In the past fifteen years, Marvel has made strides with theatrical releases. Iron Man, released 2008, paved the way for a number of movies that are now part of The Avengers Initiative. However, during that time, superheroes on television have been the realm of DC, starting with Arrow in 2012. The Arrowverse, though, was separate from DC’s cinematic universe.
Disney’s acquistion of Marvel in 2009 would become a game changer. Disney has the money to spend to compete. Disney also has the money to buy the competition. The company’s acquisition of Fox and its subsidiaries took two years with the transition ending in 2019. However, before the acquisition, Fox managed to make one of the most comic book movies ever, Deadpool. The other most comic book movie ever is, of course, Scott Pilgrim vs the World, distributed by Universal Pictures. Once Disney had Fox’s assets, could Marvel Studios make a comic book TV series?
Enter Vision and the Scarlet Witch. Both characters have extensive history in the Marvel comics. Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch, has been both hero and villain. She was once a member of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants under Magneto and later a member of the Avengers and its spin-off team, the Avengers West Coast. In both cases, she was with her twin brother, Pietro, aka Quicksilver. Wanda’s powers, her mutant ability to manipulate probability combined with witchcraft, put her as one of the most powerful characters in the Marvel Universe. The Vision is a synthezoid, a synthetic android with a Solar Gem that provides him sentience. He was built by the villainous sentient robot, Ultron, using the template of the original Human Torch android and was given the goal of destroying the Avengers. The Vision’s powers include superhuman strength and reflexes, a durable body shell, and the ability to control his density from superdense to intangible.
Wanda and Vision met as Avengers, fell in love, and got married, becoming one of the rare superhero couples, though the West Coast Avengers also had Hawkeye and Mockingbird. As a couple, they had two volumes of their own series, Vision and the Scarlet Witch, for a total of 16 issues combined. In the second volume, Wanda became pregnant with twins. However, her happiness didn’t last long. Vision was destroyed and rebuilt, now with chalk white skin and no emotions or memories. Wanda’s twins later started to disappear, leading to a string of nannies at the West Coast Avengers’ compound in California. After consulting with Agatha Harkness, it was determined that Wanda’s children weren’t real, created by her desires and her powers but with no substance when her attention was focused elsewhere.
Team superhero titles are soap operas, really.
All of the above leads to WandaVision, a nine episode series on Disney+ first available September 2021. WandaVision stars Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda, Paul Bettany as Vision, Kathryn Hahn as Agnes, Teyonah Parris as Monica Rambeau, Randall Park as Jimmy Woo, and Kat Dennings as Dr. Darcy Lewis. The first episode begins with the usual Marvel Studios bumper, but at the end, it switches to 1.33:1 aspect ratio instead of widescreen, black & white instead of colour, and mono instead of stereo. The episode itself is homage to sitcoms of the 50s, particularly The Dick van Dyke show, and shows the titular couple trying to live a mundane life in the sleepy town of Westfield. The effects reflect the era; no CGI for Wanda’s magic, just wires.
The second episode brings the show up to the 60s, in the style of Bewitched. However, little things start looking odd for Wanda, such as a red helicopter with a sword logo landing in her front yard. very odd, considering the show was in back and white until the final minutes when colour appeared. The colour remains for the third episode, now in the 70s and in the style of The Brady Bunch. Wanda has television’s fastest pregnancy, giving birth to twins at the end of the episode.
Episode four goes behind the scenes of Wanda’s show, with a look at what’s happening outside Westfield. A barrier surrounds the town in the shape of a hexagon. Agents from both the FBI, including Jimmy Woo, and SWORD, the Sentient Weapon Observation and Response Division, Monica Rambeau’s agency, are trying to figure out what is going on inside the hex. One of the scientists, Dr. Darcy Lewis, examines the wavelengths emitted and finds one worth tapping into. The wavelength requires and older TV, but once it’s on, Darcy is able to watch WandaVision.
Episode five returns into Wanda’s show, this time in the style of Family Ties from the 80s. As the episode title says, it’s, “A Very Special Episode”, with the twins aging up, twice. As with any very special epiusode from the 80s, a tragedy happens, and Wanda has to help her boys cope with the loss. The next episode leads into the 90s, with shows like The Wonder Years, and Wanda starting to notice that things aren’t going as expected. Episode seven leads to the 00s and reality television and the return of Wanda’s brother Pietro, who was killed in Avengers: Age of Ultron. However, Pietro is played by Evan Peters, the Quicksilver of the X-Men films.
The final two episodes pull all the strings together, with the eight episode ending in the reveal of the villain. The final episode has Wanda fighting for not just her life, but the life of the citizens of Westfield, Vision, and her twins, and, ultimately, her own sanity. The entire series is about Wanda and her grief over the loss of the people she loves, her parents, her brother, her husband, and her children, and learning more about her abilities. The sitcom reality she created was based on what she watched to escape reality as a child, and what she watched with Vision as they fell in love. But her fantasy held people prisoner, hurting them unknowingly while she grieved.
WandaVision shows the strengths of streaming. There is no need to add extra episode to suit the requirements of a network series of being a set episode length for twenty-two episodes. Each episode of WandaVision was the length it needed to be, and nine episodes was the right number to have. Without the restrictions, the writers could get everything they needed to get in, including era-appropriate ads, to get the surface plot and the underlying arc all worked in without stretching or squeezing.
Casting is also important. Olsen and Bettany had chemistry as Wanda and Vision. Without that chemistry, WandaVision would not have had the impact it had. The two portrayed the superheroic couple as a couple, with all the quirks couples have. Even as events started turning dark, the love between Wanda and Vision still shone through. The supporting cast was also key, especially in the town of Westfield, where the characters change by the era of the episode.
The plot takes its cue from the pages of both Vision and the Scarlet Witch and West Coast Avengers/Avengers West Coast. WandaVision is a far better approach to the ideas than what appeared in the comics, really. What helped is that the writing staff was all on the same page with WandaVision, while a change of writer from Steve Englehart to John Byrne led to the massive changes in Vision and to Wanda’s twins. Even given the differences from Marvel’s main 616 universe and the cinematic universe, WandaVision is the better story. Wanda has agency and growth. Vision’s fight with his rebuilt version comes down to philosophy and a discussion of the Ship of Theseus.
WandaVision, as an adaptation, has the task of taking a character arc from the late 80s and bringing it over to a cinematic universe that has been going in its own direction for over a decade while still being fresh. The result is a mini-series that has the twists of the comics while still taking advantage of the medium of television, especially its evolution since the 50s, and improving on the orignal ideas as present in the pages of the original comics.
A lot of what I write about worldbuilding is at least partially technical. It’s about breaking things into areas of analysis, questions, outlines, and more so you can make your world. Good worldbuilding is about thought and techniques and keeping track of things – well, half of it is.
The other half of worldbuilding is those wild ideas, those crazy thoughts, those “what ifs.” In many cases you’re either doing good with those moments of creativity, or organizing what thoughts you do have. Of course, not all of these moments come at the right time – sometimes you want to get organized and your brain won’t shut up, sometimes you want an idea and feel like a book-keeper.
Then where there’s those times that your worldbuilding comes together, when you grasp the big picture, when you get both the “wow” and the numbers behind it. That moment when you have A Vision and it all comes together.
Those moments you “get” your world, and those are the moments that are beautiful and powerful.
You probably know what I’m talking about and wish you could get into that state more.
The fact that I’m writing about this means I’m betting a good chunk of my readers can’t. (more…)