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Review: WandaVision sticks the landing with a very Marvel-esque finale

For all its touted meta-elements celebrating different TV decades, WandaVision wrapped up its nine-episode run in classic Marvel fashion, with Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda and Paul Bettany’s Vision valiantly defending their suburban nuclear family from the nefarious forces lined up against them. It was a satisfying, quite moving finale to this imaginative series. But fans expecting a surprise big-name cameo—Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange was a favorite of the pre-finale rumor mill—were disappointed.

(Some spoilers below; major reveals for finale below the gallery. We’ll give you a heads up when we get there.)

Frankly, I was skeptical of the WandaVision concept when the studio offered a brief sneak peek during D23 Expo 2019, Disney’s annual fan extravaganza. Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige—a fan of classic sitcoms—envisioned the series as a love letter to the golden age of television, with each episode channeling a sitcom style from a particular decade. Head writer Jac Schaeffer (Captain Marvel, Black Widow) championed the concept from the start, despite a brief backlash against the perceived silliness of the title. Schaeffer thought viewers would change their minds once they actually saw the series, and she was right: WandaVision currently boasts a 92 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It even won over my skeptical soul.

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WandaVision clearly draws on elements from the House of M limited series, in which a grief-stricken Wanda warps reality to create a pocket dimension where everyone’s dreams are realized. There are also elements from The Vision and the Scarlet Witch series, as well as Avengers: Disassembled and the “Vision Quest” storyline from West Coast Avengers.

Set immediately after the events of Avengers: Endgame (but before Spider-Man: Far From Home), WandaVision opens with newlyweds Wanda and Vision starting their married life in the town of Westview, New Jersey, in an homage to 1950s sitcoms. Wacky hijinks ensue as the couple tries to lead a normal life while hiding their superpowers from their neighbors—especially the nosy Agnes (Kathryn Hahn). We move quickly through a 1960s-influenced episode, and a 1970s-centric episode, as Wanda and Vision welcome twins. But they notice more and more jarring elements—a full-color drone, a voice calling out to Wanda over the radio, neighbors briefly breaking character—hinting that this seemingly idyllic suburban existence might not be what it seems.

Ars Tech Culture Editor Sam Machkovech reviewed the first two episodes when they premiered on Disney+ in mid-January, pronouncing them to be “65 minutes of goofiness, dread, and a sense that this weird series is only going to get weirder.” As it turns out, the opposite happens: WandaVision starts to feel more and more like standard Marvel fare—particularly its jam-packed finale, but beginning with the abrupt shift in perspective in the fourth episode (“We Interrupt This Program”), which takes us out of Wanda’s warped pocket dimension for the first time.

Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris)—daughter of Carol Danvers’ BFF in Captain Marvel—returns from oblivion with millions of others who disappeared in the Snappening and teams up with S.W.O.R.D. (Sentient Weapon Observation Response Division) to investigate the mysterious case of the town of Westview. It is surrounded by a hexagonal-shaped field of cosmic microwave background radiation, dubbed “the hex.” There is a signal encoded within that field: the broadcast of the WandaVision “sitcom” starring two Avengers, Wanda and Vision. The jarring elements of the earlier episodes were S.W.O.R.D.’s attempts to infiltrate the hex and communicate with Wanda, to little avail.

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(Major spoilers for finale below. Stop reading now if you haven’t watched it yet.)

Gradually we learn that the hex originated from Wanda’s profound grief over the loss of Vision when she visits the plot of land he bought for their future dream home in Westview. The original town residents are trapped inside with her, forced by her reality-warping powers to play their assigned roles. But Wanda isn’t the only one in Westview with magical powers. Agnes turns out to be Agatha Harkness, a powerful witch from the comics. She has the ability to absorb the power of other witches, and she wants Wanda’s “chaos magic,” correctly identifying her as the Scarlet Witch described in the Darkhold grimoire. Meanwhile, outside the hex, S.W.O.R.D. acting director Tyler Hayward (Josh Stamberg) has built a new White Vision, programmed to destroy both Wanda and her sitcom Vision.

