It’s easy to imagine a version of WandaVision that is unwatchably bad – and it wouldn’t look all that different to the one that exists. The Disney+ original series, which transplants two lesser characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe into a succession of 20th-century sitcom parodies, sounds like a wretched Saturday Night Live sketch. But with a clear affection for its corny inspirations, WandaVision manages to avoid the easy punchline.
Most viewers will already know Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff, aka Scarlet Witch, the telekinetic Avenger haunted by the death of her twin brother, Pietro. They will also know Vision (Paul Bettany), her lover, a non-human “synthezoid” who can phase through walls, and who was supposedly murdered at the end of Avengers: Infinity War. However, both characters are near-unrecognisable here: peppy, charismatic and sugar-sweetly co-dependent, with seemingly no memory of their former selves. Why exactly this is, is a mystery the show is in no hurry to explain.
The first of the two episodes released tomorrow (15 January) appropriates the style of a 1950s domestic comedy like Lucille Ball’s classic I Love Lucy, situating Wanda and Vision in a mock-up of black-and-white marital bliss. The plot is low-stakes, involving an impromptu dinner party with Vision’s boss (played by the great Fred Melamed) and his wife (Debra Jo Rupp). The jokes here are broad, and the tone deliberately hokey; there’s no shortage of knowing remarks about the blankness of the characters’ lives and backstories (“Tell me what it is we do here,” a bemused Vision asks his co-worker at his generic workplace, in both a joke about simplistic sitcom writing and a hint that he’s clocking on to the strangeness of the situation). Over the course of the episode, it becomes clear, to us if not quite yet to Wanda and Vision, that something is gravely awry.
The second episode, styled as a Sixties sitcom (specifically, Bewitched), is much the same – a self-contained homage with flashes of reality-shaking existential uncertainty. Emma Caulfield Ford (Anya from Buffy) plays a haughty neighbour, whose animosity towards Wanda, we learn, may be rooted in something deeper than just suburban passive-aggression. This episode takes longer to get going than the first, though its set-piece – a talent competition in which Wanda and an intoxicated Vision put on a magic show they desperately hope doesn’t seem too convincing – is a great example of WandaVision’s commitment to its premise. It’s parody, yes, but by no means a flimsy one.
In aesthetic, structure and tone, WandaVision is a welcome aberration for a franchise whose fatal flaw has long been its stifling adherence to formula. There’s a certain irony at play here: the box-office domination of the MCU has played such a part in homogenising the ambitions of Hollywood studios, driving so much film talent to the refuge of TV, where bigger creative risks are seemingly being taken. Now that the MCU has set its sights on TV – WandaVision is the first of a litany of planned spin-off series – it too seems all of a sudden willing to take risks. It’s the most purely intriguing thing the MCU has ever made.