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WandaVision, Ep. 1: Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience

Note:  There are major spoilers ahead.  This article assumes some familiarity with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so if you haven’t seen Avengers:  Infinity War, Avengers:  Endgame, and the first episode of WandaVision, do that first and then come back.

One of the weirdest things about the post-geek world we find ourselves living in is the way in which what was once the secret, shameful province of a select and outcast few has not only been embraced by mainstream pop culture, but has become, for the moment at least, a vital part of its foundation.  Thanks to the movies, you find people who’ve never read a comic book in their lives taking ownership of the likes of Captain America and Iron Man, and discussing the Marvel Cinematic Universe by the cold light of day, as if that’s a perfectly normal thing to do (which now, I guess, it is…but oh, my sweet summer children, ’twas not always so).  This phenomena is a little jarring for someone like me, who’s been living intimately with the idea of mutants, androids, super-soldiers, thunder gods, and crime-fighting teen-agers in spider costumes for pretty much the entirety of their life.  I’m not sure how many Marvel Comics I’m harboring / hoarding in my collection, but it’s somewhere well north of sanity…all of which is to say that I’m walking in the door of any MCU movie or television show pre-burdened with decades of history and unreasonably militant notions too powerful for mortal brains to contain.

X-Men #4, March 1964: First appearance of the Scarlet Witch, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

Both the principal characters of WandaVision have been around for 50+ years in print form.  The quick version:  Wanda Maximoff, a.k.a. the Scarlet Witch, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, made her debut in X-Men #4, March 1964.[1]The actual publication date, according to the online Catalog of Copyright Entries — it’s as much fun as it sounds — was January 4 1964.  Back in the days when comic books could … Continue reading  She and her brother Pietro, a.k.a. Quicksilver were a pair of east European orphans press-ganged into Magneto’s mutant rights terrorist group, the helpfully-named Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.

Avengers #16, May 1965 – The Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and Hawkeye join Captain America as the first replacement Avengers.

Later, in Avengers #16, May 1965,[2]March 13 1965, CCE. Wanda and Pietro, along with Hawkeye, would join Captain America as the first Avengers replacing the departing original members.  As for the Vision, his first comic appearance was in Avengers #57, October 1968[3]August 10 1968, CCE.  Created / repurposed[4]We’re not going to go into it, but trust me when I tell you that the particulars of the Vision’s origin story are a labrythine rabbit hole of epic proportions. by the ape-shit evil super robot Ultron-5 to destroy the Avengers, the Vision instead wound up embracing humanity and joining the group.  If you’re thinking that creating a synthetic super-being for the express purpose of eliminating your enemies is taking the long way around, fact is that’s just the way shit got done in 1968, particularly if you were a megamaniacal human-hating robot.  Anyway…

The Marvel Cinematic Universe versions of these characters — the ones we’ll be dealing with here in WandaVision — both made their first appearances in Avengers:  Age of Ultron (2015, d. Joss Whedon), with Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff[5]To the best of my knowledge, she’s never actually called the Scarlet Witch in the MCU. and Paul Bettany as the Vision.

There are some notable differences between comics and movies, some which may prove relevant to events in, and our understanding of, WandaVision:

  • Avengers #57, Oct 1968 – First appearance of the Vision, created by Roy Thomas and John Buscema.

    The Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver of the comics are mutants, people born with powers that typically manifest at puberty.  Mutants are an often feared and distrusted minority in the comics.  Wanda and Pietro Maximoff in the movies are super-humans whose powers were engineered by Hydra’s Baron Strucker, utilizing the power of one of the six Infinity Stones, the Mind Stone.[6]The other five are Space, Reality, Power, Soul, and Time.

  • The Vision of the comics was created by Ultron, with “brain patterns” based on the deceased Simon Williams, a.k.a. Wonder Man, to destroy the Avengers.  In the movies, the Vision is created by Ultron to house Ultron’s consciousness.  The Avengers steal the synthetic body, uploading Tony Stark’s J.A.R.V.I.S. AI into it, and the Vision is given somewhat accidental Frakenstein life by lightning from Thor’s hammer and use of the Mind Stone — the very same stone that granted the Maximoffs their powers — which the Vision wears upon his brow.
  • The Vision’s powers work more or less the same in both print and film versions — he can control his body’s density, and fire solar-powered rays — but that’s not the case at all with the Scarlet Witch.  Up to this point, the Wanda Maximoff of the movies has shown some ability to affect minds (in Age of Ultron), but her primary power seems to be telekinesis; she moves things with her mind, typically accompanied by a swirling red effect.  The Scarlet Witch of the comics, however, warps reality.  You read that right:  her power warps reality.  Usually in small ways, sometimes in larger ways, and on at least one occasion on a scale that was world-changing, even godlike.
Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen)

