Marvel Studios has leapt from the big screen to the small screen with WandaVision, and its popularity seems like no surprise for a company that continues to dominate popular culture. The one obstacle to its success might have been its odd premise of Wanda and Vision being trapped in a sitcom that hops between eras. However, little time elapses before we have an awareness of the wider scope of the tale, and we’re both inundated with references and seeing how the story slots into the wider Marvel universe. Some might argue that it’s not proper television, that it merely transplants big screen entertainment into a different format, yet it has to be recognised as a force that might change TV as we’ve come to know it.
A likely result is the increasing prominence of superheroes in the medium. There’s currently a large number of them at the moment, from darkly self-aware works like The Boys and Watchmen to the CW’s ever-increasing slate of DC-derived shows. Superhero shows have always been insignificant next to the multi million costing and grossing blockbuster movies, reflected by them being side-lined into separate continuities. The success of WandaVision might encourage studios and writers to realise that the small screen can be just as valuable a vehicle for telling their character’s stories. It’s a potentially exciting prospect, as there are many films that needed more space — whether epics like Watchmen that were too condensed, or blockbusters like the Iron Man movies which never had the chance to breathe.
This particular show looks likely to revive interest in classic TV, which is great considering how separate it seems from today. WandaVision‘s episodes span from ’60s-themed programs to the modern day, going through the decades and meticulously mimicking the aesthetics of each era in front and behind the camera. The black and white, laugh track supported, wholesome entertainment of the ’60s seems divorced from the knowing, edgy comedy of today. But by spending so much time looking at it through the lens of the planet’s biggest creative property, it’s a way to make older entertainment cool, relevant, and worth revisiting for multiple generations that have become used to very different presentations.
Perhaps one of the best results it can provide is introducing fans of blockbuster cinema to odd and unusual concepts, and signifying that audiences want more of that. Superhero films are obsessed with origin stories, with new characters coming onto our screens constantly, each having their own story about how they became heroes. The interest in this tale, which is a multi-hour story about Wanda trying to deal with the events of the last two Avengers movies, might suggest to Marvel and franchise creators that people don’t just want surface level entertainment exploring the same themes of finding your place. This might be a springboard towards more complex tales, ones actually drawn from character growth, which graphic novel fans get to experience.
But is WandaVision just the start of television’s domination by superheros and Disney? It’s likely to be better than the relentless content produced by Netflix, low quality series that exist as little more than padding, whereas any shows by Marvel will inevitably have narrative purpose and quality because of the need to fit with their universe’s movies. The concern is, though, that the streaming era largely began with Breaking Bad — a dark, challenging, truly unforgettable and grounded exploration of good and evil that still managed to reach the masses. Between this and Disney’s Star Wars content, however, there’ll be little need to look beyond Disney+, leaving a world of fascinating, socially relevant, and adult shows to languish.
Its big budget and cinematic aspirations are a threat too to what DC is doing independently and so well. Something like Supergirl is utterly unconcerned with the seriousness, relentless self-awareness, and constant interconnectedness of its competitors. Instead, it’s reminiscent of the likes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, and The New Adventures of Superman, there being plenty of humour and interesting characters but episodic, easily digestible storytelling that gives audiences much more room to connect with its leads. It would be a shame, and in the case of WandaVision, a particularly ironic one, if the pressure was felt to move DC entertainment to a format that both reveres and is scared to be TV.
Despite the big budget sheen, it’s chaotic in many ways, largely because it forgets that it’s not cinema. The eight episodes of WandaVision are increasingly compelling as we become more invested in the characters and see the plot’s scope, and it has some rich, intelligent, and moving themes around grief. Regardless of those positives, the depth of storytelling is much shallower than it could be, with only a few moments where powerful emotions aren’t just implied but shown and even possible to feel as a viewer. There are great ideas and potentially interesting characters, but the show isn’t comfortable with a slow, character-driven road, and instead moves us towards a climax where all but the leads are largely forgotten. WandaVision is far from literary and far from an example of great TV, no matter how thrilling it might be on its own terms.
Responsibility for WandaVision’s fence-straddling and Disney+’s increasing power rests largely on the shoulders of Netflix, probably the biggest streaming service, as it’s never done enough to elevate its best work. Shows like The OA and Sense8 have had fantastic reviews and have dedicated fandoms, but Netflix has done far too little marketing and ultimately cancelled them because of the results of that neglect. Star Trek: Discovery, a challenging sci-fi show going from strength to strength, risks the same fate. There’s a market for unique and offbeat programming, evident in the wide interest in the intense, often discomfiting drama of Breaking Bad and the genre-spanning adventures of Lost. Marketers need to trust that audiences are sophisticated enough or they will risk losing viewers to WandaVision and its ilk that wear sophistication like a cloak.
WandaVision is definitely not bad entertainment, and sometimes even seems great whilst watching, but its positives for television seem slim. At best it might encourage creators to not simply turn to film because it’s more epic. WandaVision has proven you can tell tales on the smaller screen that perhaps feel even more important than big screen counterparts. However, it also encourages a particularly limiting type of storytelling by relying on cinematic conventions — pushing the narrative to an epic showdown without caring about the characters side-lined by it. The power of Marvel’s marketing is such that people will see this as an inspiration for how to approach genre television when superheroes have been done better elsewhere. We can only hope that Disney+’s competition steps up to the plate or we very well see an end to the era of prestige TV.
Header Image Courtesy of Disney