Review: With the refreshing ‘WandaVision,’ Marvel gets an inventive sitcom makeover
I suppose that just as fans of Swedish death metal are keen to the differences between Edge of Sanity and Eternal Oath, there are devotees of superhero pictures for whom each film or series has a flavor quite unlike the others. I tend to see them as a blur, not the least because characters are forever teaming up and crossing over but also because they tend to run down similar paths, at similar volumes. It may just be that I did my time in Marvel when it was a matter of stapled newsprint; CGI punch-ups leave me cold, but if you want to discuss the relative merits of John Buscema’s Spider-Man versus Steve Ditko’s, I’m your guy.
As a consequence, I’m more interested than usual in the latest issue from the Marvel Cinematic Universe — the first of “Phase Four,” for those following along in their phase-books — “WandaVision,” a high-concept sort-of sitcom that premieres Friday on Disney+. Taking off from a handful of big-screen scenes that established a romantic connection between Elizabeth Olsen’s telekinetic Wanda Maximoff (a.k.a. the Scarlet Witch) and Paul Bettany’s variously powered android Vision (just Vision), the series, created by Jac Schaeffer, finds them living as a couple in a succession of pastiches that recapitulate the history of television comedy, surrounded by “normal people” from whom they must hide their identity — though perhaps the people aren’t as normal as all that.
Why a character from a fictional Eastern European country and an artificial life form should find themselves trapped in this particular slice of cultural history is not clear. It’s not as if Wanda and Vision used to talk about American television in quiet moments at Avengers HQ. (Perhaps those scenes wound up on the cutting room floor.) One feels that the show might have been written backward from an original Big Idea or even from the title; that is how things often go in Hollywood, after all. But the results here are rarely less than interesting and at times much more.
This is not completely fresh ground. There are echoes of “Life on Mars,” with its 21st-century detective living amid the tropes of a 1970s British cop show; and of the movies “Stay Tuned,” in which John Ritter and Pam Dawber must survive a succession of satanic TV parodies, and “Pleasantville,” where young Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon are magicked into a black-and-white 1950s sitcom; along with numerous comedy sketches and series episodes in which characters are transplanted into a laugh-tracked unreality.
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The opening episode of “WandaVision” references “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” with perhaps a touch of “I Love Lucy,” and was actually filmed in front of a live audience; Episode 2 plays off of “Bewitched,” an obvious choice with a character already called the Scarlet Witch; and the third episode, the last available to review, adopts the look of “The Brady Brunch,” if not its blended family and housekeeper. (The stairs are there.)
The production values are very good, and that the show is a little off the models here and there in terms of language or performance style or staging may be intentional — this is old TV as an AI might render it. The plots are sitcom standard — the boss is coming to dinner and nothing is ready; magical missus uses her powers to help floundering mister; a baby’s on the way and everything’s crazy — with a twist. A fake period commercial midway through each episode drops references to the movies, though whether these are clues to something more substantial or merely clever decorations is for time to tell.
Jokes about old jokes will get you only so far, but “WandaVision” is sometimes funny on its own terms, and both the leads have a talent for goofiness. Bettany has some fun playing the android version of drunk; Olsen is good trying to keep a friend — Teyonah Parris as Geraldine, whom some may also recognize from “Captain Marvel” — from noticing a stork in her living room, a metaphor made feathered flesh. (Also traveling alongside them through the decades are Kathryn Hahn as Agnes, a sort of cross between Gladys Kravitz, the nosy neighbor of “Bewitched,” and friendly neighbor Millie Helper from “Dick Van Dyke.”) Still, the series is most interesting when it gets a little glitchy. Messages from another world intrude, and the mood goes “Twilight Zone.” All is obviously not what it seems, but the frame takes time coming into focus; indeed, beyond some educated guesses, I can’t say where it’s headed.
Bettany and Olsen have a sweet chemistry. It’s refreshing to see the actors at play in a field that doesn’t require them to send some super foe (or friend, the way the Avengers get on) backward through a brick wall — perhaps that’s coming — and gives them lots of things to say and do together instead of maybe a dozen or two lines in a 2½-hour movie. And all of it canonical.
When: Any time, starting Friday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)
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