Now that’s a whole lot of virtual ink spilled on comic books for what’s supposed to be a review of a television show, but I suspect that this matter of reality warping may have some part to play in WandaVision.  One big clue:  the last time we saw our Avenging heroes in Avengers:  Endgame (2019), the Vision was dead.  Or inert.  Non-functioning.  No longer in operation.  Whatever we’d call it when a synthetic person stops working, that’s what the Vision was, the Mind Stone that animated him taken from his brow by Thanos in Avengers:  Infinity War (2018) and returned to the time stream by Captain America at the conclusion of Endgame.

All nine episodes of WandaVision were directed by veteran Matt Shakman, who’s done a ton of television:  episodes of Raising Hope, Mad Men, Fargo, The Good Wife, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Game of Thrones, and Billions, among many others, plus an Emmy nomination for the episode of The Great he directed.  It’s a little unusual for a single director to handle every episode of a season or series; it’s a lot of work.  Typically, there’s a sort of ‘house style’ employed by a rotating stable of directors under the firm hand of the show runner (think something like The Sopranos:  one style, multiple directors).

The Vision (Paul Bettany)

This first episode appears to be nearly all set-up, with lots of questions, few (if any) answers.  No mention is made of the last time we saw these characters, and no explanation provided as to how or why they’re here.  Filmed almost entirely in black and white, most of the episode takes place in an idealized American Neverland mixed with elements of the MCU; a classic TV sitcom blend (complete with laugh track and Mid-Atlantic pronunctiation) of I Love Lucy (1951), Leave It to Beaver (1957), and The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961).

The episode’s plot concerns Wanda and the Vision hosting a dinner party for the Vision’s boss and his wife, the Harts (played by Fred Melamed, from the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man, and Debra Jo Rupp, from That 70’s Show).  Wanda is given some unsolicited help for this dinner party by a persistently nosy neighbor, Agnes (Kathryn Hahn).  The dinner party is important for purposes of the Vision’s professional advancement at his job, Computational Services Inc., though what exactly that job entails, no one is quite sure, or they’re not saying:

“Would you be so good as to tell me what it is we do here exactly?  Do we make something?”

“No.”

“Right.  Do we buy or sell something?”

“No and no.”

“Then what is the purpose of this company?”

“All I know is since you’ve gotten here, productivity has gone up 300%!”

“Yes, but what is it we’re producing?”

“Computational forms.  And no one can process the data quite like you do, pal.  You’re like a walking computer!”

“What?  I most certainly am not!  I’m a regular carbon-based employee  made entirely of organic matter much like yourself, Norm!”

This entire episode, in fact, revolves around matters of memory, time, identity, and function:

  • Wanda hides her powers from the Harts, the Vision masquerades as a human in front of his colleagues.
  • Both Wanda and the Vision puzzle at first over the significance of the date, August 23rd,[7]If this date alludes to anything in some metatextual way, I confess, I’ve no idea what it is. before realizing it’s the night of the dinner date with the Harts.
  • Agnes assumes on their first meeting that Wanda is single, noting she’s not wearing a ring, and Wanda assures her she is married, to a man, “a human one, and tall!”  When pressed how long they’ve been married, after Wanda tries to pass off the significant date as her anniversary, she tells Agnes that it “feels like we’ve always been together.”  Later, Wanda will tell the Vision, “It’s our anniversary!”  The Vision’s reply:  “Anniversary of what?”
  • There’s an in-universe commercial for an advanced toaster, the Toastmate 2000 by Stark Industries.  Let’s recall here that in the MCU, Tony Stark is one of the creators of the Vision.  There’s a blinking red light on the toaster — the one and only thing in color to this point in the episode — accompanied by an alarm that sounds like a heart monitor.  The light with the sound blinks with increasing urgency to the end of the commercial, which ends with an exhortation to “Forget the past, this is your future!”
The Harts (Fred Melamed and Debro Jo Rupp)

Misunderstanding and narrow escape characterize the dinner party, until things take a momentarily Lynchian turn in terms of lighting and event.  When Mr. Hart presses them for their origins, neither Wanda nor the Vision knows exactly.  “Why did you come here?” asks Mr. Hart, growing agitated, and then beginning to choke on a morsel of food.  “Stop it,” says Mrs. Hart repeatedly, stress-smiling through this strange nightmare, as Mr. Hart falls to the ground, unable to breathe.  The Vision reaches into Mr. Hart’s throat and pulls the obstruction free at Wanda’s behest…at which point the laugh track returns, and the Harts make a sudden, polite exit.

