▶︎ WandaVision (nine episodes) is streaming on Disney+.

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In Living in Harmony, a 1967 episode of The Prisoner, viewers already baffled by the show’s various mysteries were further flummoxed by what seemed to be an entirely different iteration of the series. That week, Number Six (Patrick McGoohan) was not a retired spy in the cosily sinister Village but a troubled sheriff in a western town called Harmony.

At the end of the episode, it transpired that the protagonist was in a virtual-reality simulacrum of the sort of TV western that was already going out of fashion. McGoohan and company were evoking a behind-the-times genre for one episode… though there were no prizes for being ahead of the times, not least in doing a virtual reality story decades before the term was coined.

Since 1967, it’s become almost obligatory for every show to experiment with an out-of-genre retro-styled episode: black-and-white film noir, musical, found footage / docudrama, or sitcom with a laugh track.

WandaVision, a nine-episode miniseries, serves the function of these ‘very special episodes’ for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Ambiguously superpowered sorceress Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) aka ‘the Scarlet Witch’ and her android (more precisely, ‘synthezoid’) love interest the Vision (Paul Bettany) settle in the archetypal American town of Westview, a region of the Twilight Zone adjacent to the classic American situation comedy. For obvious reasons, there’s a particular nod to Bewitched (1964-72), in which a witch and her mortal husband do their best to live normally, despite her magic powers.

WandaVision (2021)

Creator Jac Schaeffer, who wrote and directed the smart 2009 science-fiction romcom TiMER (star Emma Caulfield takes a significant role in Westview), draws on I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show and other rerun fodder, playing a longer game than the comparable Pleasantville (1998) with an opening salvo of episodes that are almost pastiche rather than the expected superheroic fare. Each inhabits a different decade: 1950s (Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience), 60s (Don’t Touch That Dial) and 70s (Now in Color).

It’s much more than slapping live audience laughter on the soundtrack and including commercials for a Stark toaster or a Hydra watch. WandaVision deploys details of art direction, performance style, camerawork and effects to evoke the time periods (plus witty theme tunes / songs / title sequences).

In Episode 2, Vision’s works are literally gummed up and he drunkenly bungles a charity show magic act. Bettany and Olsen pull off a slapstick routine that’s lukewarm in the way the mostly inoffensive models were when they ventured into physical comedy – albeit with the genuinely sinister/hilarious element that the characters are so authentically superpowered a mishap could level the community (if not the universe).

Salted throughout are hints that other eyes are watching, and we get moments when – purely through lighting, camera movement and tone of voice – sunny sitcom darkens into noirish horror. Nevertheless, the first episodes might prove as hard to connect with what has come before as Living in Harmony was with The Prisoner. It was a risk to kick off the MCU’s presence on the Disney+ streaming platform with something so apparently niche and disorienting…

The MCU has been around since Iron Man (2008), drawing on comics published by Marvel since the late 1930s (though mostly from the 60s on). A complication is that rights to key Marvel properties (Spider-Man, the X-Men) have been in other hands, and present in active film franchises separate from the integrated Marvel movies.

Olsen debuted as Wanda in the coda of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) before being properly introduced in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) as an antagonist who comes over to the good guys’ side – as her comics original did in 1965, leaving the first line-up of Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants for the second lineup of The Avengers.

Paul Bettany has been on board as the voice of artificial intelligence JARVIS since Iron Man, appearing in red-faced person when JARVIS was transferred to the synthezoid body in Age of Ultron.

Wanda and Vision became an item in Captain America: Civil War (2016), which also, significantly, demonstrated how unstable her powers were. Vision became one of the few apparently permanent casualties of Avengers: Infinity War (2018), and a grieving Wanda soldiered on in Avengers: Endgame (2019) – a rare Avenger actually avenging something.

The screen continuity streamlines the mess of the characters’ much-revised comics backstories. Wanda and her brother Pietro (aka Quicksilver) have had at least four sets of ‘real’ parents and the Vision was once a make-over of the 1940s android version of the Human Torch, though his name (and look) came from a non-robot spectral character of the same vintage.