In a nice twist, although Wanda thinks she has created a paradise for all the residents of Westview, in truth, it is her neighbors who are bearing the pain of her grief as she seeks to escape it. That is the ultimate theme of the series, as Wanda realizes what her grief has wrought and decides to set things right. In the process, she fully becomes the Scarlet Witch from the comics, at a terrible cost. The existence of sitcom Vision and her twin sons are both tied to the hex. She can’t undo it without losing her family. Wanda must dispense with denial about her loss and say goodbye to Vision a second, final time—although is death ever really final in the comic books?

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Olsen and Bettany have always had terrific onscreen chemistry, and they make a believable and charming sitcom couple. Plus, it’s nice to see both characters finally get some serious screen time, away from the crowded ensemble action of the Avengers films. Equally delightful is Hahn’s Agnes/Agatha Harkness, who brings just the right note of creepiness to the cheery nosy neighbor archetype early on, before going all-in as a cackling, power-hungry supervillain. And it’s always a pleasure to spend some screen time with Thor‘s Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) and FBI Agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park, Ant Man and the Wasp), who foil Hayward’s scheming.

“Who’s been messing up everything/It’s been Agatha all along.” From WandaVision Ep. 7 (“Breaking the Fourth Wall”).

The period details for each sitcom decade are a delight, never devolving into outright parody. (I caught sly allusions to The Dick van Dyke Show, Bewitched, Good Times, The Brady Bunch, Roseanne, Full House, Malcolm in the Middle, and even The Office, and eagle-eyed readers no doubt noticed many more.) This extends to the technology: the black-and-white first two episodes are shot with a 4:3 aspect ratio, while scenes set outside the hex boast a more cinematic ratio of 2:40:1. The crew used period-appropriate camera lenses (47 different lenses in all), lighting (no LEDs until the 2000s episodes), and live special effects. The show toggles between multi-camera and single-camera shots, and the pilot episode was filmed before a live audience.

For some reason, WandaVision has become a lightning rod for heated debates over binge-watching versus dribbling out one episode per week. Personally, I approach the question on a case-by-case basis. Having now seen the entire series twice—first in serial installments and then as a binge watch—I think it ultimately works best as a binge-viewing experience. The episode-per-week formula can certainly still work, even on a streaming platform, as The Mandalorian made clear. But WandaVision‘s central mystery and core concept, while a lot of fun, are ultimately just not substantial enough, particularly the first half of the series.

All in all, I commend Marvel for taking advantage of the strength of its media empire to create something as quirkily inventive and unique as WandaVision. There are no plans right now for a second season; it seems its primary purpose was to serve as a kind of entr’acte between Endgame and Marvel’s Phase 4 plans, starting with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Two post-credit scenes offer tantalizing hints about what comes next.

In the first, Jimmy Woo is heading up cleanup efforts in Westview as Monica Rambeau meets privately with another FBI agent, who reveals herself to be a Skrull—the shape-shifting alien race featured in Captain Marvel. The Skrull tells Monica she is there on behalf of an old friend of her mother who’d heard Monica had been grounded and wants to meet with her, presumably in space. This is most likely Nick Fury, last seen hanging out on a Skrull base in space, while his Skrull buddy, Talos, impersonated him in Spider-Man: Far From Home. Presumably this foreshadows Rambeau’s role in the Captain Marvel sequel now in development.

The second shows Wanda in a remote mountain cabin, relaxing with a cup of coffee, while her Scarlet Witch persona—an astral projection—is seen reading up on the lore in the Darkhold, just before she hears the voices of her sons calling for help. The astral projection trick is how Steven Strange, current Sorcerer Supreme, learned so much about magic, so fast, in Doctor Strange. WandaVision was originally planned to lead directly into Multiverse of Madness, but the pandemic put the kibosh on those plans. We learned from Agatha that the Scarlet Witch is more powerful than the Sorcerer Supreme and is destined to destroy the world, so Wanda is likely going to play a significant role in that film.

All episodes of WandaVision are now streaming on Disney+. If you’re keen to go behind the scenes, Disney+ will release a documentary, Assembled: The Making of WandaVision, on March 12, 2021—the first documentary in a planned series.

Listing image by Marvel/Disney+

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