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‘WandaVision: The Complete Series Collector’s Edition’ (Blu-ray review)

Disney

 WandaVision is basically four shows in one.

There’s the fun one that goes meta on sitcom visions of family life across the decades. There’s the unexpectedly poignant and honest one about grief. There’s the conventional, fate-of-the-universe-decided-daily smackdown involving Agatha Harkness and agents of S.W.O.R.D. And then there’s the one that served as a lead-in for Doctor Strange and the Multitude of Madness, Marvels, and ultimately a Scarlet Witch solo movie that may or may not center on Wanda’s son Billy/Wiccan, who also probably not coincidentally is expected to feature alongside his father White Vision in the upcoming Disney+ limited series Agatha: Coven of Chaos.

From a butts-in-seats perspective, only the franchise-building WandaVision matters, which is too bad because it renders all the other WandaVisions kind of pointless.

But that’s the state of Disney/Marvel these days (or was before the lackluster opening of Marvels triggered collective head-scratching), in which the purpose of stories is not to tell stories but to build I.P. for future stories. It’s like finding out that your folks bought a purebred puppy not so that you could play with it, but so they could use it for breeding purposes.

This is not a knock on sequels: there is a larger excitement in watching the evolution of Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff across multiple storylines, and WandaVision is a natural part of her arc. From her brother’s death in Avengers: Age of Ultron to the (first) death of Vision in Avengers: Infinity War, we’ve seen Wanda struggle from blind fanaticism to rage to a renewed sense of purpose: to find and protect the children she created as her shield against despair.

It’s not her capacity for good or evil that defines Wanda, but the very human ways she deals with loss. Next to her fellow Iron Curtain Maiden, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, Wanda is the leading contender for most hard-done-by heroine in the Marvel pantheon.

This is the WandaVision that matters.

The one where Wanda, overwhelmed by a lifetime of loss, creates a false reality where she’s living a “normal” life while still commanding immense power, where her husband Vision (the martini-dry, whimsical Paul Bettany) is still alive, where her children Billy and Tommy skip right past wailing and dirty diapers to become cute tweens, and where literally everyone in the town is devoted to protecting her sense of well-being.

Which they pretty much have to, since it turns out Wanda is mind-controlling all of them into playing their supporting roles. It’s a setup that reveals not only how pitiable Wanda is, but how dangerous she can be. When Agatha Harkness steps up to stop her, you almost think she’s got a point.

It’s not just the story, but the way it’s told, that makes WandaVision the most inventive Marvel series yet to appear on Disney+: not as heavy with easter eggs as Loki, not meta for its own sake like She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, WandaVision is quirky with a vengeance.

Most shows struggle to find a tone. WandaVision has many different tones—each one determined by the show it’s spoofing—and yet it always finds a way to put its influences at the service of a higher calling: the million and one ways that we use fictional proxy lives to protect us from facing our real one.

Most episodes of WandaVision start with a fake title sequence, direct homages to (among many others) I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bewitched, The Brady Bunch, Full House, Family Ties, Malcolm in the Middle, and Modern Family (the Disney legal department evidently had a hand in deciding that Wanda Maximoff’s taste run strongly to ABC-owned properties). The cinematography and animations are always letter-perfect to the era, but it’s the theme songs that lead the way. The married, EGOT-winning team of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez (The Book of Mormon, Avenue Q, Frozen) evidently had free rein from the studio, and it shows. “A Newlywed Couple” captures the chirpy tone of early ‘60s domestic sitcoms with early ‘60s lyrics that endlessly explain the setup. “We’ve Got Something Cooking” is Bill DeVol-inspired sunshine pop worthy of The Partridge Family. “Making it Up As We Go Along” has just the right note of ‘80s smarm, while “Let’s Keep It Going” lands hard in dysfunctional, early 2000s territory. How they manage to do this while also consistently working in Wanda’s four-note theme (a famously unmusical figure known to composers as The Devil’s Triad) is kind of magical in itself.

Each episode uses the stock devices and cliches of its source to chart the gradual collapse of Wanda’s illusion.

