Spoilers galore for WandaVision, in its entirety
Crossing the space between their children’s beds as they tuck them in for the last time, Wanda Maximoff and Vision catch hands. Vision’s free arm comes up to Wanda’s shoulder, neither meeting the other’s eyes as they tense, hold, breathe, and release.
It’s a tiny moment in a quiet scene in the midst of what may prove (retroactively) to be a multiversal story—one that’s easily lost amidst the show’s more self-consciously emotive moments (and the subsequent chorus of whispered “fucks” from millions of screenwriters the world over).
Yet in many ways, that smallness is emblematic of what worked best in WandaVision: for a show branded by its parent company as universe-upending and phase-four defining, it was the more narrowly focused, more nuanced examinations of family and love and grief that propelled the story along. And ultimately, it was a lack of faith in the propulsiveness of that engine that undercut the series.
Let’s start with the good:
What Marvel Studios has done on the big screen over the past decade-and-change has been nothing short of culture-shifting, and their transition to making cannon television of this caliber continues the trend. Through its first five episodes especially, WandaVision expertly dances the line of quirky-nostalgia-play and puzzle-box-thriller in a manner usually reserved for Marvel’s non-cinematic comic runs (the thematically inspiring Vision series by Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta being a perfect modern example).
“Don’t Touch That Dial” (Episode 2, 1960’s/Bewitched themed) and “A Very Special Episode” (Episode 5: 1980’s/Full House themed) are standouts in this regard, tapping into the genuine levity and heart of the series they parody while driving the central mystery forwards.
The true boundary bending comes when the showrunners dive headfirst into experimentation, upending form with narrative intention (injecting splashes of color into their early black and white episodes, editing scenes mid-broadcast, having Wanda and Vision’s Episode 5 fight barrel juggernaut-esque through the credit roll, etc). A lesser show would lean on the subversion alone to sell the moment; but here, the cracks in form are tethered to the emotional turmoil of Wanda, and carry real narrative consequence for her surrounding cast.
And it’s those cast members who truly elevate the series: Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany are genuinely phenomenal as the titular witch and synthezoid throughout the series, and their chemistry achieves a level of realism as necessary to the show’s success as it is surprising given their prior usage rate in the MCU. Kathryn Hahn is so good from the jump that it spoiled the show’s biggest twist (and convinced many of us that surely she couldn’t be the show’s biggest twist—more to come on that front).
The returns of Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) and Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) are wonderful surprises, injecting a constant and necessary source of humor to the show’s exterior-to-the-Hex plotline; and the (technically second) introduction of Monica Rambeau brings the fantastic Teyonah Parris into the MCU fold, providing the series with its most traditionally super-heroic figure (even if her origin story is somewhat undercooked) and promising a wealth of new cosmic storytelling to come.
All told, the best of WandaVision tempts us with the possibility of propulsive, creatively-written, well-acted, and emotionally impactful comic book storytelling in a more long-form (if somewhat smaller in scale) medium.
And yet: the arc of the MCU rarely bends towards smaller in scale. Whether inspired by the anxiety of an underwhelmingly contained narrative, or a compulsive need for “this town ain’t big enough for the both of us” climaxes, WandaVision’s mid-season pivot away from its central identity was ultimately to its detriment.
Which brings us to the bad:
In order to give a fair critique of WandaVision (The Series) [as opposed to WandaVision (The Marketing Campaign) or WandaVision (The Easter Egg Factory)], it seems essential to first separate the Reddit brain from the audience brain.
Which is to say: disappointment at the lack of substantive Marvel character cameos is real (my fiancé will happily attest to my frantic connection-drawing from “Aerospace Engineer” to “Reed Richards” to “John Krasinski” to “Jim from The Office” to the “2000’s Office-themed episode” to “John Krasinski is 100% going to show up as Reed Richards in the Office-themed Episode 7 of WandaVision”), but necessarily must be laid as much at the feet of the showrunners that dropped the bread crumbs as the internet hive that confused those bread crumbs for incontrovertible proof of a nearby Panera.
