Friday 22 January 2021

Bewitched by WandaVision

WandaVision, the first live-action Marvel Studios series for Disney+, premiered last Friday. The series’ ambitious raison d'ĂȘtre is to break the status quo of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in the aftermath of Avengers: Endgame.

Nick Smith, our resident US-based stellar scribe, peels back the suburban sitcom facade of WandaVision's seemingly married bliss and discovers familial trauma behind the white picket fences.

Guest post by Nick Smith

Thanks to viral lockdowns and cinema shutdowns, the way we watch television is changing more than ever. We can watch our favourite shows in eternal looney loops on smartphones, laptops, tablets or even - gasp – on TV!

In the USA of the ‘50s, however, shows were watched in our living rooms, reflecting and memorializing life at the time. At the end of the decade, westerns ruled the airwaves: Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, The Rifleman and their ilk all represented an open-range freedom that civilized America was losing fast.

Behind this herd of wild rides came the sitcoms, including Father Knows Best and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, the latter running on ABC for a stunning 14 years. Long before Ozzy Osbourne made reality shows a little less real, Ozzie and Harriet were played by a real-life couple, with establishing shots of their actual home. Along with their IRL kids, they epitomized the social mores of life at the time. Their network neighbours, the Cleavers, were wholesome, hardworking and fit right in.

As time went on, regular families weren’t enough and gimmicks magically appeared. American television presented us with a man and his witch, a man and his genie or even a man and his Martian. Humorous situations arose from the strange partners’ naivety, their unorthodox powers and the reactions of the normal, suburban stiffs around them. Samantha (in Bewitched), Jeannie (I Dream of Jeannie) and Uncle Martin (My Favorite Martian) all imitated normal humans rather than using their abilities to fight crime on a nightly basis.

Avengers members Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) do not fit in, although they try hard, in their Disney+ show.

WandaVision celebrates those old TV shows, teasing old-fashioned tropes without mocking them. Wanda is the witch who has to keep her magic secret. Vision is the humanoid with an alien-looking face. There’s a neighbour called Agnes (presumably referencing Agnes Moorehead, who played Endora in Bewitched) who has a husband called Ralph (Jackie Gleason played Ralph Kramden in The Honeymooners). There’s a mother-in-law joke, Hays code-approved separate beds and ‘60s hairdos in a mix of nostalgia and knowing nods to the modern-day struggle for marital equality.

The new show is charming, thanks to the acting skills of Paul Bettany. His co-lead Elizabeth Olsen, who was forgettable in the Avengers movies, has a chance to show her worth here but it’s Bettany who really shines, especially when performing a Tommy Cooperesque magic act in a bit where his android works get gummed up.

WandaVision’s imitation of classic monochrome series is a sincere form of flattery. Show creator Jac Schaeffer even inserts commercials for Stark Industries and a Hydra product, acknowledging the ad-led aspects of the past. The theme tune is a melange of beloved TV music and there’s even a hint of the I Dream of Jeannie melody in episode 2’s end credits.

So far, so clever. But how does WandaVision stand as a show on its own, out of context? The comedy is weak because Wanda and Vision can get out of any situation, leaving the sitcom to sink or swim by its ‘fish out of water’ gags.

The programme’s other saving grace might be its luxurious budget. Leave it to Beaver’s highest budget was $40,000 – about $265,000 in new money. WandaVision’s budget is reportedly as high as $25 million dollars per episode (eclipsing The Mandalorian's first season). Wherever that money went, the production values are not shown on screen although, with Wanda slowly realizing that all is not what it seems, the show will become more technically complex as it progresses.

WandaVision does serve as a welcome reminder that comic books aren’t just about superheroes hitting each other. They can depict romance, suspense, pop culture references, soap opera situations and sitcom imagery. By broadening the minds of regular TV viewers, WandaVision could act as a gateway to different kinds of sequential storytelling - if they stick around past the hoaky opening.

It’s worth noting that the Scarlet Witch has been around since 1964 in comic book form, and the comedies and advertisements aped here were part of the world she came from. Perhaps this is Schaeffer’s reason for starting the show with black and white footage and low-key jokes that will turn off casual viewers. Or maybe Wanda has created this cosy world to escape from a harsh reality where her husband is dead. Only time, and future episodes, will tell.

New episodes of WandaVision premiere every Friday exclusively on Disney+.

What are your WandaVision theories? Let me know in the comments below.

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