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What we argue about when we argue about WandaVision

WandaVision is the first new Marvel movie or TV show in 18 months. Naturally, we can’t stop talking about it.

Wanda and Vision hold hands while swinging on a swing set.
Wanda and Vision share a happy moment together, even though they’re trapped in a world built on grief.
Courtesy of Disney+
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Yes, we talked about Tiger King. Yes, we got hyped for The Mandalorian. And sure, we argued about how much pop culture should talk about Covid-19 (if at all). But there was a howling void in the increasingly empty hallways of the world’s pop culture discussions throughout 2020: The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) sat the year out.

In 2019 alone, we got to argue about Captain Marvel’s feminism, Avengers: Endgame’s approach to grief, and Spider-Man’s co-option by Big Tech. (And that was just on!) Out in the wilds of pop culture discourse, far more iconoclastic and idiosyncratic takes were being born every minute on Twitter and other social media platforms.

And then, with the arrival of Covid-19 and attendant quarantines, the MCU went silent. Its planned 2020 releases — movies Black Widow (originally scheduled for May 2020) and Eternals (originally scheduled for November 2020) and TV series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (originally scheduled for August 2020) — were all pushed to 2021. These shifts have allowed for a seriously crowded 2021 for Marvel, which is currently scheduled to release four movies and six TV shows this year. A full year off from Marvel discourse created a vacuum that the first Marvel project to return was bound to fill with a vengeance.

Enter Disney+ series WandaVision, the unassuming sitcom pastiche/superhero tale/fantastical story about witches (and a semi-serious examination of grief and trauma) that has been at the center of pop culture discourse almost from the moment it premiered on January 15. Originally scheduled for the spring, the series’ early completion made it the first new Marvel project to premiere since Spider-man: Far from Home came out in July 2019.

WandaVision is one of the more idiosyncratic things Marvel has ever done. But again, it’s an unassuming sitcom pastiche/superhero tale/fantastical story about witches (and a semi-serious examination of grief and trauma). As far as instantly exciting premises for a superhero story go, “powerful witch explores her grief over the losses of her parents, brother, and lover within a sitcom world” is off the beaten path. That’s why I kinda love it, though it’s also a very weird choice for Marvel’s first new entry in nearly a year and a half.

Would you believe it inspired arguing online? Well, it inspired arguing online. There are a ton of debates around WandaVision, but I would boil them down into five main arguments, with substantial overlap among them.

Argument 1: Episodic releases vs. releasing a series all at once

Monica Rambeau works out an equation on what might be happening in Westview, New Jersey.
WandaVision’s fourth episode, which followed Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) as she attempted to unravel what was happening, pulled back the curtain on the show’s mysteries. But it took viewers three weeks to get there.
Courtesy of Disney+

For much of the 2010s, it seemed as though the strategy of releasing all episodes of a TV season simultaneously had become the new normal for streaming television, since it was the usual for both Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.

Little cracks in that argument started to appear, however. Hulu still released some of its series on a one-episode-per-week schedule, and The Handmaid’s Tale (which Hulu released weekly) became the first streaming show to win the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series. And in 2019, HBO’s Game of Thrones, Succession, and Watchmen, all of which released episodes weekly, dominated online conversations in a way that even Netflix’s biggest hit that year (the third season of Stranger Things) couldn’t compete with.

Shows released all at once can, of course, still dominate our conversations. Discussions over the many virtues and failings of Netflix’s Tiger King and The Queen’s Gambit took over several weeks of 2020. But across 2020, more and more popular streaming series were released on a weekly basis. The Mandalorian (Disney+) became the first streaming series not on Netflix to top the Nielsen streaming ratings, and the second season of The Boys (Amazon Prime Video) turned into the breakout hit that service had been looking for. (Season one, which was far less discussed, was released all at once.)

