Wanda clocks the oldest fake in the sitcom book—a married couple that sleeps in separate beds—and remedies it with a wave of her hand. I was glad to see the sitcom in all its formulaic glory embraced here. More than that, I was delighted that Wanda and Vision really love each other. The Marvel universe is rife with neg-heavy banter, quasi-couples, and barely there marriages that exist mostly offscreen to motivate the avenging spouse. How nice it is to spend time with a happy and mutually supportive couple. This half of the show even manages to have that rarest quality in superhero stories: It’s funny!
Of course, there’s another side of the coin. Hanging over everything in WandaVision’s town of WestView is thinly veiled Cold War anxiety. The neighborhood is suspicious of anyone unconventional, and mid-episode “commercials” tell us military giant Stark Industries and crypto-Nazi spy society Hydra both exist in this universe. A mysterious symbol—a sword in a circle—crops up again and again, as do flashes of red, often tied to something vaguely militaristic or technological. By the end of the first episode, we know Wanda and Vision are being observed.