After the Harts leave, Wanda and the Vision remark upon their lack of history, their lack of normality.  In-universe end credits begin — the same font and background as I Love Lucy! — before the camera pulls back and we see the in-universe credits on a monitor.  The world outside the monitor is in full color and apparently objective reality.  Someone writes some notes and then closes a notebook with a sword logo[8]There is an organization called S.W.O.R.D. in the Marvel Universe of the comics; they deal with extraterrestrial threats, invading aliens and the like. on its cover.

Some final thoughts on this episode:

  • As noted earlier, the Scarlet Witch’s powers in the comics warp reality.  If a person or organization had it in mind to create some sort of simulated existence, tapping into Wanda’s powers might be one way they could go about it.  It’s possible this sitcom existence might be a Sokovian girl’s idea of the ideal American experience.  Why create or manipulate a simulated reality?  Well, if you were an evil person or organization, and you found out there was a super-hero who literally had the power to alter what was or wasn’t at a whim, you might see your way to finding out if you could appropriate or direct said power for your own ends.  Not saying that’s what’s happening here, but I wouldn’t rule it out.  It’s also possible Wanda has created her own pocket reality in her grief over the Vision’s loss, though that doesn’t necessarily explain the notetaking and remote operation going on at the end of the episode.
  • The Vision struggles with memory in this episode, and that shouldn’t be possible.  With regard to the Vision’s powers of recall, he’s more machine than person; he should be able to recollect everything that’s ever happened to him or that he’s learned with unerring clarity.
  • I think Arthur Hart and his wife may represent Wanda and the Vision’s subconscious efforts to wake themselves up.
  • The only analog I can think of for Agnes is Agatha Harkness, who’s a no-shit burn-her-at-the-stake Salem-style witch.  The Agatha Harkeness of the comics has a long history with the Scarlet Witch as a kind of mentor, so her involvement would make some sense here.  Agatha Harkness isn’t young like Kathryn Hahn, though I suppose if you’re a witch who’s managed to stay alive for several lifetimes, altering your appearance probably wouldn’t prove all that difficult.  Also, as noted, what we’re seeing here probably isn’t ‘reality’ in any objective sense.

And there it is!  WandaVision Ep. 1, in the books!  Thanks for joining me; I hope you’ll let me know what you think, and if you have any questions!

References

References
1 The actual publication date, according to the online Catalog of Copyright Entries — it’s as much fun as it sounds — was January 4 1964.  Back in the days when comic books could still be found at newsstands and in grocery and convenience stores,, the thinking went that placing the cover date a couple months in advance of the actual publication date would fool proprietors into giving the book a longer shelf life.
2 March 13 1965, CCE.
3 August 10 1968, CCE.
4 We’re not going to go into it, but trust me when I tell you that the particulars of the Vision’s origin story are a labrythine rabbit hole of epic proportions.
5 To the best of my knowledge, she’s never actually called the Scarlet Witch in the MCU.
6 The other five are Space, Reality, Power, Soul, and Time.
7 If this date alludes to anything in some metatextual way, I confess, I’ve no idea what it is.
8 There is an organization called S.W.O.R.D. in the Marvel Universe of the comics; they deal with extraterrestrial threats, invading aliens and the like.

7 replies on “WandaVision, Ep. 1: Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience”

Nice review. I found the choking scene uncomfortable, which was the point I know.

My mind has immediately jumped to the pocket dimension grief bubble, but she seems trapped in her own mind. Or maybe a psychic schism where part of her is creating and the other is ‘enjoying’ the experience.

Whatever, it’s off to a trippy start.

Gotta say, I admired the show’s willingness to go all in on the trippy / no answers and no fucks given approach. Looking forward to seeing where this show goes.

“Scrumtrulescent,” as Will Ferrell-as-James Lipton would say. Enormously entertaining and edifying stuff! Thank you and I eagerly await your next installment!

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