Spoiler note: In the Marvel movie timeline, WandaVision takes place after the events of Avengers: Endgame. As such, I will be discussing events that happen in that movie as they relate to this series. If you haven’t watched the Avengers movies, you really should! You can technically watch WandaVision without the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the experience will not be as rich.
I recently became acquainted with the term “maladaptive daydreaming.” It’s used to describe a psychological condition in which an individual retreats into an interior fantasy world, sometimes to the detriment of their waking life. That fantasy world is usually deeply layered, complex, and narratively continuous, acting as a comfort zone in which the dreamer can exist as an idealized version of themselves in a place based specifically on their own interests and desires.
In WandaVision, the first of Disney+’s television spinoff series from the cinematic Marvel universe, we are privy to Wanda Maximoff’s (Elizabeth Olsen) created reality in which she and Vision (Paul Bettany) are living a perfect life inspired by classic television shows. Sometimes, although not always, maladaptive daydreamers create these worlds because of traumatic events. In Wanda’s case, that is absolutely true.
In the chaos of Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, Wanda had to sacrifice her true love, Vision, to try and save the universe from the villain Thanos’ murderous plans. Her heartbreaking decision was then reversed by Thanos to collect the stone he needed from Vision anyway, and Vision died again (as did Wanda). When Thanos was eventually defeated, the half of the universe he annihilated thanks to the stone’s powers was restored—including Wanda. But because Vision was killed before that all-important “snap,” he was not resurrected.
Vision’s death also came on the heels of Wanda’s twin brother being killed by another world-ending would-be god in Avengers: Age of Ultron. So why wouldn’t she want to step outside of reality for a bit for the comfort of a created state in which she and Vision, at least, could find the happiness they were cruelly and needlessly denied?
In the Marvel comics, Wanda Maximoff is a reality-bending enchantress known as Scarlet Witch. Her power set is immense, and we have never seen the full scope of it within the movie universe—it’s too big, really, when you compare the fact that she and an actual god (Thor), and a wizard (Doctor Strange), are equals on a team with a Russian spy (Black Widow) carrying a gun, and an archer (Hawkeye). There are limits.
Not, however, when it comes to WandaVision itself, which is where we finally get to see the Marvel machine slightly unleashed. Marvel’s forays into television have not been altogether fantastic, specifically in its disastrous partnership with Netflix in developing the Defenders series (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist). Those shows weren’t really allowed to discuss the larger MCU, and they certainly had no bearing on the movies’ plots. The ABC series, Agent Carter and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., were also on the very fringes of that universe, and S.H.I.E.L.D. only found its footing once it more or less severed itself narratively from the MCU altogether. The Hulu ones don’t connect to anything at all. These Disney+ series, though, expand the story of characters we know from the movies in way that the movies simple did not have time to do. It also allows WandaVision creator Jac Schaeffer and director Matt Shakman to put a uniquely stylized and deeply emotional spin on a story that would have (had this been a movie) otherwise been shackled by the mandated aesthetics of the overall MCU.
As such, in WandaVision, Wanda is also unleashed. She has used her immense power to created an insular world to blot out her grief, based on classic sitcoms like The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bewitched, and I Love Lucy. Each of the first three episodes provided for review (out of an eventual nine—which was originally six, raising a lot of questions we don’t yet have answers to) takes us through a TV time period starting in the 1950s. Wanda and Vision are, accordingly, trying to fit in. Vision slips in and out of human form, Wanda uses her magic behind the scenes so as not to scare the neighbors. The first two episodes are in black and white, there’s a laugh track, and animation is used to excellent effect. For fans of classic television, this is no satire; despite a few over-the-top ham moments, it is a loving homage to these series. It doesn’t just play into the kinds of jokes and structure that they had, but provides new ones that work shockingly well in a modern context (Kathryn Hahn, who plays a nosy neighbor, is a natural for this kind of patter and physical comedy). If WandaVision was actually just a three-camera sitcom, it wouldn’t be that bad.
But of course, it’s not. Throughout these half-hour episodes (both the ones we experience and the ones Wanda and Vision are living through), the world outside of this coping fantasy begins to creep in. First with bursts of color, then occasional off-script moments. Wanda stops these right away by rewinding and reliving the situation without the disruption. A clean story, nothing to disturb them. Just a husband and wife living a normal life in perfect suburbia (with the occasional advertisement for a Hydra watch or a Stark Industries toaster, of course).
And that is what makes WandaVision so emotionally devastating. We are watching a woman psychologically break so she can live in a fantasy world where she has erased the pain and grief of her past to only focus on the happy future she wishes she had. There are trappings of truth everywhere, and while viewers can spot them easily, Wanda remains willfully ignorant. It is absolutely devastating to see her spinning as fast as she can to keep this all in place, to stay ahead of her trauma, when we know that ultimately it won’t change anything. Vision is dead. This is all a lie.
By the third episode, though, Wanda is spinning out of control. Reality is closer than ever, and the teases we get to the world outside of Wanda’s creation get increasingly overt. She will have to come to terms with the truth soon, but it will hurt. And yet, I don’t really want reality to impede on Wanda’s created life at all. WandaVision’s core conceit—that sometimes you just want to escape into television, into fantasy, into a daydream—couldn’t be more meta. Let’s stay here in this happiness just a little while longer. The world outside is so dark.
The first two episodes of WandaVision premiere Friday, January 15th on Disney+, followed by single-episode weekly release.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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