Was a scene featuring Vision singing a rendition of The Coasters’ “Yakety Yak” on your MCU wish list? Almost certainly not. But the two-part premiere of WandaVision effortlessly proves why it should have been. Marvel’s first attempt at a sitcom is a delight, and much of that success is down to Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen’s wonderful handling of its vintage-styled script.Right out the gate, WandaVision makes it clear that the show is a sitcom. Yes, there’s also the tantalising mystery that SWORD may possibly be pulling the strings (more on that later), but the majority of WandaVision’s run time – at least in these two episodes – is dedicated to situational comedy. Writers Jac Schaeffer and Gretchen Enders provide some fantastic gags, despite working in what can sometimes feel like antiquated parameters due to the slavish replication of the 1950s and ‘60s settings. Vision’s joke about chewing gum being for mastication, for example, had me howling, both at the wordplay and the old-school response from his friends. The ‘drunken’ robot performance that follows this, combined with the authentic Hanna-Barbera-style animations, only escalates the humour. Who’d have thought the ethereal Paul Bettany from the Avengers could be such a natural comedian?
Of the two episodes, the second is distinctly the funniest, as it spins fewer plates than the opening half-hour, and thus can dedicate more of itself to Wanda and Vision’s talent show ordeal. In contrast, the ‘50s-set first scenario, in addition to being a loving homage to classics like I Love Lucy, does a lot of heavy lifting to get the show’s rather meta concept off the ground. Through the use of a delightful theme tune and self-aware title cards that use the characters’ names rather than their actors, it firmly establishes the show’s false reality, generating a sense of unease around the vintage styling. The pair’s confusion about the August 23 calendar date helps provide further fuel for the mystery, while also doubling as a pretty typical sitcom plot to deliver the homage. That so many elements in this first half-hour are able to work on both the in-show universe and meta levels is quite a feat of writing. Perhaps the best example of this is Wanda’s comment on Vision’s indestructible head, which works as a cute housewife quip while also acting as dark dramatic irony, since we as viewers know that his head was torn apart by Thanos in Infinity War.While I do genuinely like the sitcom elements and admire the show’s dedication to this unlikely format, the darker side of WandaVision is the thing that really pulls me through this opening act. Of particular note are the visual techniques the show uses to deal with this, such as splashes of bright red colour injected into the monochrome palette. This is rather striking when Dottie cuts her hand on broken glass, and her response is muted enough to maintain the mystery as to whether the people of Westview are in on the secret or not. The best example, however, comes in episode one, when Fred Melamed’s Mr. Hart begins to choke on his food. Director Matt Shakman switches from a classic multi-camera sitcom set-up to a more dramatic single-camera format, bringing the lens right to the dinner table and performing slow, ominous zooms. It’s a fascinating way to break the fourth wall that’s practically Lynchian in design, and serves as a promise that the show is much darker than much of its twee material would suggest.At this stage though, that’s largely what it is: a promise. Because for as enjoyable and mysterious as this two-part premiere is, it does feel all set-up and very little in the form of plot development. This would feel less of a quibble if this premiere was not two distinct episodes, and was instead a single hour-long introduction. But as it stands, the second episode – while more amusing and more confident – treads almost identical ground to the first. The meta-level reveals present minimal advancement on episode one’s mystery cliffhanger, and so it does feel almost as if the show has stalled for a beat. We can only hope that this is a design decision to ensure the audience is comfortable with the high-concept premise (which, admittedly, may require some bedding in for more casual viewers). The slow advancement of the more traditional MCU elements does provide space to introduce Wanda’s pregnancy, though, an event that seems to indicate we should invest in the sitcom itself, rather than pin all expectations on the underlying mystery to propel the show’s plot.
But what a mystery that is! At the end of episode one we’re presented with a mysterious observer watching WandaVision, surrounded by equipment displaying the SWORD logo. Seemingly teased for inclusion in the MCU at the end of Spider-Man: Far From Home, the Sentient World Observation and Response Department (or whatever it stands for in the MCU) is one of Marvel’s key organisations in the comic books, and essentially operates as a cosmic counterpart to SHIELD. Quite exactly how that relates to Wanda and Vision is nowhere close to clear right now, least of all because neither characters come under the organisation’s typical jurisdiction in the comics. Furthermore, the presentation of SWORD so far depicts them in a much more sinister fashion that the comics, especially the agent surrounded by… bees? Does SWORD have a bee division now?Additionally, while Wanda does appear to be trapped in a sweet television nightmare that reunites her with Vision, it does seem as if she has some control over this reality, as highlighted by her ability to rewind the SWORD agent and add colour to the world. Is Wanda imprisoned, or is this a world of her own making? WandaVision may be keeping its cards held tight to its chest right now, but it has certainly provided enough mystery fuel to keep us engaged.