The germs of WandaVision seem to be three vastly different comics runs: a 1985 Vision and the Scarlet Witch series in which the couple move to the suburbs and start a family (the twins who arrive in Now In Color); the Avengers Disassembled/House of M event written in 2004-05 by Brian Michael Bendis, in which Wanda, literally driven mad by constant retconning of her backstory, reshapes the universe according to her brother’s fantasies; and an outstanding recent run on Vision by writer Tom King, in which the divorced synthezoid creates a robot family and tries to understand human life.

Though longstanding heroic figures, Wanda and the Vision have both made their biggest splashes by going mad and proving the sort of threat that needs an Endgame-style assembly of heroes to put a stop to. Possibly complicating things for WandaVision is the fact that Marvel’s screen universes have recently had their own upheavals, with key rights being reacquired by Disney – so the Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) killed off in Age of Ultron might be overwritten by the ‘Peter’ (Evan Peters) of Fox’s X-Men films. With consolidation also came an awareness that Fox was making X-related items – the Deadpool films, the TV show Legion – whose invention and ambition cast shade on slick, aesthetically conservative MCU tentpoles. WandaVision is a chance to try something more daring.

It remains to be seen whether the series will sustain its nine-episode run. The rapid passage of decade styles (with colour arriving in Episode 3) matches the way the characters have changed yet stayed the same age since their print debuts in the 1960s.

Episode 4, We Interrupt This Program, is pitched to pull back in viewers who might be running out of patience with sitcom meta-jokes, such as the office where no one is sure what the company they work for actually makes. Picking up from the finale of Endgame, with those dispelled in Thanos’s Blip reassembling, it is revealed that a key character – neighbour Geraldine (Teyonah Parris) – is someone we’ve met before (as a child in Captain Marvel, 2019). Also jumping aboard are stray supporting characters from other MCU sub-franchises – FBI Agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) from Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) and wry physicist Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) from the first two Thor movies.

As we suspected, the pocket universe of Westview is surrounded by the larger MCU, though that seems to be at the heart of an expanding multiverse. Almost hidden among all the jokes and threads from other films is that Elizabeth Olsen is doing extraordinarily subtle work (her best screen acting since Martha Marcy May Marlene in 2011) as arguably the most terrifying character in the franchise. Her powers, and the way she uses them when reality becomes unbearable, could conceivably fracture the whole project, allowing for infinite reboots, standalones and story arcs that promise everything imaginable except an ending.

End-of-season update

Evan Peters as Pietro/Quicksilver

Perhaps inevitably, the remainder of the series – the above was written after viewing the first four episodes – has had to work hard on explanations (mostly elegant) while setting up future dovetailing into the ongoing Marvel project, with Wanda – finally dubbed ‘the Scarlet Witch’ – set to slingshot into the next Dr Strange movie.

Among the coups of the latter stages of the serial are the inclusion of Evan Peters as a version of Wanda’s brother Pietro (aka the mutant speedster Quicksilver) ported in from an alternate cinematic universe (Fox’s X-Men franchise), the transformation of Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) into a super-powered being liable to serve as a supporting character in the next Captain Marvel film, and the reveal that chatty neighbour Agnes (Kathryn Hahn) is actually Wanda’s possible arch-nemesis Agatha Harkness (wonderfully conveyed with one of the series’ witty theme songs, It Was Agatha All Along).

Kathryn Hahn as Agnes/Agatha Harkness

The gradual winding-down of the sitcom nightmare in favour of more conventional superheroic elements – including the ever-popular spectacle of levitating characters tossing colour-coded energy bolts at each other, and make-overs that allow for new merchandising-friendly looks for old friends – means a shift away from the quirkiness of the decade-specific pastiches.

However, Schaeffer and director Matt Shakman (who has handled the whole series) have compensated by ramping up the emotional underpinning, especially in Episode 8 (‘Previously On’). This deftly doles out the missing pieces and comes up with a rationale for the big question (‘why sit-coms?’) that leads to the most affecting, strange sequence of the series as Wanda glumly watches an episode of Malcolm in the Middle for comfort but needs to be reminded by an artificial being that the show might actually be funny.

Embedded in the backstory is It May Look Like a Walnut, a 1963 Twilight Zone parody episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show in which Dick dreams alien walnuts have taken over his supporting cast. It’s exactly the sort of paranoid, they’re-out-to-get-me solipsism that WandaVision very effectively restages as Vision explores the fringes of Westview where the spell is wearing thin, and finally Wanda is beset by townsfolk who are suddenly free of mind control.