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WandaVision - Episodes 1-6 - Review: WandaVision is Brought to You By...

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Here’s the thing: I’m not a Tom Brady fan. I’m not a sports fan in general, but I specifically don’t like Tom Brady. Whether it be because I’m a shirked Seattleite still reeling from Super Bowl XLIX, because all I really know about him is how he deflates footballs (like I said, Seattle took that loss hard), or just because everybody else I know hates Tom Brady (again: Seattle), I'm simply not a fan. And even though I can recognize that he is an excellent football player who has earned much of his success, that does not keep the complex domino chain in my brain from searching for something wrong with him.

WandaVision - Marvel’s first outing into the TV game on Disney+ (emphasized the bitter and beleaguered Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. fanatic), is an upside-down, J.J. Abrams Puzzle Box of an homage to classic sitcoms. And it reminds me a lot of Tom Brady.

The thrilling series has garnered mountains of well-deserved praise for its production, acting and conceptual originality. To be clear, I have been loving the show as much as anyone, following along week to week in contemplative confusion - but I am not here to shovel much more praise onto the heap. Yes, this is a genre-bending, masterful mark of a brand new era of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, led by seamless, versatile performances by Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff and Paul Bettany as Vision. But something deep underneath WandaVision’s surface feels a bit broken to me, and instead of telling you what I’m sure you already know - yes, it’s good - I felt much more inclined toward picking at that scab; analyzing just why this show puts me off.

The first three episodes of WandaVision feel genius, uncannily imitating sitcoms ranging from I Love Lucy and Bewitched to The Brady Bunch and That Girl, with the closest replication of the "comic-in-live-action" feel I’ve seen since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man - all the while dropping dysphoric hints at a much more intense storyline. That storyline unfolds slowly but steadily week-to-week, beginning in the first with a single surreal moment at the dinner table and evolving into a narrative where nothing is as it seems in blissful Westview, the quaint little town in which Scarlet Witch and Vision have chosen to settle down and start a life together - or have they?

The longer we go on, the more the facade of our heroes' blissful suburban life begins to fade. Those in Westview are trapped, we discover, their minds being manipulated to play into the quaint fantasy of the typical TV family. As Vision slowly discovers the ruse, he desperately tries to find a way for them to be rescued, as he, Wanda, and cheery neighbor Agnes (Kathryn Hahn) are the only ones who indicate any recognition of the addled nature of their reality.

And on the other side of “The Hex,” the spiffy name for the hexagonal-shaped prison that prevents anyone from getting in or out of Westview, S.W.O.R.D. works with the FBI, represented by Ant-Man and the Wasp’s Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), and a team of scientists including Thor’s Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), to try and discover the mystery of the town that almost literally disappeared off the map. They are able to puzzle right along with us as they, too, watch the odd program playing out in Westview, seemingly shot and edited by an unknown source in real time.

If you’ve been on Twitter on any recent Friday, you’d know that the show is ripe for fan conspiracy, full of ominous symbology and questions whose answers only bring more questions. Now, 2/3rds of the way through the season, we know just as little about who or what is creating this sitcom-ized world as we did at the start - although the key revelation in episode 4 is that Wanda is at least somewhat complicit in the creation of the town, controlling many of the residents and expelling S.W.O.R.D. agent Monica Rambeau (daughter of Maria, first seen in Captain Marvel) when she discovers too much.

The show evolves through the decades of sitcom television, changing production styles and theme songs as it goes. There are dizzying, half-evoked themes of trauma and grief as Wanda insists upon the reality of her suburban life and continually denies the events of previous MCU films, as well as a motif of growing up too fast as Wanda and Vision go from newlyweds to parents of 10 year-olds in a matter of days. The episodes are purposefully time-trippy, a verifiable mindfrick adding to the show’s air of sci-fi mystery.

The most recent episode leaves us on another tantalizing cliffhanger, as Vision attempts to break out of the Hex and discovers that he is critically connected to it. To prevent her love from disintegrating outside of Westview, Wanda expands the borders of the Hex, absorbing the entire S.W.O.R.D. encampment just outside of the town into the mirage, save for Rambeau, Woo, and definitely-the-final-episode-reveal-bad-guy, S.W.O.R.D. Director Hayward. It’s a twist that should be shocking and exciting, but one that has left me somewhat indifferent. I mean, most of these characters are already dead or confirmed to be in an uncoming movie - what could really happen?

As I’ve watched each episode, I feel painfully aware of the fact that this is the first (released) property of the MCU Phase 4. The connections to upcoming films like Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness are especially obvious in the most recent episodes, which re-introduced Wanda’s brother Pietro into the MCU, although this time played by Evan Peters, who portrayed the character in FOX’s X-Men franchise.

I lament to accept that this show has no purpose but to set up future properties, but an introspective eye looks and can see that my excitement for decoding the mystery comes not from the storytelling (as cool as its delivery often is) earning my favor, but from the fact that I know this will tie into Phase 4 somehow. 6 episodes in and any real character growth or development - something that is arguably key for a story extending past an hour or two - is next to null. The “themes” of grief and loss, as I previously mentioned, feel like an accessory at best. All this is why the commercial parody segments of the show feel oddly ironic; macabre interstitials that feature Easter Eggs to Wanda’s backstory in the MCU, they act as a subtle reminder that this show is, in itself, an advertisement for other Marvel movies.

