TV, the cliché goes, is an escape, a trapdoor to a sunnier reality—or at least a different one. For us mere mortals, the escape is always metaphorical; our earthbound bodies don’t budge from the couch. But for the right superhero escaping into TV could be a more literal proposition. Scared and grieving, living in a grim and hopeless world, what’s to stop a reality-altering super being from waving her hands, scrunching her nose, and dropping into the seemingly safe confines of a 1950s sitcom? This is the premise of WandaVision, in which the Marvel Cinematic Universe gets serious about the small screen and deposits two secondary Avengers, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), the sorceress known as the Scarlet Witch, and her husband Vision (Paul Bettany), a debonair android, into sitcom history, two superheroes adrift in TV Land.
The first two episodes of WandaVision, which arrive tomorrow on Disney Plus (the remaining seven will follow weekly), riff on the black and white classics The Dick Van Dyke Show and Bewitched with affection and precision. The gags are tame, corny, and adorable. Vision carries Wanda over the threshold, but after accidentally apparating through the front door, he leaves her on the threshold. That silly Vision! Housewife Wanda accidentally breaks a flying dish over her hubby’s head. Handy Wanda can zap it back together! In the episode’s set piece, Wanda and Vision forget Vision’s boss is coming to dinner (I can just picture the description in TV Guide) revealing that they have forgotten much else besides, including how they met, how they got there, and who they are. But these hints about what’s really going on don’t keep the episode from working on sitcom terms. The sequence climaxes with the boss’s wife (That ’70s Show veteran Debra Jo Rupp) opening the galley kitchen shutters to reveal Wanda whizzing dozens of pots, pans, and ingredients through the air. When a flustered Vision distracts her by belting out “Yakety Yak,” I giggled along with the laugh track, a chuckle earned by the pure sitcommery.
I’m not a Marvel-head. I read their comics as a kid and I’ve seen a handful of the movies, but I find myself transforming into an unbearable Poindexter when confronted with four fifths of their output (think “Hulk Smash”, just snobbier). Nevertheless, I liked WandaVision. Through the first three episodes, the Marvel mythology recedes even as it provides enough stakes and structure to keep the old-timey sitcom riffs from having to shoulder the series. Over the years there have been all sorts of attempts to bring back the laugh-track sitcom, but WandaVision is more successful than most of them (I know, knock me over with a feather) because it’s all icing on the cake—the cake actually being the grim and complex Marvel mythology and backstory. Even as many of the show’s details are doing double duty as hints and feints—Kathryn Hahn’s nosy neighbor isn’t just a brash character cracking endless jokes at her husband’s expense, she’s probably someone else; the commercials that talk so much about being in and out of time are presumably hinting at some big themes—but it’s more interested in the sitcom as a sitcom than it has to be. Its sendup of the way sitcoms have historically hidden real pregnancies or the way they characterize Black neighbors are observations unto themselves, and just not there to further the master plot.
Like Clark Kent though, a superhero from a dueling intellectual property empire, WandaVision is a show in disguise. Lurking underneath the sitcom surface is something less delightful. This starts to get teased out in earnest in the second episode, a riff on Bewitched, in which Vision and Wanda put on a magic show. There’s a sweet homage to that series’ opening credits and a great corny gag in which Vision swallows a piece of gum that gums up his works, rendering him, more or less, drunk, but there are also eerie moments that hint at future menace and snatches of color that call to mind Pleasantville, the Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon film in which they get zapped into their favorite old sitcom, introducing color and complexity, and learn nothing is perfect. Even as the show continues to make its way through the decades, one sitcom at a time (Family Ties has been promised), it seems inevitable that WandaVision—for Wanda and Vision and us—is not going to offer the light escape a sweet old sitcom promises to, but something closer to a stranger, more distressing, delusional The Truman Show.
Like The Mandalorian, WandaVision is an extremely effective expansion of a huge intellectual property franchise to TV, a project that erases some of the lingering distinctions between TV and film even as its buffs them. The first three episodes, at about 90 minutes combined, are probably the longest Marvel has ever devoted to characters without including a fight scene. This may not pertain to future Marvel series—the forthcoming The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will probably be a more rock ’em, sock ’em affair—but in the Marvel universe, maybe it’s the TV shows that get the character work.
Not that WandaVision is content to just be a TV show. Marvel triumphalism thrums through the whole exercise. Though there have been other Marvel TV shows before—Agent Carter and Agents of SHIELD among them—this is the first that is properly part of the larger MCU project, designed to be fully integrated with the films under Disney’s streaming banner. WandaVision is a loving and well-done parade through TV history , but it also seems inevitable that it will climax in an episode that looks like a Marvel movie on its way to becoming a small part of some future Marvel movie, effectively positioning Marvel as the climax of all televisual progress. It’s enough to make me hope the series ends how it starts: with two people, curled up on the couch, ready to watch some comedy.