I can still remember the taste of a sizzling corner slice of Sicilian pizza as my little brother and I sat down to watch the first episode of “WandaVision,” back in the ancient days of January. It was all so odd. I knew the series was just the next step in Disney’s plans for total entertainment domination, but this was no superhero movie in the vein of “Iron Man” or “Captain America.” The title sequence had the enchanting cheeriness and black-and-white fuzziness of Golden Age sitcoms, and the show featured a superhero duo (one of whom was presumably dead–more on that later) reincarnated as an impossibly peachy couple in 1950s suburbia. Spoiler alerts ahead!
“WandaVision,” streaming platform Disney+’s smash hit miniseries and Marvel’s most ambitious foray into television is one part a love-letter to the American sitcom and one part a frantic mission to console a spiraling, grieving superhero. America’s intense love affair with the super-powered Wanda Maximoff along with the Vision, her ruby-colored robot husband—or, as Marvel zealots would be quick to point out, a “synthezoid”—seemingly wrapped up when “WandaVision,” aired its final weekly installment on Friday, March 5. But the television show, like so many of the sitcoms it imitates, left an indelible impression on millions of watchers as its eerie sitcom fantasy unraveled week by week.
For those who may not be avid Marvel fanatics or, like myself, might casually check in on the Marvel superheroes whenever a new movie is released, here is a basic rundown. Wanda Maximoff (aka the Scarlet Witch from the Marvel comics) lost her husband Vision (another superhero in the ever-expanding pantheon of Marvel characters) to the ruthless villain Thanos, before the Avengers finished him off in 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame.” “WandaVision” picks up Wanda’s story right where “Endgame” left off, and commences Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The concept of “WandaVision,” initially, is of the quintessential sitcom variety. In sunny 1950-something, newlyweds Wanda and Vision move to suburban Westview, New Jersey à la “I Love Lucy,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” and, of course, “Bewitched.” Hammy but spellbinding hilarity at home and the workplace ensue. Wanda struggles to conceal her witchy magic from her nosy neighbors, Vision struggles to conceal his android-ness at his 9-5, but at the end of the day they love each other and that’s all that matters. This fanciful and carefree dive into sitcom tropes is slowly infiltrated by unwelcome guest stars like an evil witch in disguise, choking dinner guests, inanimate objects with violent minds of their own, and occasional digital glitches.
Wanda, nevertheless, strangely progresses through sitcom decades within the confines of the multi-camera format. This includes assuming a 70s “Brady Bunch” aesthetic, sporting the teased hair of the 80s/90s “Full House” era, and expressing her exasperation in the 2010s mockumentary confessional style of “Modern Family.” Concurrently, the story outside Westview picks up steam and urgency, as it is revealed that the sitcom world in which Wanda is living is not the real world: Wanda has conjured up her own apparition of Vision and transformed Westview, NJ into her own alternate reality, in which she holds hostage the town and its inhabitants.
It’s the classic girl gets guy, girl loses guy to evil monster, girl creates alternate reality in order to avoid processing her grief.
“WandaVision” positions itself as a subversive storytelling experience, framing our hero as a damaged villain, one crushed by grief and compounded anguish. Whether Wanda is justified in essentially terrorizing an innocent village in rural New Jersey is questionable, but “WandaVision” introduces grief as the anchor for Wanda’s sitcom pastiche. For Wanda, vanishing into a surreal “Pleasantville”-esque sitcom town might do the trick.
But why vanish into the banality of a cookie-cutter sitcom? “Previously On,” the show’s eighth of nine episodes, dives into Wanda’s dependence on the small screen. In the episode, through some witch magic, Wanda physically relives the significant moments of her life. In grand superhero fashion, the most pivotal moment includes the obliteration of her childhood community in Eastern Europe. But in that specific moment of sheer peril and isolation, amidst debris and disorder, “The Dick Van Dyke Show” plays on her family television. The show allows Wanda a momentary escape, the fleeting fantasy of the American life of liberty. Emphasizing the cultural permanence of American television abroad also services Marvel’s obligation to sprinkle some jingoism into each of its projects.
