Cue (Inappropriate) Laugh Track: On WANDAVISION

Seems like I can’t keep promises I made to myself (of all people) – that’s writer’s block for you!

Seriously though, I had a good deal of difficulty writing this piece and that made it equally hard to concentrate on writing anything else. I was even planning to follow it up with a review of The Falcon & Winter Soldier but, after that ended, found I had very little to say on it in comparison to WandaVision (which I’ll get to later on).

Anyway, let’s just get this over with…

When it comes to change, it’s usually a good idea to take baby-steps in order to gradually develop healthier habits. To try and rehabilitate harmful behavior drastically can, counterproductively, only entrench those negative qualities – there’s a place to be weaned as opposed to immediately going cold turkey. So, how does any of that relate to the Marvel Cinematic Universe or its latest release, WandaVision? Under Disney’s neurotically risk-averse supervision, the MCU is made up of making one baby-step forward and then taking two baby-steps back. There’ll be incremental risks, such as Captain America: Winter Soldier playing out more like a spy-thriller than a superhero film, but will pull their punches and go back to following a formula that has become staid at this point.

WandaVision has, surprisingly, been the MCU’s most experimental (by their standards) title – it is, in fact, a big step forward as opposed to a baby-step. Yet, at the same time, it seems the studio wasn’t entirely comfortable with its scenario and found ways to make it feel more like the rest of the MCU. It is, ostensibly, a character study taking place in a cordoned-off reality that parodies the conventions of U.S. televised comedy from the last seven decades. The rules of that reality don’t always make sense but that’s fine, given it’s all meant to symbolize Wanda Maximova (not “Maximoff” – oh, and played by Elizabeth Olsen) as she tries to process her grief and inability to cope with loss. Hell, even the first episode outright references David Lynch’s Eraserhead and that sets up a ton of precedence along with the Pleasantville homages.

All of that? It’s fantastic and I honestly couldn’t get enough of it. The problem, however, is that it isn’t the entirety of the show.

Fixing What’s Unbroken

There is a B-plot, of sorts, involving Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) teaming up with Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) and Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) that may as well have been in an episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (I suppose it’d be “Agents of S.W.O.R.D.” in this case…) – it doesn’t feel like it needs to be there and complicates what would’ve been a straightforward character study. Over-expository dialogue has been an issue in the MCU for a while, but that was a case of telling over showing, whereas WandaVision‘s is downright fatuous. It’s a trend I’ve been noticing in general with entertainment, partly due to the popularity of Artistically illiterate internet detritus like CinemaSins and the endemic presence of lore-addicts in many fandom communities, where plot elements that would’ve been left intentionally unexplained or only implied for thematic reasons are now explicitly described to the point there’s no mystique or attempt at engaging the audience to ponder and interpret the meaning of the material.

I love Jordan Peele’s Us but still despise it when a character explains why the Tethered exist in a way that “makes sense” but…it shouldn’t have been there whatsoever. We don’t “need” to know why a bunch of mute doppelgangers inexplicably lived in corridors below the earth feeding upon raw rabbit flesh; any explanation would be unsatisfactory and only take away from symbolically representing an underclass, one formed from an economic system that operates as a zero-sum game where someone “has” to lose in order for another to win (i.e. capitalism). It’s like how Prometheus and Alien: Covenant tries to explain the background of the titular creature, also known as a “Xenomorph,” when that’s the last thing you should do. There is a reason the film series is called “Alien” and not “Xenomorph” – the creature represented the unknowable, of what is completely alien to us as humans. James Cameron’s Aliens, David Fincher’s studio-sabotaged Alien 3, and (yes) even Alien: Resurrection (shut up, I like Jean-Pierre Jeunet – he gave us Delicatessen, City of Lost Children, and Amelie…) showed enough of an understanding of that, that they expanded on Xenomorphs without also getting into minutiae that would only make them less interesting.

By the fourth episode of WandaVision, a lot of the first three episodes’ mystique is lost because, rather than vaguely alluding to the world outside of the sit-com reality of Westview, New Jersey; it becomes an active part of the narrative to the rest’s detriment. As much as I do like many of Monica’s scenes, especially her experience with The Snap being reversed (it’s more horrifying than triumphant as it was in Endgame), they – once again – both feel out-of-place with the main narrative and explain too much that was better left unsaid. Part of what made those first three episodes work was trying to figure out how the situation came to be in the first place, and in such a way that it complements Wanda’s character study, where any big reveal should be at the conclusion of the story. Except, here, it’s halfway through. It’s like if The Maltese Falcon revealed the titular McGuffin was a fake far earlier in the plot and, at that point, who gives a singular shit about anything else that happens after?

Honestly, the show comes off as either overwritten by those credited for the script or having too many goddamn script doctors brought in that they lost track of all the changes. Though, given Disney’s behavior in recent years, the latter is more likely. Why else would it be so inconsistent in quality? To be full of many insipid throwaway lines that end up contradicting other insipid throwaway lines? It’s completely absurd.