Conversely, the raised expectations following the introduction of Evan-Peters-as-Quicksilver were both reasonable and predictable even before they were amplified by the Twitter echo chamber; and his ultimate reveal as nothing more than a semi-sentient “Bohner” joke is at best a startling narrative misstep, at worst a lazy and payoff-less troll job that served no purpose beyond tricking its audience into imagining a more interesting endgame.
And while Fake-Pietro (aka Fietro) may be the most glaring example, on rewatch, WandaVision is a cascade of Checkov’s Guns with nary a gunshot to show for it:
- Jimmy’s witness protection source trapped in Westview? Never revealed.
- The foreboding “don’t shoot, I’m just the messenger” guy? Just a messenger.
- Monica’s frequently referenced and heavily emphasized Aerospace Engineer(?) a nameless SWORD agent.
- The mysterious Beekeeper? Another SWORD agent transformed by the Hex (and therefore posing no real threat to Wanda’s reality and not warranting the dramatic rewind at the end of Episode 2) and largely disconnected from the plot.
- All those Ultron references (including a casting credit to James Spader)? Backstory info dump.
- House of M? Nothing more than a wine-bottle label.
- And in true “kills-no-birds-with-two-stones” fashion: the aforementioned Fietro, key to the merging of Fox and Marvel Cinematic Universes, ultimately unmasked as Ralph Bohner, the oft-mentioned, never-seen husband of Agatha (a frequent subject of big-bad-behind-the-curtain conspiracy theories).
Now, is it inherently wrong that Ralph was not a deep-cut comic villain hiding in plain second-hand-sight? No. Is it indefensible that Fietro was not in fact a multiversal version of Pietro mistakenly given life by Wanda’s unchecked hex powers? No. But for neither storyline to have any substantive payoff does indicate either a misunderstanding of plot construction or a misunderstanding of the purpose of misdirection.
Because the true miscalculation of WandaVision was less the loose ends it forgot or failed to tie, but the underwhelming significance of the twists it was trying to distract us from: The Scarlet Witch is revealed to be (wait for it) the Scarlet Witch. Director Hayward is revealed to be every bit as much of a dick as he seems. The unnamed agent introduced in the final episode’s stinger is revealed in said-final-episode-stinger to be a Skrull. And scene stealing neighbor Agnes (in what the creators truly seemed convinced was a series-shaking hammer drop) is unmasked as Agatha Harkness, a centuries-old witch so powerful that she only bothered to change the back-half of her name for alias purposes.
From the outside, it’s difficult to know whether these were simply miscalculations of impact on the creative end or corporate mandates for the show to go just big enough to be attention-grabbing, but not so big as to threaten the supremacy of their feature-length installments. (There’s a Blake Griffin to the Nets joke in here somewhere.) But regardless of the cause, in the resultant rush to center these unfulfilling narrative beats, WandaVision veers from that more intimate construction that allowed its earlier episodes to flourish.
This is not to say the second half of WandaVision is lacking in high points: the Vision2 “Ship of Theseus” thought experiment is exactly the sort of conclusion a Vision-on-Vision battle royale begs for; Wanda’s new costume is cool as shit; and yes, “grief = love persevering” is a pretty great line.
But even as the series’ focus shifts to its (semi)grandiose and cataclysmic(ish) conflict, the family-centric aspects of the narrative continue to be the highlight; and it’s hard not to think that a more consistently intimate story could have allowed them to remain in the center of the frame.
For all its missteps, there is reason to be optimistic: WandaVision at best represents a willingness for the top Marvel/Disney brass to throw money at creators with off-kilter ideas for less-than-flagship characters. My (admittedly naive) hope is that as Marvel TV finds its footing, these stories can more comfortably situate within the greater MCU constellation without contorting into something they’re not down the stretch. Some may even make good on the promise of more cinematic-universe-shaking twists.
But more likely than not, I’ll be back here in two months at the end of Falcon and The Winter Soldier’s semi-epic-but-still-quartered-off-from-the-greater-MCU’s climax, lamenting the buddy cop movie that could have been.