WandaVision review – Marvel's sitcom superheroes are a retro joy
For those of you not entirely au fait with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Wanda Maximoff (AKA Scarlet Witch in the original comics) and Vision are a romantically entwined couple of superhero-ish characters played by Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany in the films and now given their own television spin-off, Wandavision (Disney+). It sees the telekinetic and reality-warping Wanda and her enhanced android husband settled in the white-picket-fenced apparent idyll of Westview, trying to live an ordinary suburban life without giving their secrets away to their nosy neighbour, Agnes (Katherine Hahn, who may or may not be more than she appears as the self-referential but never smug episodes of the series play out) and the rest of the world.
Each episode is a pitch-perfect – from script, to delivery, to lighting, to cinematography, to aspect ratio – but loving parody of classic sitcoms. The first is set in the 50s and channels the likes of The Dick Van Dyke Show and I Love Lucy, while the second moves them into the 60s and a Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie vibe. After that we’re into the 70s and the Brady Bunch and beyond.
Given that Vision was very much dead when we left him in the cinematic realm, we know – even without the fun but deliberately unexplained and discombobulating race through the decades – that not all can be quite what it seems in the couple’s domestic paradise. But Wandavision doles out its hints and clues about a deeper mystery and likely malevolence at work in tantalisingly spare fashion. It’s like watching The Truman Show spun out over a dozen instalments, as pennies half-drop and occasional dots join up – with the added obstacle that Wanda does her best to remake reality whenever she sees unsettling things.
But still, there is surely only so long you can keep a man made of bees at bay, gloss over strange messages transmitted over the radio playing at the neighbourhood planning committee, or the birth of twins less than 48 hours after you apparently become pregnant by your metal’n’Mind Stone husband.
The neighbours themselves seem quietly but increasingly desperate to unburden themselves of a secret truth while others, such as Geraldine (Teyonah Parris, who will also pop up in the next Captain Marvel film), occasionally let slip knowledge that they should have kept to themselves – like the fact that Wanda had a twin brother who was killed by Ultron (in the second Avengers film).
It’s all deliciously, confidently, stylishly done. The parodies are fantastic fun, the jokes are great, the performances (especially from Olsen and Bettany, whose chemistry is a joy in itself) are wonderful, and it has the glorious air of something shaped by people who know exactly what they’re doing, where they want to go and how they’re going to get there.
The grimmer undertones give it heft and texture and invite you deeper in with every episode. The light and the dark are woven seamlessly together, and the parodic element is never just a gimmick. Instead, all sorts of established television tropes are deployed to thicken the plot – the traditional unrelenting perkiness of the neighbour designed as extra-comic relief becomes the desperate brittleness of a woman with something awful to hide, and the mean-girl vibe of the neighbourhood’s apex housewife Dotty (Emma Caulfield) becomes the fearful hostility of the genuinely rather than merely socially threatened.
The most welcome quality, however, is perhaps that there is not a trace of cynicism to be found in it. Knowingness, yes, nods and winks to our shared screen language and understanding of its conventions, sure, plus a generous scattering of Easter eggs for MCU devotees but on which lesser fans’ pleasure does not rest – but the series has a generous heart animating everything. As well as a delight, Wandavision feels like a gift.