It’s time for the latest installment of my episode by episode reviews of WandaVision, Marvel’s new sitcom parody/Dickian faux reality paranoia. Previous installments may be found here. Also, may I remind you that Disney is still not paying Alan Dean Foster and others.
Warning: Spoilers and pretty significant ones at that behind the cut!
In Westview – or rather the Westview anomaly a.k.a. the Maximoff anomaly – time has advanced to the late 1980s or early 1990s, judging by wardrobe and hairstyles, but Wanda and Vision are still dealing with the troubles of parenthood. More precisely, the twins refuse to sleep or stop crying and neither Wanda’s magic nor pacifiers can help.
The titles sequence is clearly modelled on the title sequence for the US sitcom Family Ties, which ran from 1982 to 1989 and gave the world Michael J. Fox. The family portrait, the type face, the sappy theme music, it’s almost a one on one copy, though the bit with the photos of the cast members at different ages was borrowed from the intro of another US sitcom called Growing Pains, which aired from 1985 to 1992. Courtney Enlow breaks down the title sequence and traces the influences at io9 and also finds a scene inspired by Full House, another 1980s family sitcom, which is notable for starring Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, the real life sisters of Elizabeth Olsen (who plays Wanda), as the requisite cute sitcom kid. Talking of influences, I’m surprised that WandaVision didn’t riff on Married with Children, which dates from the same period and was hugely popular, though maybe not idyllic enough. I do understand why they didn’t riff on The Cosby Show, because I guess everybody would rather forget that show ever existed and that Bill Cosby had a lengthy career in spite of being a sex offender.
But while WandaVision borrows the visuals, it does not borrow the central conflict of Family Ties, which contrasts the 1960s hippies parents (though they do look terribly conservative in the footage I’ve seen) with their Reagan-voting would-be yuppie son Michael J. Fox and shallow airhead of an older daughter. I’m glad that WandaVision eschews that central trope, because it sounds absolutely terrible. I’m also glad that I never saw the show (which did air in Germany, but at a time when there was much more exciting fare such as US action shows like The A-Team or Knight Rider available), because it would have made me dislike Michael J. Fox, who’s actually an amazingly likeable actor. Also, speaking as someone who actually was a teen during the 1980s, that show looks about as far removed from my actual life at the time and that of my friends as a TV show from an alien planet. Were there shallow jerks like Michael J. Fox’s character? Of course, there were. But everybody hated them.
Once more, the 1980s fashions and interior design are pitch perfect, though the episode remains in widescreen, whereas a real 1980s sitcom would have been in 4:3 ratio. Even the hairstyles are right for the period, which is quite a feat, because not only are 1980s hairstyles incredibly ugly seen through 2020 eyes (though I also found them ugly back in the day and refused to have anything like that done to my poor hair), but they’re also very difficult to recreate, because 1980s hairstyling products contained a lot of harmful substances that have since been banned, with the result that period hairstyles never hold for long, when receated with modern, gentler products. That said, both Wanda and Agnes are dressed period accurate – I wore that pants and vest combo a lot in the 1980s and I also had that plaid blouse – but a lot more fashionable than real 1980s sitcom Moms. Look at the mother characters in the clips linked throughout this post and compare them to Wanda and Agnes. What Wanda and Agnes are wearing are young women’s styles, closer to what the daughters in those shows are wearing. And even the daughters are dressed frumpier in many scenes.
Luckily for Wanda and Vision, Agnes drops by in full 1980s aerobic get-up and offers to babysit. For some reason, Agnes is not at all bothered by Wanda’s superfast pregnancy. Vision is wary about letting Agnes babysit, since he’s clearly suffering from the New Dad jitters. Maybe Vision and Din Djarin could form a New Dad support group, since they both have a bad case of the New Dad jitters with regard to letting other people watch their young ones.
Wanda eventually convinces Vision to let Agnes have a go, when two very strange things happen. The first is that Agnes fluffs a line and asks Wanda, if she wants her to redo the take, much to the confusion of Vision. This and subsequent events suggest that Agnes is aware that she’s living in a sitcom, even if Vision still has no idea (though he, too, is waking up). This also reinforces that question: Just who exactly is Agnes? Clearly, she’s just not another mindcontrolled citizen of Westview, but who or what is she? And why do we never see her husband Ralph? Does Ralph even exist? Also, what became of the missing witness Agent Woo was looking for in Westview? Is Agnes maybe that witness? And what exactly did she witness?
