There is, I think, something missing from the WandaVision discourse right now. It wasn’t always missing. In fact, it kind of dominated coverage early on, back when this was all new and fresh. But in the weeks since, people have moved on. They want to talk about the way the show parcels out its plot (“too slow!”) (“actually, it is fine!”), and which appearances by other characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe they would like to see (“Magneto!”) (“Korg!”), and Kathryn Hahn (“Kathryn Hahn!”). This is fine, as all of these are worth discussing at some point in the process, but I do think it is causing us to veer slightly away from the most important thing about the show: WandaVision is still, almost two months into its run, weird as hell.
The weirdness might be wearing off for you at this point if you’ve started to accept what the show is and does, but please, if you have any doubt, try something for me: Explain the show to a person who does not watch it. It’s better if they are, at most, casually familiar with the Marvel movies. And it’s better than that if you, like me, are really only familiar with the characters from the movies. I attempted to do this recently. It went something like this…
“So two of the Avengers, the witch and the robot, who were kind of bad but then good, fell in love, but then the robot died, twice, so now the witch — who is played by the younger sister of the Olsen twins — sort of created a whole fake fictional universe inside a town in New Jersey where the robot is alive again, and each episode of the show is like styled based on a genre of sitcom — Bewitched, Brady Bunch, Modern Family, etc. — and the FBI and various secretive government agencies are outside this forcefield trying to investigate it all and also one of them figured out how to watch the episodes of the show within a show on an old television in the science lab. And that’s when things start getting strange..”
It’s a blast. You’ll sound like you’ve lost all of your mind. And that’s before you even get to the part about Kathryn Hahn playing a secret magical villain who traps Wanda in her demonic basement dungeon after babysitting the rapidly aging twins Wanda and Vision had. The nice thing is that even the characters in the show acknowledge how wild it all is.
This is all very cool to me. I like when things are ambitious and weird, and I especially like it when things are that way when they don’t have to be. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a multibillion-dollar enterprise on its own as well as a lucrative property in the multi-multibillion-dollar Disney portfolio. The instinct when dealing with intellectual property with stratospheric dollar values like this is often to play it safe, to not rock the boat, or, one imagines, to not take your golden goose and twist it into a tribute to sitcoms from before most of the audience was born. The fact that they’re doing it — that they’re even trying it — is pretty neat. I don’t often find myself in the position of congratulating massive conglomerates for artistic choices, but I also don’t often find myself watching a television show targeted at the “comic book fans who are also students of the sitcom format throughout history” genre. It’s an odd position to be in. Not as odd as say, being a civilian inside the MCU and discovering that a famous witch resurrected her robot lover and is keeping him alive inside a manufactured mini-universe that occasionally pays tribute to Malcolm in the Middle, but still, odd.
Does it help that Wanda and Vision are two of the, let’s just say it, lesser Avengers, at least from a lunchbox-and-action-figure standpoint? I don’t know. Maybe. Probably. There’s a little less to lose with these two characters and therefore less of a reason to not swing for the fences. But let’s also remember that Marvel turned the Thor franchise over to Taika Waititi and he proceeded to a) make Thor hilarious, and b) make Hulk a big pouty child who gets huffy when he doesn’t get his way. There is history here. Marvel has not been afraid to zig and/or zag for the sake of a good time. Look at my sweet cranky prince.
And getting this weird has paid off for WandaVision in other ways, too, and yes, this is where we discuss the performances on the show. Paul Bettany has nailed every sitcom dad/husband trope they’ve thrown at him. Elizabeth Olsen is carrying the emotional core of the show while also doing spot-on versions of everyone from Mary Tyler Moore to Julie Bowen. Kathryn Hahn — Kathryn Hahn! — has been a delight from the start, playing note-perfect iterations of various nosy neighbors from decades gone by, everything from “1950s housewife who stops by to borrow an ingredient for a recipe as a ruse to snoop around your business” to “Jazzercise-obsessed neighbor who stops by after a workout to say hi as a ruse to snoop around your business.” Even if every other part of the show fell flat, it would be worth it for giving her this kind of playground to run amok inside for 30 minutes a week. I am so excited to see what she does now that she gets to be openly evil for huge chunks of television. I hope she cackles directly into the camera for 25 seconds straight to start the next episode.
I assume the weirdness will dial itself down a bit as the show zooms toward the end of its season. It almost has to, just because the business of explaining how and why all this has happened will decrease the anarchy of it just, like, happening. But let’s not overlook the path the show walked to get there, the one it asked the audience to follow it down, the one that was twisty and bumpy and sometimes featured rascal storks out of nowhere and eventually brought in Randall Park and Kat Dennings to investigate. The whole thing could have been a convoluted mess. I suppose it still could be in its last few episodes. But even if that happens, even if it all falls to pieces in the home stretch, I’ll still appreciate that it made the effort, if only because an ambitious failure is more interesting than a boring success. WandaVision is nothing if not ambitiously, fantastically weird.
One day, if they’re taking requests over there, if they’re fully committed to getting goofy, I would still like a show set in the headquarters of a fictional newspaper inside the MCU, one that spans the length of the franchise from the first Iron Man to wherever it ends up, complete with a frazzled reporter attempting to write a front-page story about a big purple alien killing half of the planet’s humans. But for now, as far as big swings go, this will do just fine.