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Did WandaVision Save the On-Screen Superhero?

After the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) charged through 23 movies leading up to the cataclysmic finale that was Endgame, it seemed like superheroes had hit their on-screen peak. These films kept our ever-shortening attention across 11 years and put the cherry on top of a meteoric run by snagging the title for highest grossing film of all time. Not all of these movies are great, some far from it, but Kevin Feige and the creative teams at Marvel Studios deserve commendation just for the feat of linking the plots of all of these films together. Back in 2008 when Iron Man first hit theaters, I think we would have been hard-pressed to predict that superhero movies would become one of the most popular types of film in a culture where the large majority still perceives reading comics as nerdy.

After holding on to these character for so many years, I felt—as I’m sure a large number of other fans did—a bit fatigued. And not just from testing my bladder control while waiting for the end credits scenes to play. Several movies in, everything began to follow a similar formula:

  1. Establish a problem (likely space/alien invasion related)
  2. Make a plan (complete with epic montage)
  3. Confront villain but lose the battle
  4. Recoup and form a new plan
  5. Find villain and fight again (with lots of jump cuts)
  6. Break from fight for quippy dialogue (there will always be quips)
  7. Make some kind of self-discovery that the main character will have to overcome in order to win
  8. Eventually defeat the villain
  9. Celebrate victory (and usually get the girl)
  10. End credit scene (to get people excited, or more often, confused)

The MCU had become predictable. So predictable, in fact, that I was guessing lines before characters said them with shocking accuracy while in the theater watching Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2 for the first time. I was willing to ride it out to the end of the Phase 3 slate of movies, but not with much excitement. While Infinity War and Endgame broke the cycle of repetition to a certain extent, I was fairly ready to close the chapter on my viewing of on-screen superhero content.

WandaVision pleasantly shattered that perception. It was inventive, suspenseful, and emotional. It wasn’t anything like the punchpunchquippunch formula I had come to know. The show is an ode to the history of television, with the first batch of episodes visually and thematically inspired by a standout show of every decade from the 1950s to today, made even better via the secret ingredient of Kathryn Hahn. I couldn’t wait for a new episode to come out each week, and clearly neither could most viewers, all commiserating on Twitter and TikTok about what might happen next. The show’s viewership quickly climbed to the top spot in the U.S. after the first couple episodes, and remained there until the end of the series.

After finishing the last episode, I wondered why this particular show impacted me so much more than previous superhero stories. Was it because it was one of the few MCU franchises that featured a female lead? Was it because the central plot focused on the intricacies of love and grief rather than just a quest to find some magical object or blow something up? Was it because of how catchy “Agatha All Along” was? Asking the important questions here.

In the current oversaturated market of film and television, taking a risk is paramount to attracting and keeping viewers, and taking an experimental route with format and style paid off big time for WandaVision. And while you need to have watched most, if not all, of the MCU films to have context for the show, it felt extremely novel. Sure, there were still CGI-heavy fight scenes and the occasional quip, but on the whole, it maintained a tone that was tender and unique. It drastically changed the perception of what a superhero-focused piece can be, and revitalized the MCU to boot.

The success of WandaVision can certainly be attributed to the work of its magnificent creative team and cast, but—as all Marvel Studios content does—it came with the head start of a stirring story provided by the comics. Elizabeth Olsen, who portrays Wanda Maximoff, practically predicted the show becoming a reality in a 2015 interview while discussing House of M (the 8-issue comic series from which WandaVision is largely based) when asked where she wanted the character to go. For any MCU endeavor, it simply comes down to deciding how to engage existing IP in a new way. Though with 80+ years of comics to choose from, that’s no easy task.

Hopefully, we aren’t headed back to the regularly scheduled programming as the the MCU moves forward with its Phase 4 slate of shows and movies, albeit somewhat jumbled because of pandemic-induced delays to theatrical releases and production. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is the next big Marvel show to hit the screen, the first episode premiering on Disney+ next Friday, March 19. As much as I love the chemistry between Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan, I’m doubtful that the show is going to carry the same emotional weight as WandaVision, particularly based off of it’s buddy-cop style trailer. That isn’t to say that every Marvel product has to have as gut-wrenching of moments as “What is grief is not love persisting?” After all, these are superheroes we’re talking about. Their M.O. is putting on costumes and fighting people. If there isn’t room for levity there, I don’t know where there is. But if the next thing we see from Marvel goes the route of the Snyder Cut and just rehashes things it has already done, I, like Wanda, will finally be ready to put things to rest.

Writer, designer, and mediocre pun connoisseur. Usually writing (and ranting) about things on screen, and occasionally, the wild world off of it.