First of all, this is on Disney+ and hence I must remind readers that Disney are failing to pay creators what they owe them. Disney must pay Alan Dean Foster https://www.sfwa.org/disney-must-pay/
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has had TV spin-offs before in the form of the semi-related dark & gritty Netflix series that began with Daredevil as well as the more family friendly Agents of Shield. However, WandaVision is the first TV spin-off on Disney+ and the first to focus on superheroes directly from the movies.
The pre-publicity had already stated the main premise of the show. The Scarlet Witch aka Wanda Maximoff from the Avengers and her partner Vision would be the central characters in a show that would reprise sit-com formats from different decades of US television. A moments thought about that premise reveals an unstated premise that is soon made obvious in Episode 1. Wanda and Vision are trapped in a US sitcom universe of some kind and the reasons for that will form the story arc for the show.
We are primed for an genre mash-up of superheroes, sit-com pastiche and surreal horror. On the one hand, that is a bold move and on the other hand what we have is essentially a kind of “holodeck episode” in which familiar characters are placed in a contrasting genre for sci-fi or fantasy reasons. Your tolerance for holodeck episodes may vary but they can be fun — the bold choice here is making it the premise of the series and centring two characters who have limited time to develop their characters in the movie.
Paul Bettany as Vision jumps into it as Paul Bettany. Clearly enjoying the comedic aspects of the show and the premise-within-a-premise of the show (he’s a synthetic being with powers pretending to be a suburban office worker. The character range of Bettany is more expansive than he has had opportunity to show with Vision as a character but there are no surprises. In the first two episodes that work their way from the 1950s to early 1960s, he gets to run through a disastrous dinner party for his boss and a neighbourhood talent show where he accidentally turns up (sort of) drunk. Purely on the sit-com level, he’s funny and the funny is enhanced by added layer of absurdity of the character placed within a 50s/60s black and white pastiche.
Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda has a harder task. To me she was also more of a unknown quantity. I can see from IMDB that she has been in more things than Marvel movies but those are all I have seen her in. While Scarlet Witch has had some big action moments, all of the films she has featured in have been multi-character cross-overs packed with big stars. In WandaVision she not only has to hit the right comedy notes but also pitch that comedy acting in a way that reflects the changing role of women from the 1950s and 60s and their depiction on television. In addition, the intruding weirdness/horror/things are not what they seem element is centred on Wanda, particularly in the second episode. It is a tall order and on the basis of just the first two episodes, she pulls all those threads together.
There are no big surprises and the show makes use of familiar choices. The intrusion of colour into a black and white world is borrowed from the 1990’s film Pleasantville and novelty/holodeck episode structure could be from Star Trek:TNG or from some of the less-standard Buffy episodes (Bettany’s wackier performances reminiscent of episode where Anthony Head gets to play Giles as something other than a stuffy librarian). The inclusion of Debra Jo Rupp of That 70’s Show as the boss’s wife Mrs Hart nods to 1990s/2000s nostalgia, giving WandaVision an odd aspect of calling back to 90s TV as it calls back to the 50s and 60s.
It is notable that by the second episode, the contrived world expands. Episode 1 is restricted to two sets but the second episode there are multiple scenes filmed outside but also the intrusion of surreal elements into the sitcom world are stronger. Episode 2 also introduces Teyonah Parris as “Geraldine” but who has been cast as Monica Rambeau in Captain Marvel 2 and whose dialogue hints that she may also be something more than a ‘non-player character’ within the sitcom world.
Overall, the balance of comedy to surreal horror is nicely done. The 50s/60s setting enhances the Philip K Dick quality to the sense of unreality, as do the occasional adverts that hint at the wider Marvel universe (a toaster from Stark Industries, a men’s watch apparently made by Hyrda). I’ll certainly keep watching,