THE CONFLICT WITH REALISM IN “WANDAVISION”
For at least three episodes, unless you are familiar with the story of Wanda, it can be difficult to understand what is happening.
For the most part, when people think of super hero movies or TV shows, the prevailing idea about them is that they are about fighting, powers, and more fighting. Real fans of this genre will tell you that there is nuance and that these fantastical stories are cushioned with insight into real life difficulties and the troubles that come with being human. Disney Plus’ 2021 remake of Marvel’s WandaVision provides a full picture of what it means to be human, along with all its capricious idiosyncrasies.
In collaboration with Marvel Studios, creator Jac Schaeffer continues on into the marvel universe from the period following Avengers: Endgame, exploring how one particular character, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), is troubled during that time. But luckily, Schaeffer constructs a world that doesn’t completely require you to have known what happened in that film. In fact, WandaVision is a satisfying stand-alone piece with apparent persuasiveness, hinting at reality.
The miniseries can be a bit confounding to start, especially if you are immediately expecting the settings of Endgame. However, referencing I Love Lucy, a classic all-American hit sitcom from the 1950s, we find Wanda in a model housewife role to her very awkward but distinctly non-human husband, Vision (Paul Bettany). For at least three episodes, unless you are familiar with the story of Wanda, it can be difficult to understand what is happening. Also, the viewing experience can be a bit tough to endure if you don’t really like the 50s sitcom comedy style that it draws from but, following a break down in episode four, the show really begins to hold viewers captive.
There is so much about WandaVision that is striking which is hard to address without entirely spoiling it. For instance, the show is so careful about contextualising the relationship between Wanda and Vision and really creating a sense of realism within their very wondrous world. Throughout the series, the audience is ultimately made to be detectives as we discover more about Wanda’s conundrum with each episode which has the effect of intimating suspense in a very poignant way. More, Schaeffer enhances the very ordinary aspects of a superhero like Wanda by exploring the more quiet and heartbreaking moments of her experience. At times, she follows Wanda’s tragic childhood and then transports the show to her modern timeline, all in an effort to force the audience to commit to Wanda’s motivation and her relationship with grief. It’s crafted in an inverted slow-burn structure so that with each episode, it informs your understanding of previous events in the show, necessitating reflection.
That the series isn’t heavily hinged on supernatural elements makes its realistic elements appealing and somewhat believable but, there are some aspects of this almost authentic universe that remind viewers of its bluff. In particular there is the strange tendency to absolve superhero casualties—whether physical or psychological—as immaterial. The entire series is a manifestation of Wanda’s pain and yet the discomfort of the people who are made a victim of her abuse of power are largely quieted and they are never really given the stage to translate their anger or discomfort beyond eschewing a line here and there or a cutting stare. It’s ironic really, since the series almost promises an unvarnished repeal of superhero sensationalization, to illustrate how plausible these universes are, and yet the actual victims in the show are used as one-dimensional tools to anchor the singular stories of heroes.
Then there’s also the dry integration of agent Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), which ends up feeling muddled and rushed because there is little to ground her motivation and unusual characterization as an extremely self-sacrificial person further into her development. Her inexplicable behaviour is made worse by the idea that she had just undergone extreme trauma of her own but, is easily able to entirely shed her experience in favor of Wanda’s. Somehow, the show writers suggest that her extremely self-effacing attitude is inevitable and yet, it felt mostly unbelievable since there is a lack of pressure and depth into Rambeau’s provocation, making her characterization flat, especially when comparing her to another fuller character like Agnes (Kathryn Hahn), who is endowed with complexity to make her more salient. In the end, that Rambeau is made to be extremely altruistic in this semi-realistic atmosphere that is filled with cruelty, heartache, and evil, makes her standout as fake and abnormal. Of course, the next Marvel series installments may follow her story so perhaps this shallow look into Rambeau is meant to create intrigue into her development?
Whatever the case, the Pseudorealistic elements of the series are further confused as it expands into the series. The very artificial introduction of witches and magic is one consideration that actually outlines a cartoonish aspect of the show. The use of the magical sphere for witches in Agnes’ history, which has become a trope associated with fantasy, made Agnes’ story extremely disingenuous to the convincing atomosphere that was created in the show. Actually, there hasn’t been a natural way of introducing witches and magic since say Harry Potter or even Spiderman (maybe I’m just a hater) but the fact that Wanda and Agnes proceed to wear costumes with little explanation as to why they would be needed in this “real” universe added an unflattering cosplay feel to the whole scenario. In fact, even the poses of the characters while they were in action marked a trace of disingenuity about them, since they feel so put on and like something you would see if you had decided to go to Comicon.
Still, WandaVision is an enjoyable watch and smartly interrogates the idea of love, grief, and responsibility. It houses many moments of intimacy which communicated the precious but ordinary effects of trauma and loss. But crucially, it does also have a slight barrier of entry, giving the sense that it’s a mistake to watch it without having the background knowledge from all the movies or comics that proceed this show, as it’s heavily inundated with references that feel especially intended for those with commitment to the whole Marvel franchise. Even still, through Wanda’s pain, WandaVision has the remarkable ability to articulate an obscure devastation that is often observed in superhero films, but seen as inconsequential. However, this time, it’s affording the grandeur that it was always owed.