As someone constantly talking about the slow death of the studio sitcom, it’s natural the rhythms of WandaVision‘s first two episodes are more than directly up my alley, an homage to the era of The Honeymooners, Bewitched! and I Dream of Jeannie that is absolutely enamoring. However, at the edges of WandaVision‘s simple (yet big-budget) pleasures, lurks the extended Marvel Cinematic Universe, clouding the very best moments of the series’ first hour with more than a little foreboding that it’s all not going to last.
It’s a pretty impressive feat while it’s here, though, transforming the MCU’s most boring couple into a rather dynamic little family sitcom, leaning into the absurdity of its form in numerous endearing ways. The premise – Wanda and Vision finding their place in Rockwell-esque Americana, hiding their powers and trying to live a boring life of dinner parties and community talent shows. Anchored by Bettany’s charming embrace of Darrin Stephens-esque comedic qualities, and Olsen channeling the classic physical performances of classic sitcom queens, WandaVision absolutely nails the tone it aims for – especially when Kathryn Hahn is thrown into the mix, delivering the kind of scene-stealing work she’s displayed on everything from Free Agents to Transparent, to Parks and Rec and I Love Dick.
Her versatility is on full display, ratcheting up the forgotten stylings and stilted rhythms of mid-20th century sitcoms, a performance that manages to be large without being domineering, critical but never overbearing. With her and Bettany setting the performative tone, WandaVision coasts through these first two episodes almost on personality alone, injecting just enough moments of superpower antics and wink-nod gestures to the audience to remind us that yes, we are still watching an actual Marvel Cinematic Universe property, even one with the deliciously low dramatic stakes of dinner parties or social faux pas.
Unfortunately, the setting and tone of WandaVision‘s early episodes are part of its premise; there’s clearly something going on, most openly demonstrated by a pair of startling moments in “Episode 2”, where the show begins to draw distinct lines between what is WandaVision, and where its place in the Marvel Universe is. And every time it happens, it is disappointing; not only is the mystery around their situation not interesting, but it is a constant reminder that no matter how much creative rein Jac Schaeffer and team are given in these early episodes, the constraints of Marvel’s big-budget filmmaking will be ever-imposed on the fun of this series, and the limitless possibilities offered by its premise, and its potential to live outside the larger realm (and responsibilities) of Phase Four.
Taken in a nutshell, the first two episodes of WandaVision are more than a welcome departure from the usual rhythms of the MCU; they allow the performers, many of whom have existed in these roles for a decade or more at this point, some room to be expressive outside the bounds of their character. I’d love a WandaVision where random MCU characters could randomly appear, without some larger justification of What’s Really Going On and Why It Matters; imagine an episode where Jon Bernthal’s Punisher features as the neighborhood milkman, for example, and the abject meta pleasure of seeing him filtered into this strange, hyper-realized parody of a bygone era.
But alas, Marvel needs to explain and connect everything or be forbidden from the pantheon of Franchise Properties; and in those moments, the creeping feeling of disappointment is palpable, given just how much Content the mouse house is shoving down our collective throats over three years. It reminds me, to use a recent example, of the framing device used on The Wilds; the inevitability of what’s to come unfortunately clouds the present, the teases of melodramatic science fiction looming on the edges of stories fully capable of standing on their own.
I will love WandaVision for however long the charade lasts; I’m particularly intrigued to see how the show moves from era to era through sitcom history, with future episodes appearing to adapt Technicolor sensibilities and a lot of bad hairdos. When the shift comes, it will most likely suck all the proverbial air out of the Maximoff/Robot Man home – but until then, I’ll be basking in its sepia-graded greatness, dreaming of a Marvel television universe unfettered by the billions of dollars poured into the universe WandaVision exists in.