‘WandaVision’ turns Marvel’s water into wine with charming homage to classic television

Image from WandaVision
Marvel Studios/Courtesy

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Grade: 4.0/5.0

Over the course of the past decade, Earth’s Mightiest Heroes have traveled far and wide, visiting fictional Eastern European countries, far-off planets, Randy’s Donuts — even reaching the innermost corners of Martin Scorsese’s head.

But there’s one battle that the Avengers didn’t dare fight: the streaming wars. This all changed, however, when the long-awaited original series “WandaVision” debuted on Disney+ Jan. 15.

Marvel isn’t new to TV; they’ve made inroads over the years with both network and streaming programming, although these shows’ relationship with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU, was always somewhat tenuous. “WandaVision” is the first show to feature characters from the MCU proper, affording the franchise the potential to break out of its formulaic structure and revitalize characters who are often overlooked in the crowded cinematic features.

And for the most part, creator Jac Schaeffer has capitalized on the opportunity — “WandaVision” is a wonderfully acted, fascinating and sometimes delightful series, albeit one that occasionally suffers from a reluctance to depart from its parent franchise.

“WandaVision” takes place after the events of “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Endgame,” which saw the destruction of super-couple Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) after the latter was killed by Thanos. Yet, despite the apparent end of Vision’s arc, “WandaVision” finds the two characters inexplicably alive and well in a small town, where they’ve traded their capes for canapes in an effort to leave the avenging behind and focus on domestic life.

The twist, however, is that their life appears to be situated inside of a 1950s sitcom. Or is it the 1960s? Now it’s the ’70s? Each episode of the show changes style in a whirlwind of sitcom parody, sending up such classics as “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Bewitched,” “The Brady Bunch” and “The Twilight Zone.” And though the aesthetic of the show changes week to week, the foundation stays the same. The layout of Wanda and Vision’s house remains constant, but the decor and camera angles are always evolving, unearthing completely new shows and styles from the same basic set.

Yet, out of all the aspects of “WandaVision” that are new each week, the most exciting variable to watch is Kathryn Hahn, who consistently delights with fresh takes on Agnes, the next-door neighbor. She blends in perfectly with each decade, all while retaining her core comedic prowess and bringing something original to the role — a superpower that rivals those possessed by the titular characters.

The work turned in by Olsen and Bettany shouldn’t be dismissed either, though. The two had sizeable acting challenges in front of them, given that they were tasked with adapting their previously muted characters into the zany, well-rounded centers of a comedic carousel. Thankfully, the premise of the show allows them to abandon most of Wanda and Vision’s characteristic stoicism and embrace instead their softer, more human side.

Flashes of the underlying characters occasionally show through, reminding the audience that there is something deeper and more sinister going on under the glossy surface. However, when these sides are revealed — especially in later episodes where the charade begins to unravel — it’s a reminder that the characters at the focus of the series are two of the MCU’s weakest.

Both Wanda and Vision were carelessly introduced in the messy “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” and have only received a handful of scenes across the MCU since then. As such, the characters’ foundations were shaky at best prior to the series. And although Bettany and Olsen find new dimensions to their roles, the stark distinction the series makes between sitcom Wanda/Vision and standard Wanda/Vision prevents them from totally reinventing the characters, relegating their inventive choices to a pleasant, but potentially temporary veneer.

But one series can’t be the saving grace of all the flaws it inherits from its parent franchise. As an entity unto itself, “WandaVision” delivers on its promise of a suspenseful, humorous and charming half-hour of television every week. And while it may not completely subvert the Marvel machine, if the level of creativity on display is at all indicative of future MCU series, there’s a lot of good television on the horizon.

Matthew DuMont is a deputy arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected].