It feels somehow fitting that “WandaVision,” the first show in Marvel Studios’ grand new adventure into television, opens so thoroughly steeped in the earliest tropes of American TV. Before the show even starts, in fact, the familiar Marvel Studios logo undergoes a Nick-at-Nite conversion, shifting from its usual kaleidoscope of images from Marvel’s movies accompanied by Michael Giacchino’s booming fanfare to a fuzzy black-and-white logo played over tinny music unspooling in mono.
From there, we’re greeted to an opening credits sequence right out of “Leave it to Beaver” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show” (written by “Frozen” songwriting team Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez) in which newlyweds Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff and Paul Bettany’s Vision drive into a new neighborhood to start a quiet life of suburban wedded bliss. If you are unfamiliar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and especially the tragic romance of Wanda (a.k.a. Scarlet Witch) and Vision, then heaven help you, because this show does nothing to bring newbies up to speed.
So here’s my attempt to help: Wanda and Vision made their formal debuts in 2015’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” Wanda as an orphan from the fictional east European nation of Sokovia whose considerable telekinetic abilities were forged in secret Hydra experiments with the powerful Mind Infinity Stone; and Vision as a synthetic humanoid synthesis of the artificial intelligences called Ultron and Jarvis whose powers, including flight and passing through solid matter, are aided by the same Mind Infinity Stone.
Wait, that’s not helpful at all. Listen, all you really need to know is that between their appearances in “Age of Ultron,” and 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War,” Wanda and Vision fell in love, and in 2018’s “Avengers: Infinity War,” Vision was tragically killed by Thanos when he ripped the Mind Stone out of Vision’s head. And I mean, killed dead, not turned to ash with a snap in “Infinity War” only to be brought back into existence five years later by another snap in 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame.” As far as we know, Vision is gone, done, finito; the last we see of Wanda in “Endgame,” she’s still grieving.
Which makes Vision’s totally unexplained resurrection in “WandaVision” so mysterious. There are several mysteries in this first episode, in fact, so let’s just get to all the burning questions from the premiere:
Why Is Everything Like a TV Show?
From the sets and costumes to the canned laugh-track and the square aspect ratio, this episode of “WandaVision” looks and feels like a classic 1950s sitcom. Episode writer (and overall showrunner) Jac Schaeffer and series director Matt Shakman understand the DNA of these kinds of shows down to every detail, and also how to satirize them, starting with Wanda’s hilarious absurd breakfast menu of “silver dollar pancakes, crispy hash browns, bacon, eggs, freshly squeezed orange juice and black coffee.”
What remains entirely unclear is why everything is like a sitcom. The episode’s final moments provide our first hint at the larger story (more on that later), but why do Wanda’s powers look like plates are floating on fishing line? Why do Vision’s powers manifest with an animated sparkle? Why does none of this strike Wanda or Vision as totally bizarre?
There are at least a few things about their new reality that both Wanda and Vision do find peculiar, including…
Why Can’t Wanda and Vision Remember Why Aug. 23 Is Important?
The episode’s plot kicks in once Wanda and Vision discover a heart written on their calendar for Aug. 23, which, presumably, is the day of the episode. For some reason, however, neither of them can remember what the heart signifies, and neither is ready to admit they don’t know, either. Wanda eventually decides it must be their anniversary, and plans a romantic dinner, while at work, Vision realizes it really means that his boss Mr. Hart (Fred Melamed) is coming over for dinner with his wife, Mrs. Hart (the incomparable Debra Jo Rupp). While the immediate question is resolved, why Wanda and Vision couldn’t remember the date in the first place remains very much up in the air.
Equally curious is Vision’s inability to understand what his job is really for. It’s hard to say yet how much that — and the pressure Mr. Hart puts on Vision for the dinner to go off without a hitch — is meant to evoke sitcoms of the period, or indicative of some larger story at play. But I did get a big laugh out of Wanda’s reaction when Vision finally explained the heart on the calendar was meant as an abbreviation for Mr. and Mrs. Hart: “You move at the speed of sound and I can make a pen float through the air. Who needs to abbreviate?”
