Marvel flexes different muscles with “WandaVision,” leveraging major assets while stretching its creative formula in this first series for Disney+. The result wields more of a scalpel than a hammer, wryly celebrating the history of television while slowly, very slowly, pulling the viewer into an enticing “The Twilight Zone”-esque mystery.
The first three episodes of the nine-part series prove stingy with significant clues, so the audience should be forewarned to buckle in for the ride. The satirical framework – placing the central duo in old sitcoms – will also resonate more with an audience able to appreciate how meticulously director Matt Shakman and head writer Jac Schaeffer have replicated them, unless the kids were weaned on programs like “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “Bewitched” and will get visual gags about married couples in separate beds.
The most familiar elements, happily, see the return of Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany as Wanda and the Vision, the Scarlet Witch and synthetic android whose unlikely love affair migrated from the pages of the Avengers comics to the screen.
They’re reintroduced, somewhat jarringly, in a black-and-white sitcom episode, reflecting a real fondness for the genre, and portrayed with spot-on performances by the leads. The show features plenty of knowing nods to early-TV conventions – including canned laughter, Kathryn Hahn as the nosy neighbor, and theme songs courtesy of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, the couple that lodged all those “Frozen” tunes in parents’ heads.
What’s really going on here, given where movie-goers saw these Avengers last? That’s the fundamental mystery, one the producing team is clearly in no hurry to divulge. Patience becomes a virtue, taking in the sitcom homages while maintaining a watchful eye for sly Marvel references and cleverly placed dollops of color, presenting possible cracks in the black-and-white veneer.
The usual special-effects pyrotechnics, meanwhile, are channeled into much more subtle triumphs of production design and costuming – a TV show that turns decades of TV history into an ally.
Overall, “WandaVision” serves as a shrewd and generally impressive calling card for Marvel’s broader Disney+ strategy, after the high bar that Lucasfilm established with “The Mandalorian.” Unlike the smaller-scale shows produced for ABC and Netflix, these projects draw upon high-profile names from the movies – with the still-to-come “Loki” and “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” – then showcase them in ways that emphasize character over cinematic blockbuster trappings.
Of course, something structured like “WandaVision” can only truly be judged once you’ve reached the end of the journey. For starters, though, the studio’s streaming vision looks quite clear, even if these heroes’ black-and-white fate doesn’t.
“WandaVision” premieres Jan. 15 on Disney+.