More alarming is what happens when Agnes finally succeeds in getting the kids to sleep. Wanda and Vision suddenly realise that the incessant crying has stopped and go check on the cribs, only to find them empty. Instead, Billy and Tommy are standing right there, aged approximately five.
Now rapid aging of child characters was apparently a thing on US TV for a long time, both to avoid the legal issues and restrictions of working with child actors and to allow for more exciting storylines than changing nappies. Though I mainly recall rapid aging from soap operas, where a kid who’d only just been born was suddenly a teenager with teen storylines barely a year later. Initially, I chalked those phenomena down to having missed a lot of episodes (as a teen, I could only watch US soap operas during school holidays, so I naturally missed a lot of episodes), but I couldn’t possibly have missed ten years or more worth of episodes, especially since all the other characters still looked the same. However, kids on US sitcoms mostly seemed to age in real time to the point that a sitcom family would inevitably adopt a younger kid (often a peviously unseen niece or nephew), once the youngest kids of the family had aged out of the “cute” stage. This happened on The Brady Bunch, The Cosby Show and others as well. Even the Family Ties show that the intro is modelled after added a younger kid (who was rapidly aged between seasons) in response to the real life pregnancy of the actress who played the mother, while the Growing Pains show mentioned also included a surprise pregnancy for the mother which resulted in another cute kid for the family.
Wanda and Vision are as surprised about the rapidly aging twins as everybody, which suggests this isn’t Wanda’s doing, at least not consciously. Agnes, meanwhile, is remarkably blasé about it all. “Oh, they grow up so fast.”
The next scene shows Billy and Tommy clearly attempting to hide something from Wanda in the kitchen sink. That something turns out to be a cute little dog. Tommy and Billy of course want to keep the dog. Wanda doesn’t want them to, because taking care of a living thing is a huge responsibility (yeah, Wanda should know considering she’s kidnapped a whole town). Agnes, who drops by once again, thinks the kids should keep the dog. Vision finally tells the boys that they’re not allowed to have a pet until they’re ten, whereupon Billy and Tommy age up by another five years. Wanda seems genuinely surprised, suggesting that this wasn’t her doing, but rather that of the boys who seem to have inherited their Mom’s abilities. Come to think of it, Wanda seems genuinely surprised at the dog as well. And of course, Billy and Tommy get to keep the dog whom they name Sparky. Meanwhile, Agnes is once more not at all fazed at what’s happening right in front of her eyes. Honestly, what does it take to faze that woman?
If Billy and Tommy keep growing up at the rate they are, they should be ready to join the Young Avengers by the end of the show, which is also what they did in the comics. For those keeping track at home, in the comics Billy – that’s the twin dressed in red with the shorter hair – is gay and in a longterm committed relationship with Hulkling. Tommy – the twin in blue with the longer hair – is straight and had a complictaed relationship with Kate Bishop, who has been confirmed to be popping up in the upcoming Hawkeye show.
Unlike previous episodes, this episode skips between the sitcom reality and the real world outside Westview. And so we see Monica Rambeau being debriefed and given a medical examination, after Wanda forcibly ejected her from Westview. Monica turns out to be fine, though her CT scans are messed up, suggesting that maybe she’s about to experience a bout of superpower development. Monica also confirms that Wanda was controlling her and that it was painful. However, she also thinks that Wanda is not actively hostile and that she actually protected Monica from getting killed, as she was ejected from Westview. Finally, Monica also confirms that the twins really are Wanda’s children – after all, she helped to deliver them.
Meanwhile, Hayward, the S.W.O.R.D. director and Monica’s boss, proves himself to be a complete and utter arsehole. Unlike Monica, he is completely sure of what is going on in Westview and that it’s all Wanda’s fault. Hayward also offers us a recap of Wanda’s career in the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far, that she and twin brother Pietro were orphaned young and later radicalised, that they got their powers from Hydra and initially used them against the Avengers in service to Ultron, before changing sides. Hayward also digs up some other less than stellar moments from Wanda’s Avengers career such as Wanda accidentally blowing up the wrong building during an Avengers mission in Lagos, Nigeria, also referenced in this week’s fake commercial, which is for Lagos brand paper towels, which mop up every mess you can possibly make. Also note that the liquid used in the demonstration is bright red, when it’s always blue in real commercials, because red looks like blood and yellow like pee. Finally, the actors in the fake commercial are the same actors as in previous fake commercials.