Does Nosy Neighbor Agnes Know More Than She’s Letting On?
Wanda’s notion that the heart on the calendar means their anniversary is sparked by the arrival of her neighbor Agnes, played to perfection by Kathryn Hahn. (A lifetime of light comedy expertise went into Hahn’s delivery of the line, “Forgive me for not stopping by sooner to welcome you to the block. My mother-in-law was in town, so I wasn’t.”)
Agnes’ presence in this episode is intriguing, as she at once helps move the story along and act as a sly agent of chaos within it. She encourages Wanda to get 1950s sexy for her husband, which backfires upon the arrival of the Harts. And when Wanda realizes she needs to make a fabulous meal, Agnes swoops in with a solution: an overwhelming number of ingredients and elaborate recipe cards, which Wanda promptly turns into a very sitcom-y mess, at one point transforming the chicken back into a basket of eggs.
So is Agnes just a part of Wanda and Vision’s strange TV world, fulfilling the role of the nosy neighbor because that’s what the nosy neighbor does? Or is she aware of what she’s doing — and if so, to what end?
Why Don’t Mr. and Mrs. Hart React to Vision’s Powers?
Just when the Harts are at their breaking point, Wanda comes through with a meal of breakfast for dinner (though not quite the extensive menu Wanda outlined at the start of the episode — a missed opportunity, I feel!). Throughout the episode, Mr. Hart keeps leaning into Vision, wondering aloud if he’s “management material,” and at dinner, he keeps pressing both of them to explain when they married and why they moved to town.
“Why did you come here?” he bellows, but Wanda and Vision can’t answer, staring into the middle distance as if put into a trance.
And then things get freaky. Mr. Hart begins to choke, and for the first time, the camera breaks from its sitcom staging and cuts closer to the action. The effect is unnerving, especially after Mrs. Hart keeps repeating “Stop it!” with an increasingly terrified grin while Mr. Hart falls to the floor — and Vision and Wanda do nothing. Finally, Wanda looks at Vision and says, almost with resignation, “Vision, help him.” So Vision uses his powers to reach inside Mr. Hart’s neck and pull out the obstruction.
And just like that, we’re back into sitcom-land. The Harts make a hasty exit, never once commenting or even acknowledging Vision’s abilities. Even stranger, after a moment of confusion, Wanda and Vision don’t seem to register the event happened either.
Whhaaaaaaat is going on?
Who Is Watching Wanda and Vision, and Why?
As Wanda and Vision sit on their couch and reflect on their wedded bliss — Wanda finally fashioning wedding rings for them out of thin air — the episode “ends.” Wanda and Vision smile to the camera, and the credits begin to roll. (For anyone wondering, according to Google, the names on these credits don’t appear to mean anything.)
Then the aspect ratio expands, the camera pulls back, and we see an old-fashioned TV, playing what we just saw, surrounded by much newer technology and what looks like a sound-mixing board, and an unseen figure closing a notebook and reaching for some kind of remote control.
Aha! So Wanda and Vision are a part of some kind of “Truman Show” alternative world. Did they choose to be there? Are they being held captive? And does the sword-like symbol on the notebook suggest that S.W.O.R.D. — the space-age spinoff of S.H.I.E.L.D. created in Marvel Comics in 2004 by “Avengers: Age of Ultron” writer-director Joss Whedon — is about to make its debut in the MCU?
Does the Fake Ad Mean Anything?
Perhaps the fake ad in the middle of the episode for the Toast Mate 2000 from Stark Industries holds a clue? The tagline — “Forget the past, this is your future!” — doesn’t seem to have much to do with toast, and the blinking red light is the only hint of color at all until the final moments. But what does it all mean?
One thing is clear: Marvel Studios may be new to the TV game, but they definitely know how to keep an audience hooked.
“WandaVision” streams new episodes Fridays on Disney Plus.