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What Kind of Show Is ‘WandaVision’ Allowed to Be?

Marvel Studios’ first Disney+ series has sparked debates over the nature of television and what constitutes good scriptwriting. But we don’t need to turn it into something it’s not for the show to be a success.

Disney/Ringer illustration

The penultimate episode of WandaVision didn’t climax with a bang, but instead an innocuous sentence. Over the past eight weeks, the WandaVision discourse endured multiverse debates, Pietro recastings, misguided Mr. Fantastic rumors, and Al Pacino–as–Mephisto truthers. Some critics had compared it to one of the most lauded TV shows of all time, while people were clamoring for “fun X-Files–type spinoffs and were calling MCU characters poets. But the moment that curdled the Marvel milkshake for some or was the sweetest cinematic sip of all for others was a piece of dialogue uttered by Vision.

Episode 8 flashes back to the aftermath of 2015’s Age of Ultron, as Wanda reels from the death of her brother, Pietro, while watching an episode of Malcolm in the Middle. She compares her pain to a “wave” that keeps knocking her down, no matter how many times she tries to stand up. To comfort her, Vision explains his newborn existence. At less than a year old, the synthezoid has never felt loss or loneliness, because he’s never had someone to lose or love.

Then Vision utters the fateful sentence: “What is grief, if not love persevering?”

Just as quickly as that emotional moment arrived, it was turned into something else by both a sea of the show’s most vocal fans and its detractors, with each having loud, distinct reactions. The loudest of them came from comedian and writer Madison Hatfield: “Do you hear that sound,” she tweeted above a screenshot of the scene on Saturday. “It’s every screenwriter in the world whispering a reverent ‘FUCK’ under their breath.”

But it would appear that many weren’t whispering a reverent “FUCK.”

The memes opened the floodgates for a sea of backlash against the MCU that had been fermenting since Robert Downey Jr. made a generation believe even C-list characters could fly. At a certain point, the “grief” scene wasn’t just about grief or even WandaVision anymore, but whether or not Marvel movies are military propaganda. It didn’t matter that audiences had finally been given a palpable reason as to why a traumatized witch and a logically cold machine fell in love. It took six years for Wanda and Vision’s romance to pay off onscreen and only a couple of days to mangle the moment beyond recognition.

For a decade-plus, the MCU escaped any large-scale critical wrangling. The grand experiment was so new, so successful, and so carefully managed that aiming any negativity at the colossus would have you staring down an angry stan army. Martin Scorsese is on his second wave of backlash for even daring to look at the MCU sideways. No one had ever seen a movie studio capable of building an interconnecting world that could tie together 23 movies, hundreds of actors and their contracts, and dozens of story lines that spanned years. The art was just as much in the management of that world as it was what appeared onscreen. But with its arrival on streaming platforms the past few years—and now as it rolls out serialized TV shows on Disney+—the enterprise has gone from a twice- or thrice-yearly spectacle to a weekly endeavor. And with that transition, the bridge of general consensus has been atomized.

Besides a few strays from bitter DCEU zealots or a subset of critics, MCU lovers have avoided most conflict because their universe was the prevailing culture. It helps when eight out of the top 25 highest-grossing movies of all time hail from the MCU. If plots surrounding a Chitauri Scepter weren’t for you, you could still gawk at the MCU’s scale; consuming the never-ending buffet of CGI fisticuffs was enough until it wasn’t. The house that Feige built succeeded because it fully embraced a world where “what have you done for me lately” controls the market. The amount of blockbusters Marvel churned out was just as important as their quality, but the sliding release dates of Black Widow, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and Eternals opened a vacuum in the cinematic superhero landscape that hasn’t had one for more than 10 years.

WandaVision—and the upcoming The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki—are live-action TV shows, a medium Marvel has failed to conquer for years. ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter, Netflix’s Marvel shows (Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Iron Fist), Hulu’s Runaways, and Freeform’s Cloak & Dagger never received the same type of cultural capital as their movie counterparts. In almost every instance, those shows didn’t narratively impact the blockbusters, which made them seem like also-rans. Daredevil and Luke Cage would reference their big-screen brethren, but rarely did the heavyweights acknowledge anything that didn’t require a $22 movie ticket for admission. But WandaVision director Matt Shakman has already confirmed that his protagonist’s adventures will continue in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. The new shows have the added luxury of being part of a box office tapestry that’s nearly too big to fail.