WandaVision dropped its first two episodes on day one, then released one new episode per week for the next seven weeks. (The finale drops Friday, March 5.) And with each and every episode, a loud contingent of fans argued: Why wasn’t this show released all at once? This tweet is one of the more thoughtful arguments for that idea. A lot of the arguments are just incoherent, as you’ll find from browsing the negative user reviews on Metacritic.

At the core of the “this show should be released all at once” argument is a kind of self-centered certainty driven by the expectation streaming services have given us: that we should be able to watch any story we want, as soon as we want. Whether you’re watching a backstory-heavy series like WandaVision or a bit of fluff like Emily in Paris, you should be able to watch all of it now.

I find this argument flimsy. For most of TV’s history, shows were released weekly, and the very idea of the TV episode creates an expectation of a gap between said episodes. And if you want to binge WandaVision, you could just wait until all nine episodes are out, right? But then you might end up spoiled as to what’s “really” going on. So instead, you have to watch one episode at a time and try to figure out what’s up with everybody else. As a creative choice, this mimics the show’s magpie approach to TV history; as a buzz-building measure, it’s been unparalleled. WandaVision is probably the single biggest pop culture artifact of 2021 so far.

Setting aside the fact that even 10 years ago, the thought of a WandaVision released all at once would have been largely unthinkable — you just didn’t release TV that way — I am fascinated as to why this response greeted WandaVision and The Boys (which received so much pushback, particularly in the form of review bombing, that creator Eric Kripke actually explained why he wanted season two released weekly) but not The Mandalorian, which is (at the moment) more popular than either of those series.

At first I thought this might stem from superhero genre expectations, but lots and lots of recent superhero shows (and Marvel shows) have been released weekly. Far more likely, I think, is that The Mandalorian is tied to the Star Wars franchise, whose movies have always been released episodically as part of one long saga where cliffhangers lead us forward to the next chapter in several years’ time, while The Boys season one dropped all at once and WandaVision … Well, to talk about that, we have to talk about movies versus TV.

Argument 2: TV vs. the movies

Wanda and Vision, in black and white, smile for the camera.
WandaVision, in many ways, is a tribute to the joys of Nick at Nite and TV reruns.
Courtesy of Disney+

More TV is being released episodically now, and even though that’s in keeping with TV history, it makes some people really angry in certain circumstances. But why this show? Why is WandaVision one of those cases?

The MCU might seem like one giant, interconnected universe, but it’s actually pretty episodic. Each and every movie offers little teases of where the whole superhero saga is headed, and for maximum enjoyment of big crossover films like Avengers: Endgame, most Marvel fans would say you have to watch every Marvel movie and TV show. But if you only want to watch, say, Thor: Ragnarok, you’ll still have a great time. The story mostly stands alone, even from other Thor movies.

Compare that with the movies in the Star Wars franchise, all of which build off previous stories in the series in fairly direct ways. The nine core movies of that franchise follow the ups and downs of the Skywalker family across three generations. If you just pull up The Rise of Skywalker, the ninth movie in that cycle, it’s not like you won’t be able to follow it (the story isn’t particularly complex), but you might wonder what all the fuss is about.

By this rubric, The Mandalorian is doing exactly what Star Wars fans expect by featuring individual episodes that directly connect to each other in a larger adventure narrative, while WandaVision is essentially a single MCU story, centered on the witch Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and split across nine episodes. Yes, those episodes stand alone. But it’s also telling that Marvel diehards (like Vulture recapper Abraham Riesman) struggled to hook into the show until there were some reveals about what was “really” going on.

WandaVision is probably more enjoyable if you’re super into old sitcoms. Six of its first seven episodes directly ape production styles of sitcoms from the 1950s through the 2000s (episode one riffs on The Dick Van Dyke Show and I Love Lucy; episode two riffs on Bewitched, and so on), and you could argue its eighth episode offers a twist on the 2010s “it’s ostensibly a comedy, but it’s just about how everybody is sad all the time” subgenre, à la Fleabag or BoJack Horseman or Girls.

