The Marvel Cinematic Universe had been on hiatus for longer than even Marvel had foreseen. Walking out of the AMC Burbank 16 after seeing Spider-Man: Far From Home back in July of 2019, I had no way of knowing that I’d have to wait a year and a half to see new MCU content. In Marvel’s original slate of projects, they planned for Black Widow as the inaugural film of “Phase Four.” With release dates continuing to shuffle and the state of movie theaters in flux, we return to the MCU not in a theater, but on the streaming site Disney+ with WandaVision, Marvel’s first foray into the high-budget streaming landscape.
WandaVision opens with titular characters Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) driving through the idyllic, suburban town of Westview, New Jersey as a newlywed couple. As they settle into their new home together, the events around them play out like a black-and-white, 1950s sitcom. Each subsequent episode unfolds in the style of a new decade of sitcom (complete with new title themes and fictional commercial breaks), from The Dick Van Dyke Show up to Modern Family. Sound strange? That’s because it is. Underneath this blissful world of family comedy homage, something is deeply amiss. Much like the characters themselves, the audience is along for the ride as the mystery unravels.
In Marvel’s big ensemble films, Wanda and Vision served as supporting characters, their comics-inspired love story playing out slowly in the background as bigger threats like Thanos loomed. Now that we’ve entered into a new phase of the MCU’s ongoing story, I was excited to see Wanda and Vision (and Olsen and Bettany) finally step into the limelight as well as how this might work, given that in Avengers: Infinity War (*spoilers for that film ahead*) Vision dies after Thanos rips the Mind Stone from his head. How could Vision be alive and well playing sitcom-husband alongside Wanda if he’s dead? And what the hell is going on with all these TV show references?
These are just some of the many questions at the heart of WandaVision, and the primary reason why it was so thrilling to tune into each episode week after week: reading the reviews, watching YouTube videos, enjoying Twitter memes, and theorizing about what could possibly happen next. While the 7-day wait between each episode’s “Please Stand By” end-card and the newest WandaVision title sequence could get agonizing, the show’s weekly format rebukes the “binge” model of consumption because it’s the first show since Game of Thrones that has become a must-watch appointment-viewing event.
The fact that it has seeped into the mainstream as this water-cooler discussion point is somewhat unexpected, just because WandaVision is so weird. The first few episodes open the series not with superhero fight scenes or action set-pieces, but instead with a superpowered woman and her synthezoid lover enjoying domestic bliss. This is a bold storytelling choice. Chalk that up to Marvel’s string of financial and critical successes that led up to this point — spanning now 13 years — which has afforded executive producer Kevin Feige, showrunner Jac Schaeffer, and director Matt Shakman the trust needed to branch out and explore different characters with unique stories.
To that end, WandaVision is my favorite thing Marvel has done to date. It has those traditional “MCU” things like big-scale action and CGI effects, but I found myself drawn to the story because it challenged the mold of what these projects often look like — both narratively and stylistically. Above all, I was moved by it because it’s a rare MCU project that’s about something much deeper and more human than men in high-tech suits or aliens invading the world: it focused on a woman’s grief and her journey towards accepting herself and the losses she’s endured.
At the show’s center, Elizabeth Olsen is tasked with portraying Wanda through each decade of sitcom while maintaining this emotional core, and she pulls off every twist and turn without missing a beat. I liked Wanda in previous films, but to explore the depths of her character here really sets her apart. Her love story with Paul Bettany’s Vision (who nails the comedic beats as deftly as the dramatic, philosophical ones) takes shape in such a beautiful, yet tragic way given their history together, thus giving them both needed dimensionality. Kathryn Hahn steals each scene she’s in as Agnes, Wanda and Vision’s nosy neighbor. She never gives anything less than 110% effort, which elevates Agnes beyond a supporting role. Teyonah Parris is also a highlight as Monica Rambeau, the daughter of Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) who has ties to Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), and I’m excited to see more of her character in future films.
I can’t get into anything else without veering into spoiler territory, so if you haven’t watched the series in full, I recommend doing so (and coming back here for the rest of the review!). Whether you’re new to the MCU or a diehard fan, I think there’s something for everyone to enjoy in this character-driven, off-kilter series.
Diving into spoilers, the way the show threads the needle between presenting these different decades of TV and revealing a feasible explanation for it is impressive. And for the most part, WandaVision sticks the landing. We eventually learn that in a moment of pure pain and grief, Wanda herself unwittingly casts a spell which encases the entire town of Westview in a mysterious, hexagonal bubble (dubbed “The Hex” by Kat Dennings’ Darcy Lewis), wherein Wanda, the version of Vision she created, and everyone else in the town play parts in each of these sitcom-inspired episodes. This show that Wanda created is actually emitted through a broadcast signal, where Darcy, Monica, Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), and other agents of the military group S.W.O.R.D. (Sentient Weapon Observation Response Division) can actually watch “WandaVision.” As Monica remarks at the end of the fourth episode, “It’s Wanda. It’s all Wanda.”
The show plays with the idea that Wanda might be both the protagonist and the antagonist; having blocked out the trauma that led her to creating the Hex in the first place, she begins the first episode perhaps as clueless as anyone else in Westview before the facade becomes too complicated to ignore. It’s not unlike Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) B.A.R.F. simulation in Captain America: Civil War, with Wanda living out a new version of her life that she desperately wanted, but didn’t get to have. In a world where no harm could come to her or her loved ones, Wanda lives with her soulmate Vision and gives birth to their twins, Billy and Tommy (known in the comics as Wiccan and Speed). In one of the biggest twists in the series, Wanda even welcomes Evan Peters’ Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver (a character Aaron Taylor-Johnson played in Avengers: Age of Ultron) into her home because she’s withdrawn deep enough into her own world to believe that any version of her deceased brother could fill the void of that loss.
