clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How the “Weird Superhero Stories” of ‘Legion’ and ‘WandaVision’ Differ

The Scarlet Witch’s story certainly isn’t the first to get a bold, unique retelling, but the Disney+ series does succeed in ways past efforts have not

Disney+/FX/Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

It took the greater part of seven episodes for WandaVision to reveal its true villain, but when it came time to finally lift the veil, the Disney+ series did so with an abundance of style. Shedding her sitcom persona as Wanda Maximoff’s nosy neighbor Agnes, Kathryn Hahn hams it up as the powerful witch Agatha Harkness in a one-minute montage showcasing the moments when she used her abilities to influence the show-within-a-show—all to the tune of the irresistible earworm “Agatha All Along.” (Which Hahn actually sang!)

The implications of the reveal speak for themselves, from Agatha conjuring up Wanda’s late brother Pietro Maximoff—albeit the 20th Century Fox version of the character played by Evan Peters—to killing the poor family dog, Sparky. But while “Agatha All Along” works as a playful homage to witchy tunes like The Munsters theme song, it also brings to mind another on-screen comic book villain who campily reveled in her own misdeeds. Near the end of the first season of Legion—the psychedelic FX series featuring characters from the X-Men universe—viewers learn that Aubrey Plaza’s Lenny, a character initially presented as the quirky sidekick to the show’s tortured protagonist David Haller, is actually a parasitic mutant that’s been feeding off his powers since infancy. Fully in control of David’s psyche by the sixth episode, Plaza gets to express her character’s reign of terror by gyrating and breaking shit to a remix of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” The sequence might as well be called “Lenny All Along.”

When compared to other entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, WandaVision is a stark departure from the studio’s house style, hailed by some critics as “unquestionably the most experimental thing Marvel has ever produced.” But it’s certainly not the only superhero show to get a little weird. WandaVision’s tone, which can jump from wacky to legitimately creepy in an instant, feels more of a piece with Noah Hawley’s series than anything from the MCU.

While it didn’t have the fanfare of other superhero projects, Legion was a breath of fresh air in a stale landscape—one perhaps with prestige-y pretensions. But the context of Legion’s release is key. When the series first debuted in February 2017, Disney was still six months away from even announcing its plans to launch a streaming service—let alone make stand-alone shows, like WandaVision, featuring characters from the MCU. Instead, held up against the bloated and redundant entries of Marvel’s slate of New York–focused superhero shows on Netflix, Legion’s dazzling imagery and eccentric flourishes led to it being compared more to the surreality of Twin Peaks.

Hawley himself was more than willing to admit how much Twin Peaks influenced his series—he penned a whole column about it. Of course, with Legion Season 1 also preceding David Lynch’s brilliant Twin Peaks: The Return—a work of art so singular and transcendent that cinephiles have tried to claim it as the best film of the past decade—Hawley’s show, with all due respect, doesn’t belong in the same league. But that didn’t stop the showrunner from trying to frame his series as some kind of new-age approach to the medium of television, going so far as to write a letter to critics ahead of Legion’s second season to flex that it would be “not experimental in an art-house sense—ambiguous, hard to understand—but experimental in ways we haven’t considered yet.”

In trying to punch above his weight, Hawley ended up putting Legion’s blemishes under more intense scrutiny. At its core, Legion was a deceptively simple superhero story that embraced comic book tropes with an uncharacteristic level of panache and fun flash-in-the-pan gimmicks. For the uninitiated, Legion was the kind of show that preferred its characters settle fights with dance-offs or rap battles. There’s nothing wrong with that, but Hawley’s boast was like a chef telling you that a meal that will change your life and then serving a decent hamburger in a rainbow bun.

It’s really a matter of perspective: What was so frustrating about Legion was that its creator didn’t want to settle for being the weird fish in a big superhero pond, and never came close to the grand ambitions of whatever the hell “experimental in ways we haven’t considered yet” is supposed to mean. (Also, Legion committed the cardinal sin of relegating Plaza to secondary villain status after Season 1, and coincidentally never recovered.) There will always be a limit to how experimental a show could be when its main character was the son of Charles Xavier.

But what makes WandaVision a more effective execution of “weird” superhero television is that the series knows its limits and what the audience expects from it. The show cannot—and doesn’t try to—fully escape the larger machinations of the MCU, showing its hand at the end of the first episode by revealing someone in the real world watching Wanda’s sitcom. By the fourth episode, when WandaVision spent most of its running time showing what was going on outside of Westview, viewers were whisked back to the neutral, familiar MCU aesthetic. Offbeat scenes like Vision swallowing gum and acting like a drunk person are the moments that can make WandaVision such a delightful watch, but the rest of the MCU popping Wanda’s sitcom-ized bubble was, like Thanos, an inevitable occurrence.

The effect is a double-edged sword: WandaVision’s quirky flourishes were always going to be hindered by its larger franchise connections, and much like Legion’s surreal visuals didn’t bleed over into its by-the-numbers narrative, the fawning embrace of sitcom tropes is more of a gimmick buried within a fairly straightforward story. But the show has also demonstrated just how elastic the MCU can be. Being “weird” for Marvel’s standards might be a backhanded compliment and curbs just how good WandaVision can be on its own terms. But at least showrunner Jac Schaeffer knows the series’ built-in limitations, rather than purporting to be making a surrealist experiment that’s never been done before, like Hawley did with Legion. WandaVision is a superhero show that hits familiar beats, but it’s also a pretty darn good one—surpassed only by Damon Lindelof’s take on Watchmen, Amazon’s The Boys, and HBO Max’s animated Harley Quinn series.

Marvel has spent more than a decade crafting and reiterating its house style, and fans now know exactly what they will get: one-liners, self-referential humor, post-credit scenes teasing the next installment in the Marvel pipeline, and so on. There will always be a few mandatory ingredients ensuring things don’t go off the beaten path. But each time the franchise has approached something close to greatness—like with Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, and now, WandaVision—a creator has figured out how to inject originality into the strict construct, in turn pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable.

Aside from being the first MCU series on Disney+, WandaVision’s most impactful legacy could be moving that needle more than anything that came before it. Wanda wants to create an escapist fantasy by embracing the repetitious cycle of sitcoms, and given how much the MCU brings those familiar comforts to superhero blockbusters, WandaVision is admirably self-aware on multiple levels. Maybe it isn’t truly weird or brilliant within the wider world of television—despite what its most hyperbolic fans would lead you to believe—but the show is refreshingly different from the rest of Marvel’s corporate-mandated status quo. In the narrower view of superhero programming, at least, we can appreciate that WandaVision has been experimental in ways the MCU hasn’t considered yet.