Marvel Studios’ Disney+ debut set a high bar for itself to top right from the get go. After 23 films meticulously establishing a tone seldom deviated from, opting to create a show willing to break entirely from its status quo was never going to be a straightforward task. How do you take two characters – one of whom had just been in the highest grossing movie ever, the other being deceased – then thrust them into what appears to be some sort of series-long remake of Adult Swim’s Too Many Cooks (2014)? It was no simple task, and what makes Episode 1 of WandaVision all the more extraordinary is creator Jac Schaeffer and director Matt Shakman’s decision to bolt an extra challenge on top of all this. Not only is this show attempting to thrust audiences into wildly unfamiliar territory, it’s actively trying to convince us that what we’re watching is a genuine, run-of-the-mill situational comedy plucked straight from mid-20th century America.
For more or less the entirety of its 29-minute runtime, WandaVision serves up a story not all too dissimilar from Adams Family (1964-1966), The Munsters (1964–1966) or even Mork & Mindy (1978–1982). An unconventional couple with inhuman superpowers move into a highly conservative suburban neighbourhood. Their aim is to gain acceptance from the local community so they can go about their business without ostracisation or unemployment falling upon their heads.Their difference ultimately makes this a troublesome task, becoming the central gag at the heart of this pseudo-sitcom. The central premise, situational setup, corny humour, dated performances, story structure, canned laughter and comedic beats are flawless recreations of the genre and period it is intending to mimic. It’s a facade that – aside from some momentary flashes of confusion in Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision’s (Paul Bettany) reactions, not to mention a slightly more jarring moment during the final act’s dinner table sequence – is meticulously maintained throughout. Even as the episode nears its end, the only hint at something amiss we get is footage of someone watching the “sitcom” on a television screen. Beyond that, this is a faithful recreation that pretty much refuses to reveal itself as anything other than what it’s pretending to be.
Playing it straight from beginning to end is a smart decision; one that makes the enigmatic characteristics of this series all the more unsettling. Toward the start, it’s easy to find yourself working tirelessly to crack the case of what’s really suppose to be happening. Context concerning the wider MCU, not to mention the marketing campaign surrounding the series’ release tells us all is not right in this world. Wanda doesn’t belong in an archaic comedy. She’s a former prisoner of Baron Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), sister to Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and member of the Avengers. Vision isn’t even suppose to be alive anymore, what with Thanos (Josh Brolin) having torn his mind from his skull several years prior. Therefore, it’s natural for audience’s minds to go scouting in search for clues the moment the episode starts; desperately trying to piece this preposterous mystery together. Except after a while, it’s all too easy to get drawn into it all. The mawkish japes, the antiquated sets, the campy (and equally delightful) performances, and the slapdash high jinks start to work their magic. You forget you’re watching a series directly connected to the MCU. It becomes another sitcom; an isolated and genuine nostalgia piece about a non-conforming couple just trying to live a happy and “honest” life in a conformance-obsessed society.
Such meticulous attempts to temporarily convince us we’re watching a legitimate sitcom makes the fleeting moments in which the curtain is pulled back all the more jarring. While the rug is never properly pulled from beneath us during the opening episode, there are one or two moments – as mentioned above – in which we’re reminded that something’s not quite right. Only by this point, the individuals working on the show have done such a solid job of convincing us there’s nothing more to see here, it feels genuinely shocking to be reminded there’s something more lying beyond the greyscale skullduggery. In many respects, this helps to place us in Wanda and Vision’s shoes. On some level, both these characters appear to know that something is very wrong, yet for the most part, they’re going along with it, seldom questioning why on earth they are living in an artificial world set several decades before either of them were born. Whenever so much as a hint that everything about their world is utterly wrong bobs its head above water, the revelation is much too frightening for them to even question. Likewise, when the facade starts to wobble and notions of a sinister undertone start to flicker, these fourth-wall-shattering occasions can make us feel as if we’re being shaken out of a slumber.
It’s for this reason why WandaVision works so tirelessly to establish itself as a bona fide sitcom; to make us buy into the same lie that its lead protagonists have brought in to. It’s a show that advertised a mystery long before we even got chance to watch it, only for it to spend the first 29-minutes of its time on air attempting to make us forget we ever knew there was anything amiss in the first place. All of this makes for an opening episode that feels both conforming and radical simultaneously.
At its core, this is a show built upon experimentation and difference. To even suggest this is supposed to be “conforming” in any way may sound about as ludicrous as claiming a toaster makes for an excellent lawyer, except there is a level to all of this that does tick all the boxes for a typical series opener. Traditionally, a pilot episode is meant to set the stage for audiences, laying down story arcs, establishing key characters and setting up a sense for how a show is going to look or feel for the remainder of its run (or at the very least, a series). On the surface, WandaVision does pretty much all of this; setting up a 1950s Adam’s Family style reimagining of two MCU characters living in mid-20th century suburban America. It sets up a premise (two supernatural beings trying to fit in with a strict conformist society), introduces a rosta of regulars (the ill-tempered boss, the boss’s ditsy spouse, the sweet-yet-dorky co-worker, the nosey neighbour, etc), and a situational narrative model (Wanda and Vision try to hide their powers from clueless and conforming members of their community).
On a larger scale, however, this opener absolutely refuses to settle audiences into anything which plans to stick around for the long haul. Everything we’re seeing here is a lie that will ultimately be exposed. The surface-level setup isn’t going to be maintained for long haul. Everything that’s happening belongs to a larger MCU arc, one built around mystery and deception. We may not know why all of this is happening, and despite us being semi-fooled for 29-minutes, we all know show-shattering truths are headed our way in due course. Before the first series’ nine episodes are up, the black-and-white, Addams Family-esque getup will have long been consumed by a larger and entirely dissimilar narrative entirely.
All in all, WandaVision is off to a killer start. This is about as audacious as the MCU has ever been in its 13-year run; opting to do something subversive and unique for its Disney+ debut. It works tirelessly to put you in the protagonist’s shoes by selling the idea that you’re watching an authentic situational comedy; opting only to pull back the curtain ever so slightly throughout its runtime. It’s confident enough to draw viewers in with seemingly effortless execution while also withholding large amounts of information concerning the show’s wider scope.
A fun, creative, confident and fastidious opening episode to a series which looks to be packed full of surprises.
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