Not even halfway through “WandaVision,” it became clear the show’s pass or fail was going to be how well it treated lead Elizabeth Olsen by the end of it. Despite top-billing, she was secondary to Paul Bettany for a while because he was the viewer’s angle of entry. Once it did get to centering on Olsen, the plot violently twisted around itself in order to make it seemingly impossible to unravel without demonizing Olsen. It forecast it wouldn’t—even making Josh Stamberg’s entire character motivation about the fair of that demon (maybe I should’ve gone with witch)—but as things got more and more entangled, even as Olsen got better and better material, culminating in last episode’s “Secret Origin of the MCU Wanda,” it seemed almost impossible they—director Matt Shakman, show runner Jac Schaeffer, brand guru Kevin Feige—would be able to pull it off without a monumental cop out. And such a cop out would throw Olsen under the bus. Or the car. Or the house from Kansas, as it were.
So, while there are a handful of loss ends a narrative should’ve tied if it weren’t part of a billion dollar umbrella franchise, some glazed over intensely tragic, dramatic moments, way too little for the supporting cast who sold the show while Olsen was subject and oddity, not to mention a (not really but they had to know it’d remind of it) concerning return to a self-exile location—Ed Norton knows that cabin, just saying—“WandaVision” passes. Succeeds. In many areas excels. Olsen’s gone from being the sidekick in the C plot to the only actor who’s gotten to do actual character development in the Marvel movies. Turns out the best way to do character development for characters made for many part serialized installments is to do many part serialized installments, utilizing different narrative styles and distances to do it. The thing about the Marvel movies—the (entirely commercial) magic—isn’t their comics accuracy in the costumes or origin stories, it’s their ability to translate the experience of reading the superhero comic to watching the superhero comic. They pull it off with “WandaVision,” complete with epilogues reminding you to pay attention to the next limited series to buy or maybe you’re supposed to head over to Avengers.
“WandaVision” is the Marvel movies biggest success—conceptually—since Infinity War, which was putting the two-part Marvel Graphic Novel to film. “WandaVision” proves the limited series on film. Well, streaming video—also, have to say, it’s really great to see a TV-first project not afraid to use lots of extreme long shot in their superhero fights. Even if some of the medium shot composites during the witch fight could be better. The episode does a nice twist on the Marvel movies super-people throw digital fireballs at each other thing to make up for it.
But it takes Olsen, who’s always been in these movies as someone else’s plus one–she’s been someone’s sister, someone’s girlfriend, someone’s problem employee, someone’s protege, someone’s wife, someone’s mother—combines the best of those things and drops the unimportant ones. Well, it drops the ones it can’t possibly cover. Like, we can guess the weight of killing civilians because of Olsen’s, you know, acting, but “WandaVision” can’t cover it. One assumes Disney+ knows most parents don’t know how to lock by ratings. So they skip the biggest “adult themes.” Particularly with kids Julian Hilliard and Jett Klyne, who the show keeps starting to leverage because they’re good and fun—they could’ve done five more minutes hanging out with Teyonah Parris but the episode can only really handle two superhero fights, not three—but then has to hit the brakes on because Hilliard and Klyne need to be handled very delicately, without raising too many questions. Much like Kat Dennings going from trusted, leveraged B plot sidekick as protagonist, to maybe an Argyle nod from Die Hard (definitely a nod to something, but I’m not a hundred percent it’s Die Hard). There’s not room for her, there’s not room for Randall Park. Because it’s Olsen’s show.
It’s a big superhero origin story and it’s all Olsen’s. The episode makes the most room for Bettany, because he’s Olsen’s dude—the superhero-sized melodramatics are appropriately affecting and glorious—then Kathryn Hahn because she’s in a thirty minute superhero fight with Olsen, then in a distant third, Parris. Other than Olsen, Bettany gets the best material; he gets his Superman III junkyard fight with his evil clone, but with a very Bettany Vision resolution—Schaeffer clearly loves the sound of his voice. But she’s just as enthused when he gets to talk all soulful and deep to Olsen. The show’s able to get away with a lot thanks to Olsen, Bettany, and Hahn. Lesser productions would be, well, Supergirl: The Movie.
Hahn’s victim to a few more bad special effects composition shots than anyone else, but she’s still a mesmerizing villain. The show does well in not doing an alter ego thing for her and Olsen; I think the superhero fight banter off between them has to be the best acted one as yet to put film. Runner up is Bettany versus Bettany. The character development behind it all, “WandaVision” and beyond, adds depth, but also it’s just Hahn and Olsen are really good.
Like, the scene where Olsen toggles to leading her superhero family from cosmic witchery? Awesome. She’s also able to imply a lot of the dark the show can’t explicitly describe during the many set pieces in her fight with Hahn.
Overall, the show hinges on Olsen, Bettany, Olsen and Bettany, and Hahn. The final episode lets Hahn off the hook a little because she’s “just” the bad guy at this point and not being an alter ego with the hero… she only plays into so much. Everything she does is a delight, of course. Though I do remain unconvinced on the eyeshadow.
It’ll be at least two years before the standing “WandaVision” questions get resolved—it’s off to the big screen for a couple of the cast members (the timeline’s Covid-permitting)—and who knows what they might bring up again even later. It would’ve been nice to know Marvel movies could do this kind of longer form project either—especially in the years it seemed Olsen and Bettany were utterly wasted—but “WandaVision” portends a successful Marvel movies streaming show future. It does seem unlikely we’ll get to see performances of Olsen and Hahn’s caliber on a regular basis, but it turns out Olsen being singular in the Marvel movies is kind of the point.
Though, you know, beware that cabin.