‘WandaVision’ Asks If There’s New Stories To Tell About Superheroes
In a world of peak superhero saturation, 'WandaVision' looks like a refreshing new addition to the genre.
The unstoppable lumbering behemoth that is the Disney/Marvel conglomerate has debuted their latest phase of superhero domination with the first of their Disney+ TV series, WandaVision. And refreshingly, it’s something completely fairly unrecognisable from the previous incarnations of mass market superhero stories.
WandaVision is immediately different, and makes almost no attempt to ease Marvel’s traditional viewers into a more comforting place, of ground well trod, of the immediately recognisable tropes and storylines from the superhero genre that we’ve been bombarded with over the past decade. Instead of capes and biffo and POW!, WandaVision’s first episode debuts a black and white homage to the sitcoms of the fifties, a mostly comedic storyline that could be pulled entirely from I Love Lucy — except Lucy has magic powers and her husband is a robot. Without going too into spoilers, over the first few episodes, we see the show pay homage to sitcoms through the decades, delving straight into Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, and then even some Brady Bunch.
As we follow the gentle exploits of our characters Wanda and Vision (who we are mildly familiar with from The Avengers films), the ups and downs of a couple ostensibly settling into a new suburb, we are un-subtly told that something is amiss. All is not as it seems. It’s very clear that we’re dealing with a kind of Pleasantville or Truman Show style situation. The show does a great job of escalating a creeping sense of unease that the actors — who all seem to be having the times of their lives, and are acting the hell out of their roles — react to with palpable dread.
All in all, not something we’ve seen before from Marvel — or any other superhero franchise — and while the show is already well received, the overwhelming discourse seems to be around being confused, baffled even, by WandaVision. I think that it’s only confusing because it isn’t expected in this genre — for any other show or genre, the signposts for what WandaVision is trying to do would be fairly blatant.
But I guess after 200 years of superhero saturation, three massive stages of Marvel films, and rival extended universes, we should at least be glad that new stories are being told in the genre. But that’s also the interesting thing about WandaVision — it’s extremely self-aware of the limitations it has as part of the genre, and asks itself quite baldly what kinds of stories it’s allowed to tell.
Wanda Maximoff and Vision are interesting characters to have their own spinoff. While on paper they have quite an involved premise — a robot made out of a magic gem who falls in love with a woman from a hypothetical European background who has mind powers, they’re probably the characters from The Avengers that we’re least invested in. The majority of their character development happened in Age Of Ultron, probably the least interesting Avengers film, and is relatively meh compared to the original Avengers and their many solo films. I couldn’t tell you why Wanda wants to even be a part of The Avengers, to be honest, what even motivates her. What we’re given is almost a blank slate, in terms of the MCU: there’s not a whole lot of movie baggage, that would have made the concept of something like WandaVision impossible. Imagine Tony Stark, with all his wildly established pathos, trying to do this? Impossible.
But when we consider the enormous amount of canonical backstory for the characters from the many years of comics, it’s pretty clear that what we’re probably dealing with is a false reality probably created by Wanda herself. One of the more interesting stories to ever happen in Marvel comic lore is the 2005 arc ‘House Of M’, in which Wanda (Scarlet Witch) suffers a mental breakdown after the loss of her children, and rewrites reality. What occurs is a kinda fragile alternate reality, dominated by the sinister facsimiles of her dead children, ruled by her fragmented psyche. It’s a ridiculously cool storyline.
She’s probably doing something similar — or perhaps we are seeing her re-write her own internal reality, to create a kind of saccharine utopia in which Vision (who was irrevocably killed by Thanos) is still alive, which could be why the almost two dimensional tropes of the golden age of tv sitcom dictate her fantasy. Dark! I love it, if it’s so.
It also works as a compelling point about the nature of creativity in the MCU. We’ve seen what constitutes a “superhero film” has changed over time — but more accurately it’s evolved.
