WandaVision and the Potential of Storytelling on Television
By Sarah Druhan
Photo: The Verge ---- Source
When WandaVision was first announced as an upcoming television series at the 2019
San Diego Comic-Con, the concept was generally met with uncertainty and confusion. Fans wondered why Marvel was choosing to spearhead its cinematic universe’s reach into television with a show starring Wanda Maximoff and Vision, two of the more obscure Avengers, and why early teasers hinted at it taking place in a 1950s sitcom world as opposed to a modern day superhero setting. However, one year after the release of WandaVision’s first episode on Disney+, the show is now seen as a critical and commercial success. Notable not only for its slick writing and slow build to the final ‘reveal’, but also for the refreshing ways that the miniseries utilized its television format to push the boundaries of typical Marvel storytelling.
One of the early reasons for WandaVision’s popularity may have stemmed from the unintentional timeliness of its subject matter in January 2021. While the series was written entirely before the pandemic, the central idea of a woman denying the grief of her radically transformed world and escaping into media likely resonated with audiences watching in the throes of what had been a very tough winter. The show was also significant in that half of the writers’ room, including head writer Jac Schaeffer, were women. This was certainly a first for Marvel—only four female screenwriters have ever been credited in Marvel movie history—and likely allowed for the complex experiences of Wanda Maximoff to be authentically explored and presented in a way that the studio had previously failed to achieve.
While there were many different factors that contributed to the show’s success, it’s important to look at what the Emmy-nominated series primarily is—namely, a celebration of television and its possibilities. While the creators of the miniseries could have tried to replicate past successes by just making WandaVision another Marvel movie and then cutting it into nine segments, they instead chose to mine meaning and quality from the potential of the television medium itself. Marvel movies have often received criticism for the lack of character development and satisfying character arcs in their scripts; WandaVision’s format as a television show is precisely what helps it to build such an effective and engaging character study. Because it is easier to pace storytelling in nine episodes of television than in the tighter expanse of a feature film, WandaVision’s writers were able to take more time to flesh out Wanda Maximoff (a character who had always seemed fairly one-note alongside the huge ensemble in each Marvel movie) and all the little subtleties of her grief. In general, there is just more time in a television show for the narrative to take pause: to point out the disturbing details in Wanda’s sitcom world without being blatant, to slowly weave in enough breaks in Wanda’s cheerful façade and enough suspicious events with her ‘nosy neighbor’ Agnes to keep the audience hooked, and eventually to explore a series of flashbacks detailing the immense pain that Wanda has been hiding from WandaVision’s viewers and from herself.
WandaVision doubles down on the idea of the television format’s importance to the show by having each episode imitate a different era of sitcom television, moving chronologically from I Love Lucy-esque hijinks in the first episode to the seventh episode’s Modern Family mockumentary style. These changes in design and tone from episode to episode are not initially explained to the audience, and neither is the reason as to why two Avengers are living peacefully in Father Knows Best suburbia instead of fighting supervillains. This is a relatively crazy-sounding premise that could have felt gimmicky in the wrong creative hands, but ultimately, as the WandaVision writers use their audiences’ familiarity with television tropes as a plot device through which to tell the story, it’s what saves it. The small cracks in the typical sitcom tone that grow bigger and more noticeable throughout the series—Vision’s ‘boss’ having a choking fit during dinner as the show’s aspect ratio slowly shifts, Wanda’s sons’ dog dying abruptly after its adoption, Wanda and Vision having an argument that mounts in intensity even as the cheery closing theme plays and the credits roll—serve a purpose, advancing the plot by hinting to the audience that something is deeply wrong. We learn in the penultimate episode that Wanda has constructed her own world in this way to recall happier memories of watching American sitcoms with her now-dead parents and brother. Through intertwining Wanda’s suppressed memories with the memories and tropes of television’s many different eras, the series uses tools from the structure of television itself to tell its story. In both acknowledging the medium’s narrative possibilities and what has historically made it great, WandaVision became a love letter to television.
On a more cynical note, it’s important to remember that a concept as creative and genre-defying as WandaVision was able to happen largely because of its ties to the very powerful Marvel and Disney companies. Because these media-dominant properties can expect a profit out of most anything they release, the creators of the show were given a lot of liberty to try something totally new and to push the traditions of television and of superhero narratives. However, we can still hope that the success of WandaVision paves the way for more groundbreaking modes of storytelling onscreen and emphasizes the potential of television as a storyteller. Overall, WandaVision’s near-universal acclaim came not in spite of its difference from the traditional Marvel film formula, but rather because in the show’s unconventional narrative and commitment to the television format it became something greater.