Disney’s multi-billion dollar MCU owes a huge debt to popular culture. Just ask its fans, the nerdiest of whom have spent hours putting Spider-Man’s best Star Wars references on YouTube, or memorising every Easter egg in Captain America: Civil War. Obviously, Marvel boss Kevin Feige knows the value of paying homage to your predecessors. And in WandaVision, the franchise’s first Disney+ series, he and his team of writers borrow even more from the past.
Parcelled up into nine bitesize chapters, the new show follows two of the films’ less-pivotal Avengers – Wanda and Vision. Somewhere along the 23-film Marvel arc, the pair fell in love – but tragically, Paul Bettany’s density-manipulating android was murdered and Wanda (played by Elizabeth Olsen) was left to hunt down his purple-mugged killer Thanos using her telekinetic superpowers. So how, in WandaVision, are they seen happily married, living out their ideal suburban lives through the prism of classic American sitcoms?
There’s clearly something funny going on – and not just the smartly written jokes that fill every episode. The first, which opens on the newlyweds arrival at their new home, takes its cues from quirky ‘50s comedies like Lucille Ball’s I Love Lucy, complete with canned laughter and sets that can only be filmed from one angle. But as each instalment ends, the locations jump forward about a decade to the ‘60s (Bewitched, The Dick Van Dyke Show), the Technicolor ‘70s (All In The Family, The Brady Bunch) and so on. As a concept it could grow tiresome, but every so often a neighbour says something strange or a garbled message will play through the radio: “Wanda, who’s doing this to you?” Just like in Jim Carrey’s The Truman Show, the couple slowly start to suspect that their storybook reality isn’t what it seems.
Impressively, the format really works. Marvel isn’t known for messing with its formula, but the big leap from cinema to streaming calls for a bold play – and WandaVision delivers. Nostalgia-phobes might soon grow bored of the ‘Honey, I’m home!’ shtick, but a slowly unwinding mystery should keep most of us hooked from week-to-week, even if beige wallpaper and oddly-patterned carpets aren’t your thing. A lack of assumed knowledge may be a problem – how soon would you realise the sitcom setting was a sham if you hadn’t seen the Avengers in action? But with its short runtimes, there’s not quite enough time to get fed up with dodgy gags or old-timey over-acting. Instead, you’ll probably be giddy to see which TV family gets the MCU treatment next. Add to that a pair of superhuman turns from Olsen and Bettany, plus Kathryn Hahn’s hilariously zany neighbour Agnes (seriously, expect Emmys), and you’ve got Disney’s next comic book hit.
Of course, Feige and head writer Jac Schaeffer will eventually have to flip the plot back to reality – and this is where things could get sticky. Pinning the show’s success on how fans take to its inventive format could backfire when you take away the reason they loved the series in the first place. But that’s a problem for later. From the three episodes we’ve seen so far, this deep-dive into America’s treasure chest of telly treats isn’t going back in the box anytime soon.