The MCU started off with relatively formulaic “origin stories” for their heroes, which were suitable for the time. An origin story does more than introduce a superhero, it introduces the concept of what constitutes the genre of a superhero story. It creates a foundation. And that foundation allowed the genre to evolve, to try new things — without the original Iron Man, we wouldn’t get something like Thor: Ragnarok, which is so much funnier, brighter, and more interesting than the typically grimmer fare of superhero origin stories. We can’t ever forget that Marvel films are always going to be fairly conservative — they are made for mass consumption after all, as appealing to snot-faced children and homophobic hicks as they are to Wall Street psychopaths and angry incel nerds — but as the genre evolves, as the audience is trained ever so slowly to expect slightly more than the stereotypical, we get more exciting and better films. We only need to look at the successes — Black Panther, Infinity War, Guardians of the Galaxy to see that change is necessary. We only need to look at the flops — the unoriginal Captain Marvel, the boring majority of the DCU, the aborted Dark Universe, to see that lazy, reductive storytelling doesn’t work (anymore).
Without this saturation of stories, without this cultural familiarity with superhero narratives, we wouldn’t be getting truly artistic responses to the genre like HBO’s brilliant Watchmen, or Prime’s ultra-violent The Boys. These shows RELY on the cultural saturation of superhero tropes, on that foundation that has already been laid. In many ways, they are shadows cast from the superhero franchise domination, or funhouse reflections. But they couldn’t exist alone, without blockbuster genre films having so completely dominated cultural discourse. Without them, we wouldn’t be getting the opportunity for some real experimentation, such as WandaVision, which has the opportunity to really change what constitutes a superhero story. I’m not even saying it’s worth it — just that it’s a fact. We can’t have Watchmen without Thor: The Dark World.
If this sounds too optimistic, I’d recommend going and watching a lot of the DC’s current suite of TV shows, such as Titan’s on Netflix. It’s a show that would have still been boring ten years ago, a bunch of cardboard costumed b-characters running around, shackled to a series of badly adapted comicbook storylines which have aged badly. If we hadn’t advanced the storyline, if we hadn’t somewhat suffered through a complete cultural takeover of superhero content, then we’d still be telling these same limited tales. That might not mean much to people who just hate blockbuster movies in general, but I think for people who enjoy a fun action film about good people overcoming baddies, the advancement of these stories is appreciated.
That said, WandaVision isn’t an avant-garde experimental film, nor a groundbreaking new form. At best, it’s an exciting subversion.
It’s different from what we’ve seen before, but only because our expectations as an audience are rusted on, unambitious by tradition, and like becalmed sailors we are perhaps over-excited at the prospect of a breath of fresh air. It is fun, and it is exciting, and every actor is doing the absolute most, but the show also specifically shows how trapped it is by the tropes and forms of the superhero past. Much like Wanda herself, unable to create a new reality that doesn’t rest heavily on recognisable imagery from the past, outdated sitcom forms, WandaVision is also suffocated by the canonical past of superhero lore. There’s a reason that it’s one of the most densely Easter Egg packed vehicles for the Marvel universe — by necessity it needs to pay homage to the comic book past to appease the nerds, fit into a huge extended universe, and help market and launch an entirely new phase of the Marvel behemoth (WandaVision lays the groundwork for the new Doctor Strange film and the next Spider-Man as well). And the creator of the show has confirmed that while they’ve been able to play around with a confusing, mysterious start — they’re heading somewhere more “recognisable” for Marvel fans, a plea to stick with it, that the story will revert back to the comfortable.
“On the flip side with the MCU, I think we wanted to say, ‘Okay, we’re going to do this crazy thing, but don’t you worry, we’re going to get to the answers. We’re going to get to the MCU of it.’ And so we’re looking out for the fans in that way,” reassured creator Jac Schaeffer.
WandaVision, is a show that hints at an exciting new freedom to tell superhero stories, an entire world of possibilities — but also shows that at the end of the day, that world is an illusion, haunted by the ghosts of legacy shows, shackled to the same extended universe that requires stories to pay homage to the past, and prepare us for the endless Sisyphean roll-out of more and more stories, until one day the bubble breaks.
WandaVision is currently streaming on Disney+. It’s really fun and great!
Patrick Lenton is the Editor of Junkee. He tweets @patricklenton.