I can’t help but feel that this story’s sheer potential (of which there is much) is significantly bogged down by this Disney uber-synergy. The catch of being a smaller fish connected to a bigger one is that nothing too bold or damaging can truly be done, so as to preserve the ability of the movies to do whatever they want. This is why Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. initially failed, as its entire season 1 story was forcibly stalled until the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and then crammed into 8 episodes. As a semi-related aside, separting from the MCU canon is also the best thing S.H.I.E.L.D. ever did, leading to phenomenal storytelling in its final seasons (excluding season 6 - the “gas leak year” of AoS). A great example of this concept in WandaVision appears when considering the yet-to-be-revealed villain behind the Westview Plot.

One of the main comic book inspirations of this series, 2005’s “House of M,” finds Mephisto (read: Marvel Satan) having a key role in Wanda’s torment. However, family-friendly Marvel Studios, who is also trying to sell its films in more censored markets, is likely to go for a heavily sanitized version of Mephisto, if at all. On the other hand, many people want to believe that Wanda is truly the mastermind of the Hex, spurred by the grief of losing everyone she loves. However, mental health is also much too heavy a topic for Marvel’s M.O. - the only other property to really touch it, Iron Man 3, is considered one of the bigger flops of the Marvel Empire. That makes our de facto villains Agnes and/or Hayward, two characters that we’ve never seen before, know nothing about, and will likely never see again.

So - lacking real character development and lacking the boldness required to accompany its premise, what we’re left with is a show that overflows with potential energy, dazzles with its expensive production, and engages its audience with an unending mystery - a show that is flawlessly hiding that it has nothing to offer.

There is an element of odd jealousy here. WandaVision is, in many ways, genuinely good; just as the Buccaneers QB is unarguably an excellent sportsman. It’s the sense that their dominance grows tired that is part of what makes me wary - everything must end, and the more the MCU is milked, the more I wish the cow would keel over and die already; not from a lack of love, but from some genre of selfish love. I want the franchise to remain pure, unfettered in my mind by cheap marketing ploys and the knowledge that these properties are worthless except in their ability to sell other properties.

The MCU is nearing the downhill of an arc resembling that of the Star Wars franchise, which limped along for years, unable to truly please its fans until the hype was revived last year by the complete shedding of its grandiosity in favor of The Mandalorian - a quiet, charming sci-fi Western wearing big-budget clothing. The first season of The Mandalorian was a revelation: a passionately-produced classic made for the modern day; a story about found family and the warming of cold hearts with tiny baby Yodas.

So, too, was the beginnings of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Captained (just like The Mandalorian) by Jon Favreau, Iron Man was a kick in the rear for the floundering superhero genre, completely new and bursting with great ideas. By then, Raimi’s Spider-Man had thwipped his last, and Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy only succeeded by dragging the Caped Crusader by his ears into a dark new era inspired by Frank Miller’s graphic novels.

Even The Mandalorian, however, sold out to corporate promotion in its second season, with essentially every episode acting as a backdoor pilot to a different Disney+ property. The season finale topped that notion with a big, fat cherry; the accidentally metaphorical image of Mando inexplicably shilling his newfound son away to Luke Skywalker, an arguable figurehead of pop culture capitalism.

A second example of what I'm getting at: don't you hate it when product placement in a show or movie is insanely obvious? It's so much easier to call something a sell-out when its obvious what they're shilling. One big competition in TV production these days is to submit the cleverest, least noticable forms of product placement possible. The ideal for a placement is when a product is seamlessly inserted into the story - think the opposite of Stranger Things 3's cringe-tastic New Coke bit. WandaVision, for all intents and purposes, has won the product placement game, because all those MCU cameos and Easter Eggs are, in their own way, product placement that is completely integrated into the story. From Darcy to Quicksilver to the recently-teased "major cameo" yet to come, their purpose in WandaVision's narrative is to remind us that Marvel's got a full slate of TV Shows and movies coming our way.

And yet, the puzzling rainbow swirl in this entire ordeal is that as much as I see straight through them, I genuinely, truly like these shows - both WandaVision and the second season of The Mandalorian. The corporate polish on both is hard to ignore, and it feels impossible to find a way to justify these properties into something I can admire for their artistry - and yet, I do. I think this is part of Disney's big plan, as well: why else would they recruit up-and-comers; fresh-off-awards-track filmmakers like Ryan Coogler, Chloe Zhao, Taika Waititi, and WandaVision showrunner Jac Schaeffer, among others? Only the most visionary filmmakers with the freshest eyes could successfully make consumable content out of conceptual commercials.

I concede that maybe, just like with Tom Brady, I am just searching for a reason to not like WandaVision. Maybe I’m simply evolving into a curmudgeon, yelling at all you kids with your newfangled sci-fi shows to “Get off my lawn!” But, just as Vision senses something dark beneath the surface of Westview, so I cannot shake the sense that this show signals something dark and sad for not just MCU fans, but TV fans - all media fans.

This is the only name I have been able to give the uneasy feeling that has festered in me since WandaVision’s release, as I, along with the rest of the world, relish in its twists and turns and theory-fodder. I have tried writing a more positive review, and I’ve tried to find flaws in the show in places where there aren’t any. But, if I am honest with you, there is no way to express this feeling other than to say this: Disney has found a way to turn ads for itself into feature-length entertainment.

And we’ve given it a standing ovation.

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