“WandaVision’s” first episodes introduced a few new things to the Marvel universe: Both an aggressive willingness to play with style, and the power of metaphor. The show nestled in close to Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) as she dreamed herself and her family into universes that looked a great deal like hit sitcoms of the past. This hopscotching through the medium made it look, for a time, prescient that “WandaVision” was the first of Marvel’s shows to launch on Disney Plus, even if that was simply by accident (COVID had previously delayed the launch of “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier”). This entry into television was about television — with Wanda’s adventures in the tube starting with “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and culminating, in a recent episode, with “Modern Family.” That a young woman who spent her girlhood in a war-torn Eastern European nation has broad and deep knowledge of the contours of television history speaks, perhaps, to the dominance of American culture, and its ability to shape our dreams.
As its season comes to an end Friday, it’s hard to imagine “WandaVision” having a second life on par with the shows Wanda envisions. There’s a lot to commend about this series: Its shows-within-a-show device, depicting the varying ways Wanda has used imagination to create, by force of will, a perfect universe where her love Vision (Paul Bettany) is still alive, demonstrates real ingenuity. And the pitch-perfect execution of tones not native to the Marvel universe is evidence that, when they want to, Marvel really can stretch. But when we’re experiencing Wanda’s own reality and not the one she invents, “WandaVision” is overcome with a flatness that suggests why the borrowing was such an appealing idea in the first place.
There’s nothing wrong with knowing one’s audience, and a Marvel show (this one directed by veteran TV helmer Matt Shakman) being tonally similar to every Marvel movie previously made is hardly a headline. But given the inventiveness and curiosity about what is possible that the first few episodes exhibited, it feels frustrating when the show snags itself on a familiar hook, returning in the fourth episode to the Marvel house style. That this series feels absolutely within the realm of what its studio has been doing for many years is both fine — Marvel’s movies are capably made — and a bit of a loss. It shouldn’t be that the only time “WandaVision” feels new is when it’s paying homage to something old.
Perhaps “WandaVision’s” shift into the familiar could not have been avoided: A show that had been skittering throughout genre and time ultimately cannot escape a very recognizable world. The show’s fourth episode, the first to look beyond Wanda’s created worlds, feels all the more deflating for the noisy bustle and burble of S.W.O.R.D.’s offices. The studio’s own style of storytelling, with its perpetual breathless urgency only emphasizing the degree to which little is ever, moment-to-moment, at stake, is just another way for the show to delay the facts of the case. Even as viewers likely have at least a workable beginning understanding of what Wanda, and what “WandaVision,” are up to — and even as pieced-together bits of TV history were building to something more than the sum of their parts — the show leans back on what it knows we want, obscuring the sort of painful truths it was trying to communicate more artfully.
Put in other terms: Was it really that hard to understand what the show was doing that we needed to stretch out a slow-walked reveal, executed without much in the way of flair? That Wanda, a powerful witch, is controlling the actions of those around her begins to glimmer through intriguingly before the show slams the brakes to explain it laboriously, up to and including a flashback explaining why it is that TV is Wanda’s fantasy fuel of choice. (No allusion, here, can go without having been explained as laboriously as possible.) The show’s greatest twist, that “it was Agatha all along” and Kathryn Hahn’s character had been manipulating events, is novel (and gives Hahn the chance to snarl appealingly) but changes little about our understanding of Wanda’s dilemma.
That dilemma is vastly more effectively conveyed through the experimentation of early episodes than when it’s explained to us later. (“Agatha All Along” is a charming song, but it also is a way for the show to excuse itself with a wink for simply telling us what is happening.) The fact of a grieving Wanda’s escape into the entertainments she once loved — ones that depict a family life she’ll never have — is interesting, a chance for the sort of character study Marvel hasn’t had the chance to do at such scale. But when Wanda’s in the genre she calls home, the show defaults to a language and style whose unremarkability is the point, as if the adventures through shows with visual and screenwriting signatures only emphasize through contrast how lacking any particularity or humanity Marvel tends to be.
Olsen’s performance — a particularly strong one — manages to shine through even as “WandaVision” has revealed its willingness to undercut her. Wanda’s sorrow comes through throughout, but is dolloped out in almost overwhelming portions by the score overlaying her pained face, or in dialogue with Vision that is about grief in the most literal sense. Fans of the show on social media praised this dialogue as especially perceptive about the grieving process; I wouldn’t deny that, but “WandaVision” had initially looked like the kind of show whose perceptiveness might manifest itself in ways more inventive than simply stating its ideas.
“WandaVision” operates using a contrast that’s ultimately gutting, and maybe productive: What works in its pastiche episodes — curiosity, storytelling vigor, an interest in using all the potential tools of filmmaking to express ideas — is so entirely absent from its depiction of Wanda in her own world that the end result feels wan and depressing. The blandness and emptiness of Wanda’s actual experience of life, as opposed to the vivid mania and delusion of her dreamscape, do carry across what it feels like to be depressed.
But the contrast raises other questions, too. Someday, maybe far in the future, Marvel movies and television shows will no longer be the dominant form of American entertainment. Will we, like Wanda does with “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” be able to recognize what it was that made them so beloved by those in their moment? Or will its hallmarks — quest narratives that move in circles before resolving as we knew they might, expository dialogue that rejects shading or nuance, archvillainy that needs no stated motivation beyond evil, camerawork that’s proficient but never surprising — simply look like the application of a great amount of talent to work not worth returning to in memory? Wanda has been changed by television, a force that gave her a structure for her inner life and a set of unachievable aspirations. But the only lesson “WandaVision” seems to have taken from the medium is the pleasure of formula — that even though the sitcoms of the past said things in ways that look terribly inventive now, they did so in a way that, repetitiously, gave the audience what they want. Marvel came an awfully long way to learn something that its filmmakers already knew.