However, Hayward makes the same mistake that plenty of people make, when he claims that the airport trashing fight that Wanda was involved in along with pretty much every other Avenger past and present took place in West Berlin. First of all, West Berlin hasn’t been a thing since 1990, it’s just Berlin now and has been for thirty years. Secondly, the airport fight doesn’t actually take place at any of Berlin’s airports (it had up to three at one point with a fourth that opened last year), but at the airport Halle-Leipzig in the town of Schkeuditz approx. 175 kilometres south of Berlin. They don’t even make any attempt to disguise this – gangways and air bridges emblazoned with “Airport Halle-Leipzig” are clearly visible in several shots. The surrounding area doesn’t fit Berlin either – after all, War Machine crashes and break his spin on a potato field outside Schkeuditz, which again is very visibly there. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve driven past that very field, when visiting my great-aunt in Schkeuditz. Coincidentally, the movie where all this happens, Captain American: Civil War, is known as “The Avengers in Schkeuditz” in this house, though it’s still my least favourite of all Marvel Cinematic Universe movies and the only one I’ve never rewatched (I’ve even rewatched the not very good Hulk movie). The fact that part of it was shot in Schkeuditz is the only good thing about it (okay, and it introduced Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther, whom we lost much too soon) and even there I’m not a fan of the large-scale property destruction (“If you must wreck an airport, Avengers, wreck fucking Atlanta!”) nor of the fact that they shot in Schkeuditz only to completely erase the town. Honestly, I think Captain America: Civil War would have been a better movie, if it had just been the Avengers sitting in my great-aunt’s parlour in Schkeuditz (or rather in the courtyard of her apartment building, since the parlour is too small for several Avengers, particularly oversized ones like Hulk, Thor and Giant Man. I’m also not sure if Aunt Metel’s furniture would have survived Iron Man and War Machine in full armour), chatting and having coffee or barbecue.
Finally, Hayward also reports that Wanda broke into a S.W.O.R.D. facility to steal Vision’s dismembered body, against Vision’s explicit wishes (he did not want to be reanimated for fears of being turned into a weapon) and in defiance of the Sakovia Accords, which forbid reanimating people. Of course, if the Avengers had followed the Sakovia Accords, none of the people Thanos killed – half of the population of the entire universe – would have come back to life. Never mind that I’m pretty sure that Vision did not want S.W.O.R.D. to dismember his remnants either. And what precisely does S.W.O.R.D., an agency we’ve never heard of before, want with Vision’s body? And why did they dismember him, when Vision was in one piece – minus mindstone – in Avengers Infinity War and Endgame? Finally – and that’s probably the most disturbing thing about this scene – we now know that the Vision walking around in Westview is a reanimated and stitched together corpse. He’s basically a zombie.
Agent Woo points out that Hayward’s summary of Wanda’s superhero career is way too simplified and Monica remarks that she’s pretty sure that Wanda has no political motive and doesn’t meant to harm anybody, so she’s hardly a terrorist, whereupon Hayward reminds Monica – complete with live footage – that Wanda turned her into a blaxploitation cliché. Darcy sums it up best when she says that Hayward is an arsehole. Coincidentally, Hayward is also very reminiscing of all of those politicians and suit wearers who wanted to outlaw or imprison the X-Men throughout decades of comics. Apparently, when Disney bought back the X-Men rights along with all of 20th Century Fox, they also purchased anti-mutant prejudice along with it.
However, Wanda not just changed Monica into a blaxploitation cliché, it also turns out that Monica’s groovy 1970s ensemble is bulletproof, because Wanda physically changed Monica’s clothes – which included a bulletproof vest – to suit the setting. This gives Darcy, Monica and Jimmy Woo an idea. Maybe, if they send in something that fits the 1980s setting, like an old drone, they can outwit Wanda and make contact. We also learn that Monica is not happy when Agent Woo accidentally mentions Captain Marvel, probably because she hasn’t seen Carol in 25 years or so.
