Sometimes, the best thing that a TV show with mystery-box inclinations can do is anticipate when viewers’ patience might be wearing thin. There’s no point stretching out a mystery if everyone’s either picking up on every piece of the puzzle or starting to lose emotional investment. (Looking at you, Westworld.) So credit where it’s due to WandaVision, the first Disney+ series from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, for understanding its audience’s expectations.
WandaVision is the rare instance of an MCU product that both stakes out new, exciting territory and satisfies the ongoing health of the multibillion-dollar behemoth. It’s a loopy tribute to the sitcoms of decades past, and it’s also a show about superheroes in a vast universe of them. For anyone tiring of Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) living in a black-and-white ’50s sitcom, the premiere ended with the reveal that someone was literally watching them through a TV screen. Even more unsubtly, the third episode name-dropped Ultron and revealed that a paramilitary base has been set up outside of the superhero couple’s New Jersey town.
WandaVision isn’t really trying to hide what it’s about, but that works to the show’s advantage. The series is getting better—and way creepier—the more it draws the curtain. Much of the show’s terrific fourth installment takes place outside of the sitcom-ized Westview, catching viewers up to speed with how previously established MCU side characters like Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), and Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) have been drawn to the scene. The Westview anomaly is such that local law enforcement have some kind of mental block preventing them from seeing what’s happening, surveillance drones go in but never return, and Monica gets sucked into the sitcom world playing the role of neighborhood newcomer “Geraldine.” But while the specific circumstances for how Westview was formed are no doubt forthcoming, we have a clearer idea of how Wanda fits into the picture: She isn’t trapped in a prison so much as she is its warden.
Wanda’s control over Westview was previously hinted when she twice reversed time to prevent Vision from becoming suspicious about their surroundings, and when her cheery housewife facade lifted when Monica mentioned Ultron. (The death glare she gives Monica-as-Geraldine was freaky in and of itself.) What the fourth episode underscores is that, wracked by grief over Vision’s death at the hands of Thanos, Wanda is essentially holding the inhabitants of an entire town—a bunch of real people!—captive and forcing them to play their sitcom roles.
That is … horrifying? And the longer WandaVision continues, the more the cracks in Wanda’s sitcom world are forming. In what has to be the MCU’s first legitimately terrifying moment, Vision briefly appears to Wanda as a walking corpse toward the end of the fourth episode:
The MCU has half-heartedly tried to frame previous entries as innovative genre efforts, such as Captain America: The Winter Soldier being likened to a ’70s-style conspiracy thriller, complete with the casting of Robert Redford. (Spoiler alert: It’s a fun film, but, LOL, no.) But WandaVision might pave the way for Marvel to make a concerted effort to dabble with horror; at least by the MCU’s standards. Even the one-minute teaser for the rest of the series alludes to the thousands of innocent bystanders in Westview trapped in a sitcom-sheened hell, the implications of which are unnerving the more you think about it.
It’s a promising path for WandaVision to go down, one that could yield more moments like Corpse Vision interrupting Wanda’s fabricated reality. Horror and grief can make for compelling bedfellows—see: Netflix’s excellent The Haunting of Hill House—and the longer that Wanda tries to hide from the fact that Vision is dead, the more the Westview facade will begin to crumble. That makes all the forced cheeriness of the town and its locals all the more unsettling, an “everything is fine” counterpoint to the encroaching horror—twisting the sitcom tone into something that feels aligned with, of all things, Adult Swim’s Too Many Cooks.
As it goes on, WandaVision could be a potential window into how the crowd-pleasing but diminishingly formulaic MCU might embrace more horror elements in the near future. It’s already been confirmed that WandaVision will help set the stage for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, a film that’s been hyped by MCU head Kevin Feige as “thrilling, scary, and mind-bending.” Feige’s proclamation is hard to take at face value when the same franchise was calling Ant-Man a heist movie, and especially when Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson—a filmmaker who cut his teeth in horror with films like The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister—exited the sequel over creative differences. But with Sam Raimi replacing Derrickson, there’s reason to be cautiously optimistic that In the Multiverse of Madness could actually be as thrilling, scary, and mind-bending as advertised. While Raimi is best known for directing the Tobey Maguire–led Spider-Man films of the aughts, he’s first and foremost a horror guy, responsible for the Evil Dead trilogy and Drag Me to Hell. Arguably the best sequence in Spider-Man 2 feels like it was left on the Evil Dead cutting room floor: Doc Ock’s robotic arms slaughtering a surgical team trying to remove them. If there’s even half of this energy in the Doctor Strange sequel, sign me up.
Perhaps the more sinister implications of WandaVision will make the seemingly inevitable horror-tinged pivot of In the Multiverse of Madness all the more palatable. Olsen has already spoken glowingly about working with Raimi on the Doctor Strange sequel, in case there were any more doubts that her character would have a big role to play. And are we sure Wanda will go into that movie with the best intentions? With Wanda actively holding an entire town hostage and treating outsiders with hostility, and with Vision (or whoever is taking Vision’s form in the event this is a “Chris Pine in Wonder Woman 1984” situation waiting to happen) seeming to be on the verge of an existential crisis, she may be dangerously close to going full circle from Age of Ultron and becoming a villain again.
In terms of just how disturbing and scary such an all-encompassing cinematic universe is willing to be, Marvel will probably pull its punches to a certain extent (i.e., Wanda seeing the error of her ways, even if it takes until the end of the Doctor Strange sequel for her to get there). But if WandaVision can push the envelope enough that at least one corner of the MCU doesn’t just feel like a bunch of studio-mandated notes about franchise interconnectivity, then the prospect of Marvel continuing to dominate pop culture will start to feel a little less scary. If WandaVision is emblematic of the kind of shift Marvel hopes to take with its Disney+ series, well, that would be super.