From the outset, WandaVision was an experiment—something a studio known for using an assembly-line model to accomplish the more technical aspects of its movies isn’t well known for. Shakman and Jac Schaeffer, the series director and showrunner, built a charming, odd, and small-scale show within a franchise that’s exploring a multiverse. For the first third of its run, WandaVision lovingly paid tribute to shows—The Dick Van Dyke Show, I Love Lucy, I Dream of Jeannie—its target demographic wasn’t alive to watch in their original incarnation, and yet people stayed engaged. Not all of the show’s swings have connected, but the ones that did pushed Marvel into territory where the biggest conflict isn’t necessarily about capturing a bejeweled MacGuffin. At its best, the tension of WandaVision is less focused on its villains (Agatha Harkness, Tyler Hayward) and more on amorphous enemies like grief. Throughout the series, Vision can’t punch his way out of Wanda’s pain and resentment. Although, the synthezoid does try to escape Westview’s magical-dome manifestation, which almost kills him (superhero shows will be superhero shows).

So when a generation reared on more explosive Marvel fare is treated to a poignant scene, its outsized reaction is understandable. The leap from celebrating the MCU for being the dominant pop culture franchise to ranking its dialogue among cinema’s greatest isn’t far. For so long, Marvel’s fans have been rewarded for their passion with more movies, crossovers, and spinoffs, so thinking one can influence the critical apparatus with that same level of passion isn’t far off. I mean, people were dunking on an IndieWire tweet in their free time for saying WandaVision felt like an “inflated feature film.”

Even the creators of WandaVision haven’t been immune from the sheer ferocity of the fan base and what it wants to see onscreen. In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, Shakman alluded to the precarious situation he finds himself in ahead of the finale:

“I know there are so many theories out there; there will be a lot of people who will no doubt be disappointed by one theory or another. But we’re always telling this story about Wanda dealing with grief and learning how to accept that loss, and hopefully people will find that the finale is surprising but also satisfying, and that it feels inevitable because it’s the same story they’ve been watching the whole time.”

The way Marvel has taught viewers to consume its movies for years has warped the way many watch WandaVision. This was most evident during Episode 5, when Pietro’s recasting from Aaron Taylor-Johnson to Evan Peters led to a sea of theories and arguments about the show’s future and whether the X-Men were right around the corner. The popularity of the show from this point on was solidified, because it dangled the possibility of bigger, X-sized plot points in the future, but it also highlighted a significant problem for making compelling TV within the confines of the MCU. For years, Marvel encouraged viewers to obsess over everything but the text. Fans were taught to sit for post-credit scenes. Writers were incentivized for publishing Easter egg breakdowns meant to predict everything that wasn’t explicitly said onscreen. Reason would dictate those same habits would rear themselves over the course of a television season. Most discussions about WandaVision inevitably bleed into obsessing over the future at the expense of absorbing what’s on the screen that week. Almost anything can look great if your attention is purely focused on whether or not Mephisto will make an appearance.

The history of live-action superhero shows is the story of ambition running up against budget constraints. No one’s comparing Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., CW’s Arrowverse, or Netflix’s failed Marvel slate to high cinema, because in each case they weren’t. Those shows reveled in a certain level of kitsch, iffy CGI, and soap opera antics that made them perfectly fine shows to binge-watch on a random evening. WandaVision is of this ilk even if its rumored price tag—$25 million per episode—places it in rarefied TV air. It’s all right if WandaVision’s special effects can often look more like an average episode of Power Rangers than Infinity War. I have lived the bulk of my life eating at the trough of massive corporations without wondering why Smallville didn’t get the same love as The Wire.

Vision’s succinct and quaint musing about grief has become important to a lot of people. It’s not unfathomable to believe that the MCU has changed lives, because over the years it has changed mine. But there’s a level of earnestness in the Vision and Wanda “grief” scene that either encapsulates a pain many have trouble describing or can set off the hidden cynic in anybody. We’re at the year anniversary of when a majority of the United States went into lockdown, and the death toll from the coronavirus pandemic is still climbing. It’s just as easy to relate to someone grieving who needed to hear those words as it is another who can’t bother finding comfort within the confines of corporate IP. People seeking out meaning and solace within the lessons superheroes teach us isn’t a new phenomenon, but it also doesn’t make a show, characters, or dialogue impervious to critique. Everything that’s important doesn’t have to be deep.

The line of dialogue that says the most about WandaVision and the superhero gold rush happens moments before the “grief” dialogue. As Vision watches a roof collapse on Malcolm in the Middle’s patriarch, Hal, he asks, “Is it funny because of the grievous injury the man just suffered?”

“No, he’s not really injured,” Wanda says.

Vision ponders how she can be so certain. Sitting on that bed, Wanda can see something he can’t. For years, she’s lost herself within sitcoms and their formulaic and idealistic worlds. It doesn’t matter what anyone else sees. It doesn’t change her connection to the source.

“It’s not that kind of show,” Wanda responds.

She’s right. And WandaVision doesn’t have to be that type of show, either.