Imperialist undertones aside, “WandaVision” examines TV as a form of imprisonment and empowerment. Television sitcoms can obscure our perception of reality, for as each episode draws to a close, we know that everything will be alright. But television is still the ultimate escape for both a grieving Wanda and our grieving country as we mourn those we’ve lost during the COVID-19 pandemic, and wistfully reflect on the shared gatherings that have eluded us. Television provides a model (albeit oftentimes one too unattainable) of what our world can be. The sitcom format in particular can offer the hilarity and tenderness for which we yearn. There’s also a universal excitement when we all tune in to (or stream) our favorite shows. I felt like there was a communal anticipation leading up to the weekly Friday episode releases of “WandaVision,” something that is rare in the streaming age where series are typically released in their entirety and designed to be binged through in just a few sittings. Maybe that’s the Golden Age TV magic that “WandaVision” was trying to evoke.
Unfortunately, “WandaVision” did not offer much more critical analysis of the television medium beyond this. The series finale played too much like an ordinary superhero movie, where Wanda must finally embrace her witch powers in order to defeat the evil Agatha Harkness (portrayed by a fantastically sinister Kathryn Hahn, the series’ best performance). All of what “WandaVision” worked to disprove with its unsettling sitcom pastiche was invalidated by its final episode. Some fans, with their well-informed theories and their extensive knowledge of the Marvel empire, were inevitably going to be let down by this ending. As the barrier between the real world and Wanda’s fantasy land was pried open, the novel insight that differentiates “WandaVision” from the endless cavalcade of Marvel entertainment dissipated.
To clarify, “WandaVision” was by no means a disaster. It was undoubtedly a significant cultural moment, an endlessly dissectible storytelling experiment with Easter eggs galore. Furthermore, the show accomplished just what it was designed to do: reel audiences into Wanda’s world, explore her personal grievances, have her battle a villain or two, introduce some new potential heroes, and set up the next chapter of the MCU.
However for most of its run, “WandaVision” seemed destined to depart from clichéd superhero frills and provide a refreshing vision (no pun intended) of innovative, introspective storytelling within the MCU. I can’t help but feel like I’ve fallen for Marvel’s trap: despite the intriguing unconventionality, “WandaVision” appears to be merely an introduction to some hundred-million-dollar blockbuster set to drop once the pandemic ends, which is merely the beginning of some hundred-million-dollar franchise set to drop next summer, and so on and so on.
Unlike my first memory of watching “WandaVision,” I don’t really remember, at least in vivid detail, when I finished it, despite the series wrapping up just two weeks ago. I was maybe sitting on my bed, maybe wolfing down some pizza from Usdan. All I remember was a bunch of flying witches and, naturally, a town of mortals in desperate need of saving. But I think that’s indicative of “WandaVision”’s greater message. An exploration of nostalgia for “simpler times” has made me nostalgic for just two months ago, hardly a simpler time (though at least we didn’t have midterms back then).
In a moment where the social climate makes nostalgia a hot commodity (for instance, the endless line of revivals and spin-offs lined up for the new streaming service Paramount+), Marvel did its job well, as I already get a cozy feeling when I think of eating pizza with my brother and watching “WandaVision” for the first time. Maybe I did fall for the Marvel trap, or maybe watching someone else process her grief allowed me to really understand my intense love for television, which became fully realized during the pandemic.
The poignant sense of loneliness at the heart of “WandaVision” is one that carries universal appeal during our prolonged separation from family, friends, and the sometimes vibrant lives we knew before our world shut down. Perhaps that was why “WandaVision” resonated with so many audiences, or perhaps it was its flashy visuals. Or perhaps Marvel has already achieved its cultural preeminence and no matter what spin-off, series, or movie they churn out, everyone will flock to go see it.
Whatever the reason may be, television—whether on Disney’s streaming platform or on a TV network—has always beguiled us, and it is tempting to lose ourselves in the shenanigans of “I Love Lucy,” the cringe workplace theatrics of “The Office,” and “Schitt’s Creek’s” hilarious family of narcissists. In these times, it’s okay to escape into a sitcom world for a little while longer than we normally should, to take a little break from the helter-skelter of our pandemic reality, and immerse ourselves in the stories on our screens.
Vincent Langan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.