It’s a show so attuned to the moods of those who grew up watching Nick at Nite in the ’90s and 2000s (hiiiiiiiii) that lots of big-time TV fans felt a slight disappointment when the series scaled back the sitcom hijinks in its second half in favor of superhero adventuring. Indeed, I felt a weird disappointment when the series left behind the aesthetic fetishization of older TV production styles and methods in favor of more conventional blockbuster cinematography and design.

But this divide between the fans who were into the sitcom wonkery and the fans who were more interested in figuring out what was up with the show’s biggest superhero mysteries reflects a larger divide within the series itself, between its two main antagonists.

Argument 3: Wanda vs. the Big Bad

(This section directly discusses the identity of WandaVision’s major villain so far, so spoilers follow. It will be safe to read again when we get to the fourth argument.)

The most common complaint leveled against WandaVision in its first few episodes was “What’s the story here?” That complaint was understandable. Within the main MCU timeline, Vision (Paul Bettany) is dead, so what was he doing living in a sitcom world? The show dropped intriguing hints that all was not as it seemed: A drone turned up in Wanda’s bushes. A strange “beekeeper” emerged from the sewers. A voice on the radio asked, “Who’s doing this to you, Wanda?” And so on.

And yet the “story” of WandaVision was pretty obvious on its face. In episode one, Wanda had to deal with Vision’s boss coming over for dinner unexpectedly. In episode two, the pair had to put on a magic show. To some degree, what was “really” going on was always hanging over the series because we expect a series such as WandaVision to be constructed like a puzzle box. But what was really going on was that Wanda had to deal with a series of low-stakes sitcom shenanigans. The contrast between that style of storytelling and the bombast of the MCU was what made the show so fun for some viewers early on.

In the show’s fourth episode, the series feinted toward its main villain being Wanda herself. The magical sitcom universe she created had engulfed an entire New Jersey town, whose residents were essentially being held hostage and forced to reenact old sitcom plots. Wanda, ravaged by grief, had created something horrible out of an attempt to practice self-care. In the image of a popular internet metaphor, she had secured her own oxygen mask, then secured another oxygen mask over that one, then another over that one, as everybody else on the plane had already passed out from lack of oxygen.

There are some potentially sexist implications at the core of “Wanda is the villain” (a woman losing it after her boyfriend dies is a trope with some unfortunate history behind it), but WandaVision suggested Wanda was losing herself in the comfort of TV reruns, just like so many of us have done. In the midst of a pandemic, where so many people are just watching old favorites, it had an unexpected resonance.

And Wanda wasn’t the main villain anyway! That turned out to be supporting character Agnes (Kathryn Hahn), revealed late in the series’s run to be Agatha Harkness, a powerful witch from the Marvel comic books who was jealous of Wanda’s ability, on a whim, to create both an entire sitcom universe in which to live and a thinking and feeling version of her dead lover (no biggie). Wanda’s sheer magical power has always been suggested in the MCU but never looked at as directly as it is here, and Agatha’s machinations to unravel Wanda’s coping mechanism ended up giving the story a Big Bad.

(Sidebar: Is Agatha the Big Bad? Wanda still created a sitcom universe and trapped a bunch of people in it without their consent. My guess is the show’s finale will examine the difference between “Wanda did a bad thing because of grief” and “Agatha did a bad thing because of envy,” but maybe I shouldn’t be holding my breath. It seems likely both will pale in comparison to government agent Tyler Hayward, who resurrected the cold, dead body of the original Vision as what seems to be some kind of killing machine. Fun!)

But did WandaVision really need Agatha to be a satisfying story? A consistent complaint about the series has been that it’s a mystery box show (think either Lost or the many, many shows that ripped off Lost) without a satisfying mystery at its core. Thus, having Agatha pop up was seen by many as a reveal that retroactively gave meaning to much of the story. With a villain, WandaVision could finally be a “proper” MCU story.