Meanwhile, inside the Westview anomaly – or the Hex, as Darcy calls it – Wanda’s little sitcom paradise is slowly unravelling. Sparky has gone missing and Vision has gone to work, even though – as the twins point out – it’s Saturday. We do get another scene set in Vision’s office – the first since episode 1 – and the 1980s have also arrived there in the form of clunky Commodore computers and e-mail. It’s interesting that the jokes in the office segment – Do we need a letter opener for the e-mail? Do we need a stamp? – are jokes that are squarely aimed at a contemporary audience. No genuine 1980s sitcom would have made those jokes, because a lot of people wouldn’t have gotten them. The e-mail that Vision, Norm and everybody else in the office receives turns out to be a message from Darcy Lewis about the Westview anomaly, which everybody is reciting in almost hypnotic fashion. It’s not clear whether the e-mail was another attempt by Darcy to contact someone inside Westview or whether it was an accident. Vision now clearly realises that something is very wrong and shortcircuits Norm, briefly shocking him awake. “Norm” is frantic, because he’s worried about his father and sister. He also begs Vision to make “her” (presumably Wanda) stop, because it hurts. Vision finally resets Norm and heads home to confront Wanda.
Meanwhile, Wanda and the twins are searching for the missing Sparky, when Wanda spots the drone and glares up at it. Monica tries to use the drone to communicate with Wanda, but once again Hayward has tricked her and the drone is armed. He orders the drone to fire on Wanda – never mind that the ten-year-old twins are standing right there next to her – and the screen goes to static. At the same time, an alarm goes off in the S.W.O.R.D. compound outside Westview. Something or rather someone is breaching the barrier that cuts Westview off from the rest of the world. Everybody hastens outside and who emerges from the barrier but Wanda – dressed in her regular MCU superhero costume (she has never worn her iconic comic costume on screen) – dragging the trashed drone behind her. She also has her Sakovian accent, which was absent in the sitcom scenes, back. Wanda is seriously pissed off and boy, you won’t like her when she’s angry. Wanda basically tells Hayward and S.W.O.R.D. to go away and leave her alone and never bother her again. She also causes the various S.W.O.R.D operatives to point their guns at Hayward instead of at her. Monica tries to argue with Wanda and also tells her that she had no idea the drone was armed, but Wanda isn’t having any of it. She doesn’t want to argue, she wants to be left alone.
So far, the Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn’t really done much with Wanda, who’s after all one of the most powerful characters in the Marvel Universe proper. However, WandaVision in general and this scene in particular show the Wanda I remember from the comics, a Wanda who’s very screwed up, very powerful and very dangerous. Also – and maybe that’s wrong of me – I cheered when Wanda told off Hayward and the other S.W.O.R.D. agents.
That said, what Wanda is doing – roping innocent people into her little sitcom universe – is clearly wrong. I don’t think anybody would mind Wanda playing happy family with Vision and the twins, but she did kidnap a whole town to do so. If Wanda truly is the one in charge here, which isn’t entirely clear either.
Back in Westview, tragedy strikes. For when Wanda and the twins finally find Sparky, the poor little fellow has expired after eating Azalea leaves in Agnes’ garden. Yes, WandaVision just killed a dog, which is supposedly a huge taboo in US popular culture, particularly lighter fare such as sitcoms. The kids are heartbroken and even Agnes the unfazable seems genuinely shocked. “Make it right, Mom”, the boys beg Wanda, “Bring him back”, which suggests that the twins know very well what their Mom is capable of. “You can do that?” a genuinely surprised Agnes asks Wanda. Wanda says that she can’t bring back the dead (though she did bring back Vision), because death is forever, and that the boys will get over the loss in time, though this doesn’t mean they should quick age again. “But you said family is forever, Mom”, one of the twins says. You can almost see something clicking inside Wanda’s head, though she’ll bring back something or rather someone far bigger and more important than Sparky the cute dog.
But first Wanda has to deal with Vision who’s home and wants to know what’s up. Vision point blank tells Wanda that he knows that she’s controlling everything and keeps rearranging the sets and the town overnight. He also tells her that she must stop, because she’s hurting real people like “Norm”. Wanda counters that the idea that she is controlling a whole town and everybody inside is ridiculous. Then Vision drops another bombshell. “Why are there no children other than the twins in Westview?” he asks. This made me frantically think of the past few episodes, but unless I’m mistaken, we really haven’t seen any children in Westview, even though it’s exactly the sort of place where families with children would live. Which makes the benefit performance “For the Children” in episode 2 even more creepy than it already was.