Episode One, “Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience,” pretends to be about the pressures of being the perfect hostess, but is in fact a comic reminder that Wanda’s power tends to chaos. Episode Five, “On a Very Special Episode…” is literally just that: the kids have to face the death of their beloved dog Sparky (whom they’ve know for maybe twenty minutes, which is just a little longer than they’ve existed at all). Episode Seven, “Breaking the Fourth Wall,” uses the mockumentary format to show the characters questioning their false reality: at one point, Vision realizes he’s stopped to give an interview right in the middle of a crisis.

If it was just about the fun stuff—the songs, the fake commercials, the deliberately sit-com-y dialogue—WandaVision would be a great watch. But it’s that second show I mentioned, the one that deals with grief, that lifts the show high above its peers. “What is grief if not love persevering?” Vision asks Wanda, a line so good and so true you’d swear it was lifted from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: no doubt memes of the future will attribute it to her. This is something Vision says not while he’s in the throes of Wanda’s mass hallucination, but after he discovers that he’s just a part of that hallucination. It’s not her husband that’s talking to her, but a ghost that exists only in her head. Anyone who’s ever experienced this kind of loss (i.e., everyone on the planet) knows what it’s like to be visited by that ghost. The only difference is that Wanda can do something about it.

The emergence of Agatha as a villain (revealed in a jazzy Munsters-inspired tune, the clear fan favorite) is a great moment in the show. Kathryn Hahn makes a smooth heel turn from attention-hungry wacky neighbor to power-hungry Salem witch. As much as Elizabeth Olson’s finely tuned Wanda, she’s a reason to watch the show. Unfortunately, from there it all devolves into predictable CGI-boosted territory: power blasts, smashed buildings, fleeing locals, ominous threats, a final reversal that the villain really should have seen coming because the audience did long ago. It’s one of those [insert action sequence] moments that you could probably skip over, unless you’re jonesing for an explanation of the Ship of Theseus paradox. Fortunately, what follows that predictability is pure gold.

There is a lot to unpack in the final moments—if you haven’t seen it, suffice to say that Wanda does face the reality of Vision’s death, as well as the consequences of using other people to prop up her self-delusions (another thing that grieving people have been known to do). It would be great to say that WandaVision completes her journey from denial to acceptance… but this is just one chapter in a larger story. Unlike the sitcoms it’s referencing, it’s not a journey that can be wrapped up in a single twenty-two minute episode.

Which is not an argument in favor of that fourth WandaVision I mentioned, the one where the story is mainly a device for luring us into other stories (if you’re up for that, have I got a post-credits sequence for you). If anything, it just underscores how bad I.P.-based storytelling is at dealing with real human experiences like loss. The point of a story is contained in its ending. Whether that ending is happy or not, it’s understood that we are saying goodbye to those characters when the story ends. This accounts for that powerful, bittersweet feeling we get when we close the book or when the house lights come up. We don’t want the magic to end, but we know it has to.

That’s stories. By their nature, I.P.-based characters are not allowed to die. They might take on a new identity when an actor drops out of the role (or not—just ask Eric Bana, Ed Norton, and Mark Ruffalo about that). They can and will be rebooted. But they themselves cannot die. Not as long as they’re still printing money for their copyright owners. This may be a quality they share with those old sitcoms, which are also endlessly syndicated and occasionally rebooted.

But then, as WandaVision is careful to show us, holding on to old sitcoms are what’s holding us back. Nostalgia is the Airbnb of the imagination: it’s fun to imagine yourself living there forever, but practically impossible. There may come a time—possibly very soon—when the MCU starts to feel nostalgic. It’s fun to explore, but it’s no way to live.

Extras include making off, featurette, deleted scenes, and gag reel.

If I could wish a fate for post-WandaVision Wanda Maximoff, it would not be to set the stage for the future adventures of Agatha or White Vision or Wiccan. It would simply be to continue her own story, the way we all do when a dream ends or a love dies. You say goodbye to what you had, you preserve the memories you want to keep, and you begin a new story.

If the next one’s as good as WandaVision, I’ll be there for it.

 

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