Look, I’m never going to ask for less Kathryn Hahn. But I do think it’s curious how weighted this discourse has been toward a more conventional MCU narrative, when what was at least nominally exciting about the show’s early run was how little it conformed to that narrative. Once there was a more traditional villain, the story started hitting more typical beats. Those beats were often very entertaining and even occasionally insightful. But they were expected.

What would have been wrong with a series about an all-powerful witch who slowly but surely deals with her grief in her own way and on her own time, then realizes how she had projected her trauma onto others? Trauma, after all, is its own kind of mystery box, forcing the people who live with it to jump through endless hoops to trace it down to its roots and deal with it. Sure, a WandaVision more direct about grief and trauma wouldn’t have had a showdown with a supervillain at the end, but is that what we need to have a good story?

Well …

Argument 4: The Marvel Cinematic Universe vs. the rest of culture

On February 27, actor and writer Madison Hatfield tweeted the following:

Hatfield pointed to a pretty nifty line from WandaVision’s penultimate episode (“Previously On”), in which Vision, comforting Wanda as she mourns her brother’s death, suggests grief is just an extension of love. (That I took several words to say what this line says in one brief line of dialogue shows why it’s so effective.) The line struck a chord for many, many viewers.

I’m a writer, and I’m not particularly jealous of that line. (I wouldn’t phrase the sentiment in quite the same way. I would use way too many words.) But I’m always happy when any writer comes up with something that resonates with a lot of people. The WandaVision writers, led by Jac Schaeffer, deserve all the credit. But there’s also a reason Hatfield’s tweet became a meme in pop culture Twitter. Suggesting every screenwriter in the world would be so overwhelmed by this line suggested the line was so peerless that it has rarely been topped. And I don’t know how true that is.

The tweet points out something big about this discussion: A lot of the arguments about WandaVision are just proxy fights about the MCU. The degree to which Marvel’s output has become our last monocultural thing means that all of our conversations about any given Marvel movie or TV show are also conversations about the MCU itself. And if many of those shows and movies are quite good (and I would argue WandaVision flirts with being great at times), the MCU as a whole has so taken over the thinking of major Hollywood studios that said studios are increasingly backing only big-money blockbusters, almost all of which are tied to preexisting intellectual property.

The irony of this is that MCU movies are, on average, a pretty good TV show. You watch an episode and discuss it with your friends, and then a few months later, you go back to the theater to watch another episode and discuss it with your friends. The MCU isn’t as complicated to follow as some of its biggest fans and detractors will suggest, as individual installments are usually quite self-contained. But the sense that everything is connected, the solidly formulaic storytelling, and the bland sameness of many of these movies on a visual level means you will go to the theater and, more or less, know what you’re going to get. Marvel took the term “movie franchise” and made it just a little more like a fast food franchise.

But by stretching its story out over eight weeks, WandaVision has robbed MCU fans of one of the chief joys of watching an MCU movie: figuring out which future MCU movies this one is advertising. So much discussion of the MCU is applied in a forward-looking fashion, as opposed to reconsidering and discussing the movies that already exist (outside of occasionally ranking those movies). We talk about any given movie’s aesthetic qualities or its deeper storytelling themes less often than we talk about what MCU movies are coming out next and which characters they will feature.

WandaVision, then, is an MCU property that begged to be discussed for itself, for its own aesthetic and thematic qualities. The series’s use of aspect ratios — the width and height of the image onscreen — was an interesting voyage through TV history in and of itself. And by using some of the oldest TV formulas in the book, WandaVision even managed to comment on the formulaic nature of MCU storytelling more overtly.

But talking about these aesthetic and thematic qualities is largely at odds with why lots of people watch Marvel stories in the first place: to speculate about future Marvel stories. Even with WandaVision as a mystery box show, meant to be puzzled out week to week, hardcore MCU stans had largely sussed out within a few episodes that, say, Agnes was Agatha Harkness. Where was the fun in figuring out a story that was just a story? What about the teases for future stories?