Wanda doesn’t want to argue with Vision and just lets the credits roll. However, her control is slipping and so we get a Wanda versus Vision confrontation – complete with flying and powers flaring – in the living room over the credits. “You never were like this before…” Wanda says and you know she almost would have blurted out, “Before you died.” Vision, meanwhile, reveals that he does not remember his life before Westview, none of it. And Wanda reveals that she doesn’t know how the whole Westview thing started. So even if Wanda is controlling everybody, is she herself being controlled? And by whom?
The argument is interrupted by the doorbell ringing. Vision thinks that Wanda is rearranging the plot again to suit her purposes, only that this time he’s having none of that. “That’s not my doing”, Wanda says and opens the door, only to find herself face to face with her twin brother Pietro, who’s very much dead. Only that this isn’t the Pietro we encountered in Age of Ultron, who was played by Aaron Taylor Johnson, but the Pietro from Fox’s X-Men movies, played by Evan Peters, and looking like the typical 1980s cool dude comic relief character.
“She recast Pietro”, Darcy exclaims, referring to the many instances in various US TV shows, where characters have been recast with different actors. Even the MCU has done it, replacing Terrence Howard’s Jim Rhodes in the first Iron Man movie with Don Cheadle in all subsequent appearances of the character, replacing Edward Norton’s Hulk in the not very good Hulk movie (which is still part of the MCU continuity) with Mark Ruffalo and also replacing the blonde one of the Warriors Three in the Thor films. However, Wanda didn’t just recast Pietro (and she seems as surprised as anybody else to see him), she happened to recast Pietro with his counterpart from the Fox X-Men movies. So did she plug Pietro from another universe? And is this a way to explain away discrepancies between the Fox X-Men movies and potential future Marvel/Disney X-Men movies as “Well, it’s a different universe?” as well as to allow other recastings and bringing back characters from the dead? Whatever, this was a genuinely surprising development.
In addition to the title sequence, another thing that WandaVision borrowed from Family Ties (and other sitcoms of the period) is the awkward juxtaposition of comedy moments, complete with laugh track, and serious moments. Here’s is an example from YouTube where Michael J. Fox is dealing with a bad case of survivor’s guilt after a friend died in a car crash, while the daughter tries to cheer him with not particularly helpful remarks and that bloody laugh track is still playing in the background, while Michael J. Fox is breaking down from grief. Honestly, look at that clip. It seems as if Michael J. Fox isn’t even in the same show as the woman who plays his sister. Though characters dying in car crashes seems to have been a thing in 1980s US sitcoms. Here is a clip from Growing Pains where a friend of the daughter has just died in hospital following a car crash. Though at least here the laugh track shuts up, once the brother delivers the bad news. Meanwhile, here’s another example of misplaced laugh tracks: Michael J. Fox is developing a drug problem, his parents are remarkably supportive (well, they were 1960s hippies and probably had drug experiences themselves) and that stupid laugh track is playing in the background over a dramatic scene. Truly, the US sitcom is a very strange form of entertainment. Though watching those clips, it’s not difficult to see why Michael J. Fox became a huge star, since he’s acting his heart out there. However, he still doesn’t even seem to be in the same show as the rest of the cast.
Coincidentally, those sitcom episodes with more serious moments, often involving the death of a supporting character or drugs as well as a neat moral lesson, were often labeled as “A Very Special Episode”, which is echoed in the title of this episode of WandaVision. We do have a death in this episode, that of Sparky the cute little dog (Rest in Peace), as well as not one but two deaths undone, Vision’s and Pietro’s. And while all WandaVision episodes to date had their share of creepy and serious moments, this episode fully alternates between comedic and serious moments, often within the same scene. And it’s just as awkward as in the 1980s sitcom clips I linked above. One of the things WandaVision is doing very well is highlighting what a very strange and artificial form of entertainment the US sitcom is.
In his review, Camestros Felapton says that WandaVision is difficult to evaluate episode by episode, because it’s a very strange show, which shifts from episode to episode, and we’re not quite sure if the pay-off will live up to the build up. And indeed, these reviews often end up being more plot summary than reviews, though I usually find more than enough to write about – as well as look up some truly terrible looking vintage sitcoms on YouTube – even though the actual plot is usually quite slight.
We’re one episode past the halfway point, so it’s still too early to tell just where WandaVision is going. However, so far the ride has been intriguing enough that I want to keep watching and that’s all that matters. Will the pay-off eventually live up to the build-up? We’ll see.