Disney’s suburban sitcom superhero series is a particularly 2021 flavour of magic, writes LBB’s Laura Swinton
When Marvel Disney Kevin Feige was mapping out the Marvel Cinematic Universe I don’t believe he was planning for a global pandemic. But here we are: It’s 2021, many countries around the world are in some form of lockdown and Disney+ is dropping a series about a pair of superheroes unable to escape a suburban sitcom world, stuck in a loop. Funny how life works out like that.
For those yet to indulge, Wandavision is the new MCU series that’s been gathering steam over the last six weeks and this strangely claustrophobic show about grief, media and a scramble to hold together a rapidly disintegrating sense of reality couldn’t feel more 2021. It follows Marvel characters Wanda – known in the comics as the Scarlet Witch – and her sentient android love, Vision.
The catch is that the show is formatted around family sitcoms, and each episode is themed around a different decade starting off with the tight, arch stylings of the Dick Van Dyke Show and Bewitched and tumbling into the chaotic live studio audience comedies of the ‘80s, and fourth-wall-breaking ‘90s tween shows like Malcolm in the Middle. It looks like next week, as Wanda’s control starts to crumble and realities collide, we’re set to get an appropriately meta sitcom style inspired by the likes of Modern Family and The Office.
From a production and design point of view, the series thus far has been a masterful. It's a show that relies on its audience's fluency in the language of TV and pop culture, messing about with aspect ratios and camera movements, laugh tracks and ad breaks to build a world of weird. The team behind it have been meticulous, with hair, costuming, set design and colour grades being used to evoke the shows of the 20th century, and to tell a bigger story. The second episode tenderly recreates the playful intro animations of sitcoms like Bewitched and Angel, while the third episode, inspired by The Brady Bunch, makes a feature of its horrendous painted backdrops. It's so good that I don't even resent the fact that a hefty third of the run time is devoted to the credits.
Commercial (Reality) Break
In the wildly unlikely event that the superhero thing or clever-dick meta TV formats aren’t your bag, there’s plenty for people working in advertising, marketing and production to chew on. Most obviously are the commercial breaks that pepper the series. Fake ads, aping the decade of the episode, pop up giving us a glimpse into Wanda’s subconscious and revealing clues to the show’s underlying episode. Easter eggs and hints aside, they also serve as a potted history of American TV advertising.
There’s a single-camera toaster ad from the ‘50s, a Vaseline-lensed bubble bath ad that’s all ‘70s luxe and the most recent episode is a claymation commercial that’s part California Raisins, part Levi’s Mr Bombastic, fully rad ‘90s fun. As someone who writes about advertising from around the world, I love the way that commercials can provide a window into a culture or a point in time. And that’s something that the makers get.
Fake ads dreamed up for Hollywood films and TV have a history of ringing hollow – they’re never quite right and it’s something that genuinely bugs me. But in Wandavision the slightly stilted weirdness works for the story. In the series these ads function as a sort of Greek chorus or Shakespearean fool, commenting on the plot – but they hint at the characters’ murky and complicated psychologies. Manipulation is an important thread in the story, so it makes sense that the showrunners would draw a line to advertising. The ads doesn’t shy away from the sexist stereotypes of yesteryear – in fact it plays with them – and as the series progresses the ads themselves get increasingly sinister. Wandavision’s little faux-mercials seem to capture a moral tension within the communications industry, as it wrestles with the potential for brands to do good and reality that many continue to act unethically from beneath a veneer of greenwashing and black squares.
Appointment Viewing 2.0
It’s not just the craft or the commercials that are giving the more pretentiously-inclined nerds of the industry something to chew over. The show’s release strategy is one for media planners to mull over. Recent years has seen the rise of the binge, and it’s become common for streaming services to dump a whole new series in one go – giving the public what they want in order to lure them away from traditional TV. But the downside of this approach is that fans can burn through a whole season and find they don’t have anyone to geek out with. And so Amazon and Disney have been experimenting with a weekly release schedule with shows like The Boys and The Mandalorian respectively. When Amazon decided to drop their cynical anti-superhero action comedy weekly, they initially were hit with a huge fan backlash – but attitudes mellowed and hype built. With WandaVision, the unusual and very non-superhero format threw impatient fans who were desperate for the mystery to unravel and the action to start – but Disney was confident in the quality of the show and that what they were doing would pay off.
Who knew? It turns out that when we’re all stuck at home, we appreciate a little bit of structure and something to actually look forward to every week. Certainly it hasn’t hurt Disney+; in just over a year they’ve garnered 94.9m subscribers worldwide (including 8m new subscribers who joined over the festive period).
When entire TV shows are dumped in one go, it means that momentous twists and revelations get lost, fans don’t get the chance to theorise and collectively discuss the show without risking spoilers – and the streaming services lose all that free hype, PR and advertising. With Wandavision, the show goes live at 8am UK time, midnight Pacific time and 3am Eastern Time in the US – and YouTubers start pushing out their reviews within an hour or so, and the rest of the day sees related hashtags trending on Twitter. It’s notable that with other big series from the past year dropped in the binge models, many influencers have spoken openly about their uncertainty about whether episode-by-episode breakdowns are really worth it.
It turns out people aren’t missing the office – but the water cooler.
Into the Multiverse – or the Metaverse
And the fun doesn’t stop there. WandaVision is a show that looks set to bring the concept of the multiverse into the mainstream of the MCU. As a long-time devourer of comic book and sci-fi worlds, I sometimes need to remind myself not to take this stuff for granted – different realities and dimensions bashing up against each other. It’s a concept that was articulated with stunning, stylised visuals in the Oscar-winning animated movie Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, but that film did not have the same reach as the billion dollar box office movies of the MCU.
Back here, in the real world, we’re seeing a new wave of excitement around the concept of the virtual Metaverse, a connected world where we can immerse ourselves and connect and interact through online avatars. It’s an idea that pops up every few years and then sort of fizzles down because technology isn’t quite ready, as happened with Second Life in the mid-noughties or the flurries of excitement around the Matrix or Ready Player One. But with lockdown and the increased hours spent socialising on games like Fortnite and Animal Crossing, there’s renewed excitement about a virtual reality existence.
I’ve got a funny feeling that while WandaVision isn’t particularly about VR, it’s going to herald a phase of entertainment that takes ideas about reality and parallel worlds from the fringe of comics and sci fi into the mainstream. In December, Marvel will release a new Spider-Man film that, if rumours are to be believed, will star previous Spider-Man actors from different continuities for a live action take on the Spider-Verse. And next year Marvel has Dr Strange and the Multiverse of Madness on the slate. Some of this reality-bending fayre is, oddly enough, the result of not a pure drive to tell new kinds of stories but straight-up commercial concerns. Disney is trying to figure out how to slot newly-acquired Marvel characters into the MCU following the Fox buyout and as it navigates the complexities of its deal with Sony (who own Spider-Man, but lend him out to the MCU). How’s that for creativity solving business problems?
We’ve seen brands embrace the idea of crossovers and their own weird multiverses for some time – back in 2012 Old Spice gate-crashed ads for fellow P&G brands, and just a couple of years ago It’s a Tide Ad inserted the laundry detergent into a range of different commercial ‘worlds’. Hey, maybe this is what we mean when we talk about brands influencing culture? If the writers really do know their peanuts, perhaps we’ll see a similarly meta ad break in next week’s episode?
In the mean time, I've got a whole seven days to wait. Please, for the love of She-Hulk, I need someone to nerd out about this with.