It’s also telling that many of the fans who were most into WandaVision as a celebration of goofy old TV shows seemed a bit turned off by the show’s turn toward more conventional superhero shenanigans. They had experienced roughly the reverse journey of the hardest of the hardcore MCU fans. (Brief pause to note here that WandaVision, like all MCU properties, seems to have mostly pleased a lot of people, which is why the MCU remains so powerful.)

So when we boil down all four of the above arguments, we’re not really talking about WandaVision. We’re talking about the way we discuss culture today.

Argument 5: WandaVision, explained vs. WandaVision, felt

In a world reminiscent of 1970s sitcoms, Vision goes in for a kiss as Wanda beams up at him.
Wanda and Vision, now in living color.
Courtesy of Disney+

In a piece for Current Affairs, Aisling McCrea put something that lots of culture writers have been circling for years so succinctly, I actually am jealous. McCrea discusses culture via two terms used by the ancient Greeks: logos (stuff pertaining to the material world, which we can see and measure and quantify in some way) and mythos (stuff that is more elusive, which we mostly feel or contemplate). Around the piece’s midpoint, she writes:

This rejection of imagery, symbolism, or any higher meaning that cannot be reduced to the literal, has become especially pervasive in contemporary art criticism. This is not to say that there isn’t still great art criticism; it’s just that the internet has led to a much greater volume of all criticism, and much of it is dominated by a worldview that seems to reject metaphor, symbolism, mood and tone, or at least render them secondary to “plot.”

What McCrea touches on here is something I would imagine you’ve noticed if you consume a lot of pop culture writing. Though there are a ton of great critics out there working, by far the most popular articles and videos about culture are those that purport to “explain” to you what’s happening. At their best, these articles and videos reach beyond the cultural artifact at hand to talk about connections to other pop culture topics or dig into the long, complicated history of the characters whose adventures we so enjoy. At their worst, they more or less repeat the plot and tell you how to feel about it. (If you doubt me, watch any given YouTube video with “the ending, explained” in its title.)

I am not trying to suggest I exist outside of this economy. I am writing an article specifically designed to put “WandaVision, explained” somewhere in the title, so that you might click on it and read it and continue to justify my salary. We are all trapped by the digital attention economy, and even the publications I respect (like the one I write for) have to find ways to navigate it without completely compromising their values.

But the problem is that when you boil down a piece of art to its most immediately obvious qualities — the plot and/or the lore underlying the story, for instance — you turn it into something tangible. You place boundaries on it that are designed to make it easier to consume so you can move on to the next pop culture artifact.

But art isn’t tangible. Even the worst, most cynical Marvel movie is full of things worth discussing for their more intangible qualities, like how particular visuals made you feel or the way the themes intersect with your life, or just the way a joke made you laugh really hard. There are a lot of superhero movies I strongly dislike, such as Batman v Superman, that are still worth dissecting as art rather than as commerce because they’re trying to say something and express some fundamental truth of the human condition.

I’m not saying people who wished WandaVision would just get to the point already are wrong; everybody’s experience of art is, by necessity, different. But I do think that treating all art — even goofy superhero sitcom pastiches — as a story problem to be solved or a question to be answered diminishes what art is capable of giving us.

We live in a world that is dominated by the belief that we can come up with one single theory that unifies everything so that we no longer have to worry about mystery or figure out some stuff for ourselves. From “the ending, explained” videos to QAnon, we are living amid a paucity of mythos and an overabundance of logos. Our culture is spiritually and morally empty, and one of the foremost ways to refill those reservoirs in our very core beings is through storytelling and art. We have increasingly lost sight of that, and I don’t know how we’re going to get it back.

That WandaVision was a sometimes-meandering journey through the ways art can help us heal has been held against it by too many viewers. But maybe that was the point. Art is so often a message in a bottle, something an artist or group of artists makes to say, “Hey, here’s how I’m feeling. Do you agree with that?” WandaVision rediscovered that quality in the sitcom reruns that made us feel joy and solace and community, then tried to pay it forward. After all, what is art but our spirits, persevering?

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