If there is one thing Marvel Studios is world class at, it’s fumbling the ball. The studio has nearly a century of characters with rich backstories to draw on, a seemingly bottomless pool of Disney money to spend and the whole of Hollywood’s A-list of actors and directors from which to cast. Yet despite the their unparalleled basket of ingredients, the Marvel recipe consistently spits out finished products that fall well short of the sum of their parts.
Formulaic. That may be the single best word to describe Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. Kevin Feige and co. might prefer you think of them as bold, visionary or ambitious, but the MCU hasn’t done anything truly risky since Phase One. Say all you want about how Marvel made a movie about a talking raccoon but when that anthropomorphic procyonid is voiced by Bradley Cooper and ties into a decade’s long web of big budget sequels, it starts to look a bit less groundbreaking.
It’s worth noting how we got here. The movie studio that now dominates Hollywood wasn’t always this popular, in fact just twenty five years ago Marvel studios was entirely bankrupt. So dismal was their prior film work that Sony even declined to purchase rights to most of the Avengers characters for $25 million, far less than the net profits of any single MCU movie. With nothing left to lose, they found a similarly down on his luck movie star and made a bet that people might consume movies the same way they do comics. Iron Man (2008) was, of course, a smash success, catapulting the moribund Marvel to the top of the movie industry. In 2009, just 13 years after their bankruptcy, Disney would buy Marvel Studios for $4 billion, 160 times the price Sony turned down.
But movie’s aren’t comics and the price of failure is massive. A box office bomb could cost tens of millions of dollars — the average MCU budget is about $200 million — a far cry from the losses on an unpopular comic book run that are likely in the tens of thousands. So as soon as they found success, Marvel began pumping out movies that looked and felt like Iron Man, all with the promise of something bigger to come. Each film became one link in a chain, but in this case even the weakest link was required viewing. Ever since, Marvel has run dozens of characters through their assembly line, putting out 23 movies that with few exceptions look, sound and feel the same.
That brings us to WandaVision. Marvel has gotten to the place of world domination and has the capital, both social and fiscal, to take some chances. Disney+ gives them the space to create quasi-separate stories in long form, to really explore characters beyond the confines of a 2 hour (or too often 3 hour) movie. People would watch WandaVision, whatever it was. Good or bad, the show wouldn’t stop fans from flocking to theaters for Black Widow or The Eternals when the time came.
**WandaVision Spoilers Ahead**
For a few weeks it seemed like Marvel just might deliver with all that creative freedom. WandaVision has a pretty strange premise — a witch and an android living together in a TV sitcom world — and the early episodes leaned into it. The first three episodes saw Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) acting out the Dick van Dyke Show, Bewitched and the Brady Bunch with a slow burning mystery behind them. Those episodes were quirky, fun, and mostly devoid of the broader MCU. Each had a self contained story and more subtly laid the groundwork for an overall about grief and coping.
Then the MCU rolled in, quite literally in the form of S.W.O.R.D, essentially Marvel’s Space Force. Aside from a brief scene at the end, episode four excluded Wanda and Vision all together, an odd choice for a show literally called WandaVision. Instead, that episode was the true pilot of Mavel’s flagship limited series. From there on, the show became about the machinations of the broader MCU, setting up storylines for future movies and shows. A big bad was introduced and diabolical plans were unveiled, all while characters on screen insisted that this was still all about Wanda’s trauma.
For a while it looked as though Wanda herself might be the show’s “villain.” A story about a powerful witch so overcome with loss that she accidentally mind controlled a town actually would have been boundary pushing! But that isn’t what we got. WandaVision starts there and ends as a show about an evil witch manipulating our hero. Wanda is never forced to grapple with that supposed central thesis of her loss. Sure, she has to say goodbye to the family she fabricated, but in typical Marvel fashion it’s all undone in a snap. A new Vision flies off, his memories restored to that of the old one, her kids Tommy and Billy have vanished, but a post credit scene conveniently teases a return.
Therein lies WandaVision’s biggest failing; its inability to provide any meaningful resolutions, episode by episode or as a series. The whole show feels like it was written by a movie team and chopped up into nine pieces. That’s not how TV should work. Episodic storytelling should work episodically. Why make it a show and release it weekly if none of the episodes are going to resolve their own subplots? At least two different episodes exist just to backfill information that could have been woven more organically throughout the show.
What could have been a really tender, internal story about love and loss got consumed by the Marvel monster. Having to set up Doctor Strange 2, some future S.W.O.R.D project and some future Young Avengers project meant sidelining Wanda’s emotional journey. The MCU formula can’t allow for their heroes to ever be the villain. In the end Wanda has to do the right thing, but Agatha’s (Kathryn Hahn) involvement, and straight up evil role, lets her off the hook for the damage she caused. Wanda doesn’t really have to grapple with her own insecurities and past to resolve the show, she just has to do battle with the comic book villain.
This is what Marvel does. They take weird superhero stories and grind them down until they’re digestible to everyone and offensive to nobody. They sprinkle in hundreds of references to keep fans guessing as to what’s next and expand their own metaphorical Hex over the entertainment industry.
Without doubt, the weekly speculation over where WandaVision was going was far more fun and interesting than the show itself. While there is value to fan service and a collective engagement, it can only last as long as the series. Eventually every series has to stand only on what exists on screen. With WandaVision now over, the mysteries mostly solved, fans have to engage with what the show was instead of what it will, can or should be. As the dust settles, just about every fan theory was more interesting than the actual finished product. Once again Marvel ran with a quirky idea and fumbled the ball when it counted most.
We know that WandaVision is just the beginning. Marvel will continue to “take risks” with their new products. For them that clearly means more strange premises that inevitably come back to a literal altercation between good and evil. This was the show that had the most potential to really think outside the box Marvel has created, but the MCU’s vision can never seem to break out of the safety of those borders. See y’all for Falcon and the Winter Soldier...