WandaVision review: A delightful superhero soap unlike anything in MCU
Disney Plus spoiler-free review: Marvel goes off on a bizarre but confidently delivered tangent, bringing back familiar characters in a fresh and imaginative way.
Richard TrenholmFormer Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
The first two half-hour episodes premiered on Disney's streaming service on Jan.15, and a new episode then follows with a release date every Friday. As many viewers remain stuck indoors, it's fitting WandaVision explores what happens when Marvel heroes go home, only to find that weirdness and danger lurk behind even the most ordinary front door.
Luckily you don't have to remember much from prior MCU films about Wanda Maximoff and her magical powers, or hot pink robot Vision, to dive straight into the show. All you need to know about the superpowered couple played by Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany is that they're weird, they're in love, and they're the charming heart of a surreal, suspenseful and actually pretty funny sitcom-inspired story. (No spoilers!)
After a pandemic-enforced absence disrupting 10 years of Marvel dominance at the box office, the familiar Marvel ident that opens the show is bound to provoke feelings among fans with its glimpses of
and the other beloved Avengers. Which is ironic, because what follows is so unlike anything the
has ever seen before.
In the best possible way. Served up in breezy half-hour chunks, WandaVision is a surreal delight. The retro sitcom stylings see Marvel going off on a bizarre but confidently delivered tangent, bringing back familiar characters in a fresh and imaginative way.
Olsen and Bettany are a winning double act, finally given more room than any overstuffed MCU movie has previously afforded their characters. Olsen is enchanting as the powerful magic-maker who can barely function in "normal" life, while Bettany is a delight as the gangling android serving a variety of adorable faces. The pair expertly shift between wacky comedy and tantalizing emotion.
Ignoring where we last saw them on the big screen, Wanda and Viz are dropped into an unexpected new life, new home and new jobs. But they face bigger problems than staying on the right side of nosy neighbors, as the action shifts from superheroics to suburban alienation.
From the 1960s onward, Marvel comics served up as much soap opera as superpowers. Peter Parker's turbulent teens and the Fantastic Four's family friction made real-life drama an integral part of Marvel's magic. And even though the movies are filled with loud and spectacular action bursting off the big screen, the sense-swamping banging and crashing has always been underpinned by affecting relationships between characters that evolved over a decade.
The creators of WandaVision know this, and when taking the MCU to the small screen they wisely opt to carry over the bits that work on the small screen while setting aside the widescreen histrionics. There have been Marvel TV shows before, but not like this. Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter were entertaining action romps, while Netflix's suite of connected spinoffs featuring Daredevil and the Punisher were sludgy slugfests that quickly became a slog. WandaVision is something else entirely.
As subsequent episodes unfold (I watched the first three) it becomes clear this isn't just a Marvel television show: it's a Marvel show about television. Beginning as a 1950s style suburban sitcom -- complete with canned laughter, nosy neighbors and a farcical dinner with the boss -- the story and the way it's told both advance to explore the way TV imagery has changed over the years. The suburban sitcom is so ingrained in popular culture that it establishes a baseline of what is "normal," even if the concept of normality is as mythical as comic book witches and androids.
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Obviously, Wanda and Vision are far from normal. She's a magical gal in a small-town locale, and he's purple. Sympathetic outsiders in a normal town have always provided a rich seam to mine, from light-hearted sitcoms like Bewitched -- the clear inspiration for this story -- up to the unsettling weirdness buried beneath neatly manicured lawns in the films and TV of David Lynch. As the show continues, Bewitched retunes into Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. There's even a dash of the encroaching dread the Coen Brothers inject into their everyday settings, complete with jarring left turns as normal people do abnormal things.
WandaVision also learns from Disney Plus' TV show and smash hit
spinoff The Mandalorian. It hyper-focuses on one small corner of the franchise, telling a new story with just enough of a link to established characters to hook in fans. You don't need to remember every tiny detail of the previous films, but Easter eggs and lore are there if you really want to look closer (and we'll recap those Easter eggs each week, too).
Most importantly, WandaVision sets up a whopping great mystery of its own. There may not exactly be a Baby Yoda to set social media abuzz, unless Paul Bettany's bumbling synthezoid wins hearts with his sheer befuddled wholesomeness. The divine Kathryn Hahn will also win fans with her pitch-perfect performance, throwing herself into the role with relish.
Even without a Baby Yoda-style phenomenon, WandaVision will no doubt invite frenzied theorizing in a similar manner to shows like Westworld. It remains to be seen over the course of nine episodes whether the apparently fairly slight premise can sustain its twin engines, building suspense while holding our attention with engaging characters. But it's utterly self-assured and colorfully entertaining -- right from the moment you walk in the front door.