There are still villainous characters for Wanda to confront. Hahn’s Agnes is revealed to be the powerful witch Agatha Harkness, drawn to Westview after Wanda created the Hex. Agatha receives her own certified-bop theme song, detailing that she was behind many of the curious things happening in Westview, including controlling Peters’ “Fake Pietro” to try to coax information out of Wanda (Peters is not actually Quicksilver from Fox’s X-Men, but a guy named Ralph Bohner…Ha. Ha.). In the exposition-heavy, emotional episode “Previously On,” Agatha walks Wanda through the latter’s past, exploring all the moments that led up to Wanda creating the Hex, and realizes that Wanda is the powerful being prophesied in Agatha’s book of magic, the Darkhold: Wanda is the “Scarlet Witch.”
We see a young Wanda in her home country Sokovia watching sitcoms with her family, and we learn that the Mind Stone did not give Wanda her powers; they merely activated and enhanced what she was already born with. In a quieter, tender moment, we also witness the moment where Wanda falls for Vision. Following her brother’s death, Wanda watches Malcolm in the Middle, having gravitated towards sitcoms for their formulaic, predictable structure, and Vision attempts to comfort her. Wanda talks about the waves of sadness she feels, and how she worries it might drown her. In response, Vision ponders, “what is grief, if not love persevering?”
This line has been memed into oblivion on social media by now, but the sentiment is poignant. This episode in particular presents on screen what I and most people in the world right now have felt over the last year: isolation, loneliness, uncertainty about how we move forward, and whether we can pick up the broken pieces. As Jac Shaeffer notes in an interview with Deadline, WandaVision ultimately follows Wanda through the stages of grief, from denial to acceptance of her situation. Agatha tells her that “the only way forward is back,” and once Wanda accepts what happened to her, she is able to embrace her identity as the Scarlet Witch and begin her journey towards healing.
When watching films and shows or reading about new projects announced, I often bristle at the idea of the “strong” or “badass” female character, because to me, those labels don’t do justice to the complexities of what it means to be a woman, particularly in a male-dominated world like the entertainment industry or even in the fictional world of superheroes. Yes, Wanda is incredibly powerful, the strongest Avenger in the MCU, but that’s not why I find her or this show so compelling. I like her because often she isn’t strong, because she shows vulnerability and expresses emotion in its rawest form. Under the weight of crushing grief and loss, Wanda breaks down, and everything around her changes in an effort to regain even an inch of control over her own life. The morals of the situation are neither heroic nor villainous; they lie in the grey area where humanity resides. A fallible protagonist is far more interesting than a “strong” one. In a genre that becomes more saturated with content by the day, this sets WandaVision apart.
Of course, no MCU project is complete without the bad guys for the heroes to punch, and WandaVision is no exception. In the final episode (aptly titled “The Series Finale”), Wanda and Agatha have their big, CGI fight in the sky above Westview as Wanda’s Hex begins to crumble. Meanwhile, Vision battles the “White Vision,” a robot made out of the real Vision’s dead body which S.W.O.R.D. brought back online. These types of third-act fight sequences, as well as the military elements, are the kinds of the things I don’t love about other MCU films. WandaVision ultimately falls back on this formula of the hero fighting a villainous version of themselves. A “good” witch fights an “evil” witch. A “good” synthezoid fights an “evil” synthezoid. It is somewhat obligatory, given that this is still a superhero property, but these scenes are less engaging, particularly because the show had been so character-driven up to this point.
The finale is not without its moments, though. In her confrontation with Agatha, Wanda completes her transformation into the Scarlet Witch, signified by a kick-ass new costume that is more comic-book accurate. She also gets to say goodbye to Vision and her boys on her own terms. As she lets down the walls of the Hex, Wanda shares one last moment with Vision. She tells him that he is the piece of the Mind Stone that lives within her, as well as her sadness, her hope, and her love. With the last remnants of the spell closing in on them, Vision tells her, “We’ve said good-bye before, so it stands to reason…” “We’ll say hello again,” Wanda finishes, and finally lets Vision go (at least, for now).
Wanda is then left to face the realities of what she has done to the town of Westview. She expresses remorse, apologizing to Monica for the pain she’s caused, but the show ultimately doesn’t reckon with the fact that in overcoming her own trauma, Wanda caused a great deal of trauma for all of the townspeople forced to take part in her spell. This is why Monica’s line to Wanda about how “They’ll never know what you sacrificed for them” rings hollow; Wanda did let go of Vision and the twins to free the town, but she ultimately entrapped everyone in the first place and doesn’t endure any of the consequences after it’s all over. Perhaps this will be explored further in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, or even a standalone Scarlet Witch film (fingers crossed), but that doesn’t absolve Wanda of her misdeeds.
Wanda does resolve to understand and control this power, and in the final post-credits tease, we see her doing just that in a remote, mountainside location as she reads Agatha’s Darkhold in astral-projection form. She also hears the voices of Billy and Tommy calling out to her through the ether. Anything is possible in a film with the word “Multiverse” in the title, so I have no doubt that when we pick up with Wanda in the Doctor Strange sequel, we might see the twins and even Vision and the real X-Men Quicksilver pop up.
Most MCU stories are good, but what makes WandaVision great is the fact that it takes something as impactful and universal as grief and turns it into a cathartic viewing experience. Wanda might be a witch, a superhero, an Avenger, but she’s also human. Over the course of this series, Vision embraces his own humanity, too. Their journey through these tragic, yet relatable experiences makes this weird, fun, sitcom-infused story somehow feel like the most grounded thing Marvel has ever done. It may not have been Marvel’s plan to release WandaVision as the first Phase Four project, but if this show is any indication as to where the MCU is headed, there’s a whole lot for superhero nerds like myself to look forward to.