We gave up a lot of things in 2020 and that sucked. One thing that maybe actually needed a break was the superhero genre, which has dominated cinemas for more than a decade now. Last year, only DC managed to release anything (Birds of Prey and WW84) unless you count the final season of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, which was probably only watched by me. Well, now it’s 2021 and we’re coming back and we’re all super depressed. Over the next few… however long this takes me, I’m going to review all the sad new superhero shows and movies of 2021 leading up to Black Widow‘s release in July. Come wallow with me!
In retrospect, it’s pretty funny that the creators of WandaVision wanted to make a show about how even superpowers can’t protect you from the pain of loss and we were like “I can’t wait for her to fight the devil.” Until the pandemic happened, this was going to be the fourth release of the next phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, following Black Widow, The Eternals, and the planned first Disney+ series, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. But Disney refused to release their biggest cash cows exclusively on streaming and the Captain America twins had their production halted, so the red-headed stepchild got called up to lead the charge in January. Which was a real blessing, because it ended up being a wonderful showcase for all the benefits and drawbacks of dragging the MCU into this format.
A side note: it’s weird that people pretend all those years of Marvel TV shows just didn’t happen. The only thing that makes these Disney+ shows different is that they’re overseen by Kevin Feige. But they feature characters from the movies! So did Agents of SHIELD, which brought in the likes of Nick Fury and Maria Hill for guest spots, and Agent Carter, which starred a hero from the movies. But they’re about A-list, big deal super heroes! Uh, Daredevil? Ghost Rider? The Punisher? You’re saying these characters aren’t as popular as Scarlet Witch? But they’re exclusive to a Disney-owned streaming platform! So was The Runaways, which not even I bothered to watch. Don’t come at me, do you even remember that there was an Inhumans show?
Anyway, WandaVision begins extremely mysteriously with two Avengers for some reason starring in a black-and-white 1950s sitcom. They are of course Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), the lady with red magic powers, and Vision (Paul Bettany), the synthezoid who was definitely killed when Thanos caved in his skull. Now they’re newlyweds living in the small town of Westview, NJ, and settling into domestic bliss. Wanda has to figure out how to be a homemaker and deal with her nosy neighbor Agnes (Kathryn Hahn), all while hiding her superpowers. Vision has it even worse, having to shapeshift into a human appearance just to fit in at his extremely vague office job. And that’s before the weird shit starts happening.
Soon enough the real picture starts to come into view: apparently some time after The Avengers brought everyone back and defeated Thanos, Wanda went to visit SWORD headquarters and stole Vision’s body. She then disappeared into Westview, which became surrounded by an enormous red hex. Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), a SWORD agent who was in line to be the director until she disappeared in the blip, is assigned to investigate this strange phenomenon. When she gets there, she quickly strikes up an alliance with two familiar faces: Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), the FBI agent who previously tracked Ant-Man, and Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), who has gone from intern in Thor to one of the world’s leading astrophysicists, if you want to feel bad about what YOU’VE done in the last 10 years. Will they be able to figure out what’s going on and save Wanda and Vision in time?
A lot of the fun of WandaVision comes from its top-notch style. Each episode sends the sitcom side of things lurching ahead in time by changing the costumes, sets, and even the writing to fit different eras of the genre. So the fifties felt like The Dick Van Dyke Show, the seventies like The Brady Bunch, the early 2000s like Malcolm in the Middle, and so on. Elizabeth Olsen in particular handles these dramatic shifts well, doing a fantastic job playing slipping into the fun of all these roles while maintaining the thread of Wanda’s underlying trauma.
That’s what WandaVision is about, in the end: trauma. Wanda has lost her parents, her brother, her country, her team, and the love of her life. You just might not have noticed it, because up until now, she’s just been a part of the ensemble. Vision’s trauma is less visceral and a lot more sci fi: he’s an amalgam of artificial intelligences, super scientists, and magic who already struggled to understand the meaning of his life BEFORE he died and was brought back to life in a sitcom. The best part of this show is that it finally created the space to really let us get to know these characters and empathize with their experiences.
So getting way more time for character development is a good thing, but I think we saw the change in format is also a bit of a double-edged sword. Because this story is so mysterious, and because there was a week between each episode, that gave the audience a lot of time to over-analyze. Some people got frustrated when there wasn’t enough of the “real world” story, I even read commenters calling the sitcom stuff – the literal premise of the show – time wasting filler. Beyond that, having a week to speculate allowed expectations to go wild and caused some people to end up being disappointed when the likes of Mr. Fantastic and Professor X don’t show up in the end. The good news is, if you haven’t watched the show yet, this isn’t a problem; you can just binge it now.
I couch that criticism in “some people” because I honestly wasn’t really expecting those bonkers twists and I genuinely thought the “filler” episodes were fun. I mean, I love sitcoms. I love comic books too, and this was an extremely comic book-y story, the type that would never have been made into a movie. Really my only disappointment was that they went to the trouble of bringing Kat Dennings into a sitcom world and then didn’t make any 2 Broke Girl$ jokes. Ah well, at least they let Kathryn Hahn showcase her absolute mastery of the format. Who’s the breakout star of WandaVision? It was Kathryn Hahn all along!