There is a common practice within television reviewing to write only about the first episode, and not consider the series as a whole. It is a practice born out of necessity, because critics are often only granted a single episode preview and need to get their opinions out in order to catch the wave of enthusiasm around the show. Nevertheless, it is something I generally don’t like because, with television, a show can never properly be considered until it has had the run of a full series, with storylines fully formed and characters properly shaped. Thus, this review of WandaVision (2021) is the perfect candidate to become the first of my “Snapshot” reviews. This means that I will take a detailed look at one of its scenes and shape the review around what this clip tells us about the nature of the WandaVision in its current state, rather than making great claims about the quality of a show that has only just begun.
The scene in question occurs early in the second episode. Having been disturbed in the middle of the night by a strange banging outside the window, the following morning Vision (Paul Bettany) goes to work leaving Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) alone in the house. She hears the banging again, so she timidly ventures outside where she spots a very out-of-place helicopter toy; a spark of startling red in a black and white world. Before she can get to the bottom of this mystery, she is loudly interrupted by the friendly next-door neighbour Agnes (Katheryn Hahn), and things return to the monochromatic style to which the first episode has made us accustomed. The first thing to note about this scene is how the first shot exemplifies the unusual style of WandaVision, a piece of work much different to anything else in the Marvel canon. From the costuming, to the hair and make-up, to the set design, to Olsen’s performance, the whole tone and aesthetic of WandaVision is from a different era, a homage to or perhaps a parody of the sitcoms of the 1960s, particularly Bewitched (1964-72). Olsen is brilliant as the bumbling housewife, and Bettany excellent as he plays Vision as a mid-level office worker; the typical man having a mid-life crisis that is a staple of the type of show WandaVision is pretending to be. And, indeed, if this is all that the show turned out to be, it would already be a hell of a treat – something unique and gloriously funny in its own right – our knowledge of the characters and their powers adding a layer of self-awareness to an already funny sitcom set-up where the audience are in on the joke.
But, of course, there is more to it than that. Something sinister lurks beneath the surface; an air of menace that threatens to break out every time a flash of colour invades the screen. This is certainly the case with that red helicopter that rests in that perfectly manicured hedge like the ear from Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986) – a mysterious foreign object that could tear apart the manufactured utopia of the white picket fences of suburban America. It is the sharpness of the red that pierces the monochrome with seemingly oversaturated Technicolor that really draws our attention to it. And red is the colour that returns whenever we get these flashes – be it Vision’s natural skin colour or blood flowing from a cut to the hand, it is always red. Whether that is because red has been the visual representation of Wanda’s powers throughout the Marvel Universe, or because of the more common connotations with red – anger and danger, or perhaps love – only time will tell, but it is a fascinating trope started by this innocuous helicopter that permeates the episode until the final moments where the black and white loses the battle against the invading colour.
More than just colour, however, the helicopter is clearly intended to be sinister. As Wanda picks it up to study it, the soundtrack shifts in tone. So far, the music has been light and jolly, reflecting the humorous atmosphere and the carefree dashings of magic that Wanda occasionally performs. There has been no danger or threat and no real antagonist. Within a few seconds of staring at a toy, the soundtrack changes all of that. The score becomes sinister and full of an eerie dread, crescendoing in intensity until Agnes comes along like a jump scare to cut through the tension. It gives us our first hint towards a delicious mystery that I can only hope will unravel throughout the series. And Agnes’s sudden interruption also casts her into suspicion as well, perhaps her jovial nature and typical 60s style being a façade for whatever lies beneath. In fact, the same could be said for most of the supporting characters, their eyes somewhat empty, their grins somewhat fake, suggesting something akin to The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998), but on a superhero level. And of course, just like The Truman Show, this forces us to confront our own role as spectators to whatever is happening to Wanda and Vision, and, if indeed they are in some sort of constructed television show as it subtly appears, perhaps forces us to question our own roles in the success of damaging reality TV.
That is a lot to glean from a thirty-second scene, but it just shows the depth and quality of the two episodes of WandaVision so far, and how excited I am about the direction the series might take. What’s more, with episodes only thirty minutes long, and with the tone as light as it has been, it is so easy to consume and enjoy, and works on a multitude of levels, be it as a funny 60s-style sitcom or a mysterious superhero drama. I talked in my review of Spiderman: Far From Home (Jon Watts, 2019) about the need for Marvel to continue to adapt to stay fresh and interesting, and this is exactly what they do in WandaVision. The first two episodes feel so different and exciting, I really hope it all continues building towards something extraordinary, instead of converging towards the generic superhero mean for the rest of the show’s run.
At time of writing, WandaVision is available to watch on Disney+.