A TV show signaling its ambition by comparing itself to a supersized movie is a time-honored trope. WandaVision, the new limited series on Disney+ that marks a major turning point in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its complex relationship with the small screen, is just the latest to employ it. “I was like, ‘Oh, I thought we were doing a little show,’” actor Teyonah Parris told Entertainment Weekly in its November cover story spotlighting the production. “But no, it’s six Marvel movies packed into what they’re presenting as a sitcom.”
Under typical circumstances, this analogy is frustrating, sure to earn an eye-roll from critics tired of explaining that “X-hour movie” is not the compliment most creatives seem to think it is. Beyond the implied condescension, there’s the fact that the distinction between movies and TV shows is on the verge of collapse, making comparisons almost meaningless. The same platforms often distribute both, including Disney+; every year brings more brain-teasers like Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, which have aspects of each category without neatly falling into either. You can see only so many iterations of The Hateful Eight: The Miniseries before throwing up your hands in defeat.
In the case of WandaVision, it’s all a little brain-breaking. The show takes place, of course, in the Disney-run MCU, which has dabbled in TV before: a pair of procedurals on ABC; a quartet of Netflix shows set in New York after the climactic battle of the first Avengers. But WandaVision is the first show to exist under the creative control of Marvel Studios, the elite squadron captained by producer Kevin Feige that turned a clutch of comic book IP into a wildly lucrative constellation of interlocking stories—a structure that borrows heavily from the blueprint of TV. What does it mean for a TV show to be like a movie when the TV show stars characters from movies, which are serialized and collectively written like a TV show, and when the TV show itself is setting up a subsequent movie? (Feige has said the events of WandaVision will directly impact the plot of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, set for release in 2022.)
Luckily, WandaVision is well suited to such meta tongue-twisters. The show is TV about TV, or at least committed to reproducing the aesthetics of vintage TV in exhaustive detail as it takes its time in revealing a larger mystery. In the three episodes provided to critics, two of which landed on Disney+ last Friday, WandaVision takes the form of ’50s and ’60s domestic sitcoms à la I Love Lucy or Bewitched and a ’70s family show à la The Brady Bunch; these faux shows just happen to star a sentient supercomputer and a European witch. It also helps that WandaVision is meant to be a little dizzying. Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) don’t know why they live in a generic simulacrum known only as Westville, or how they came to be there, or how Vision is alive after dying twice in Infinity War, or even that he’s supposed to be dead. They’re just experiencing their adventures as they come, which is also how you have to approach this latest expansion of the MCU, lest you get a headache.
Directed by Game of Thrones’ Matt Shakman, showrun by Captain Marvel’s Jac Schaeffer, and originating from a concept by Feige, WandaVision marks the official crossover point where the MCU can no longer be distinguished from its satellites. Both the ABC and Netflix series were visibly separate from the main franchise—the broadcast shows in their clear budgetary constraints, the streaming ones in their dark and gritty aesthetic, a clear counterpoint to the MCU’s Technicolor palette and PG-13 ratings. WandaVision, too, has a unique look and feel in the larger Marvel ecosystem. But in character, story, and most of all, production value, the message is clear: This is a lateral extension, not a step down.
Due to unforeseen circumstances, WandaVision even substitutes for Marvel movies rather than just complementing them. After the pandemic threw theatrical releases into chaos, Disney put Marvel’s entire 2020 slate on ice, including the highly anticipated Black Widow; it’s now been more than a full calendar year since fans have gotten a full, Feige-sanctioned update on the master narrative he wove from a jumbled pile of string. WandaVision even has a jump on other Disney+ series like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the show originally intended to kick-start the TV branch of the so-called Phase 4. Instead, it’s WandaVision that leads a slate which will soon include Loki, the anthology series What If…?, Hawkeye, Ms. Marvel, and at least half a dozen more.
To its credit, WandaVision doesn’t feel like connective tissue, at least to start. Compared to Marvel’s other flirtations with genre, in fact, it’s admirably committed. The MCU has long been fond of hyperbolic comparisons like “Captain America and the Winter Soldier is a ’70s conspiracy thriller” or “Ant-Man is a heist movie.” In truth, these influences manifest more often as a faint aftertaste than a full-blown homage. Thanks to all the superpowers, WandaVision could never be mistaken for an actual rerun of The Dick Van Dyke Show. But it does incorporate those elements beyond a mere press release: The first two episodes are shot in black and white in front of a live studio audience, utilizing retro effects like a shattered plate rewinding into a whole. The third switches gears, featuring sideburns and side panels.
WandaVision is also TV-like in at least one key respect: Its chapters are discrete and differentiated, if not quite stand-alone. Schaeffer and the writers borrow and riff on classic tropes like “the boss and his wife come to dinner” (Fred Melamed and Debra Jo Rupp, the latest character actors to collect those Marvel checks) or “pregnant woman gives birth in seconds.” The show isn’t a single, extended story arbitrarily chopped into parts, but a collection of legible bits—not unlike the MCU, but without having to pay $20 to see said bits in the theater every few months. TV’s episodic storytelling is where the MCU got the idea for how to translate comic serials to screen in the first place, making WandaVision a perfect ouroboros of content.
This isolation starts to break as the series goes on; Wanda and Vision can’t stay in a hermetically sealed whatever-they’re-in forever. And the whole show relies on the viewer understanding who the title characters are in the first place when they already come with intricate backstories; Vision, for example, is a composite of two preexisting characters powered by a MacGuffin. Parris’s character is known as “Geraldine” on the show-within-a-show, but we already know she’s the adult version of Monica Rambeau, who was first introduced as a child in the ’90s-set Captain Marvel.
When names like Ultron and Pietro Maximoff start to pop up, WandaVision loses some of the quirk that makes it an intriguing, if accidental, introduction to the Disney+ era of the MCU. But those proper nouns also serve their intended purpose: conferring legitimacy on both WandaVision and the streaming service that airs it. Just as The Mandalorian is now in the top tier of the Star Wars universe, blessed by the appearance of the franchise’s First Family, WandaVision isn’t a detour for the MCU. It’s a transition—one you’ll have to subscribe to in order to stay up to date.