Rewriting the Rewrite of the Rewrite

The series’ mystery antagonist, when revealed, was given a really catchy theme song that’s so good you forget it’s complete nonsense. Though present throughout, under a different identity, they were not the one responsible for the events “all along.” They were responsible for sabotaging Wanda’s machinations in some form or another but it’s firmly established, at several points, that the sit-com reality is Wanda’s creation alone. She was not tricked or forced into creating an altered reality to live out homages to The Dick Van Dyke Show and Malcolm in the Middle but, suddenly, we’re getting this contrived bullshit at the last minute. So, did they just happen to be living in the same town that Wanda showed an interest in settling down? Were they expecting Wanda the entire time? Was Wanda’s presence in the town unexpected to them? Were they always manipulating Wanda or just playing it by ear? There is no straight answer given for any of this and, somehow, suggests all of them being the case. Gee, how convenient! Nothing tells you a story is ill-conceived more than being so indecisive about a minor, yet nonetheless important, plot point…

Apparently, it’s not enough for the series to have one antagonist but two – the second being Tyler Hayward (Josh Stamberg), the acting Director of S.W.O.R.D. – and his characterization is even more confusing. He initially claims that Wanda had stolen The Vision’s (Paul Bettany) corpse from a research facility and, more or less, revived him in the sit-com reality but is able to track them within its barriers and even Wanda herself, in a moment of vulnerability, views Vision as a corpse rather than being alive to imply that being the case. This is contradicted down the line when it’s revealed that Wanda didn’t resurrect The Vision at all – he is a mystical conjuration. You can try and argue it’s a twist but then you’d have to explain how Hayward was able to keep track of The Vision, despite being a conjuration instead of a resurrected corpse, or why Wanda would view him as a corpse if he wasn’t already a corpse – it’s more appropriate to call them what they actually are: plot holes.

Best. Sexy Halloween costume. Ever.

Y’see, Hayward – for some reason (it’s never made clear ’cause of course) – lied about The Vision’s corpse being stolen by Wanda and, apparently, repurposed them (acting more as a shell without a soul) to deal with Wanda taking an entire town hostage. But…why lie, at all? As the acting Director of S.W.O.R.D. and the given situation, there’s nothing technically illegitimate about his actions yet the show continually attempts to paint him as being in the wrong. Depending on the scene, Hayward is either a milquetoast professional or a gung-ho prick who shoots first and asks questions later, yet he’s introduced as the latter but shown as the former in flashbacks when meeting Monica and Wanda. It’s as if they shot the flashbacks prior to all the rewrites and still wanted to use them, even if they were incongruous with his new introduction. I know why this inconsistency exists and it’s awful: the show can’t let Wanda be the true villain of the story – so, along with the mystery antagonist, Hayward is an attempt at distracting the audience from the heinous nature of Wanda’s actions.

What makes all of that nauseating is, even as the story fully acknowledges how wrong it was of Wanda to force her will onto others, the show is determined to come up with reasons why she isn’t “as bad” as the mystery antagonist or Hayward. The non-reason given is that Wanda didn’t do it “on purpose” but that doesn’t matter anyway because, regardless of intention (which is not magical), she still caused a good deal of harm to others. She forced real people to play out a cowardly fantasy purely for her own sake and, when brought back to their senses, sounded as if they’re losing their minds to eldritch madness. This is something that even the imaginary Vision, Wanda’s own creation, points out to her and indicates – on some level – she knows it’s wrong.

When you really think about it, the only reason the mystery antagonist and Hayward are “bad” is because they were trying to stop her and…that’s it, really. Except their actions, even as the show incompetently tries to vilify them, are absolutely justified and would make them the heroes in any other (better) story. It’s the kind of Bizarro World morality as displayed in the works of Ayn Rand, where selfishness is lionized and altruism is demonized, but it’s not done for the sake of a personal philosophy (as wretched as that may be) but because studio execs – who, ironically, are often lacking in creativity despite being in an industry dependent on it – are simply checking off items on a list of arbitrary storytelling “rules” and tropes to follow based on how popular and profitable it is for their products.

What makes it perplexing, with WandaVision, is that it’d likely still be successful even if it took more risks and the fact it’s on a streaming service should give the showrunners more leeway. Even the more recent Falcon & Winter Soldier, other than being more cohesive as a narrative, can be politically subversive from time to time (though it too ultimately fails as a story) yet WandaVision – which is a far more personal than political story – can’t ever admit that the protagonist is the villain of her own story or have her face the consequences for her actions. It makes the finale feel so…goddamn hollow.

But, hey, how else would she appear in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness – coming out in March 2022!!!

And, Now, A Word From Our Sponsors…

The reason I front-loaded this piece with negative criticism was to better emphasize what makes the series so disappointing, because explaining what I liked and why might’ve come off as gushing praise. I’ve only briefly mentioned my fondness of the plot focusing on the altered sit-com reality, and further details about it deserve description far more than any other aspect of the show.

I’m honestly flabbergasted by how little anyone else speaks about the usage of the laugh track given how integral it is to the narrative. It’s easy to just presume it’s only part of the sit-com aesthetic, I suppose, but it’s obviously symbolic to Wanda’s character study – a manifestation of her psychological defense mechanism to avoid dealing with the past. The telltale signs are there; the comedy used in the series is purposefully broad and more awkward than it is clever or witty with the laugh track covering it up, much in the way many real broadly-styled sit-coms do with their lamer jokes, and the moments when it isn’t evoked indicates Wanda’s temporary loss of control over others and even the cordoned-off reality of her making. By the end of the series, when there’s no laugh track available, that loss of control becomes very apparent as random objects change to look like they did in previous decades despite the current time period resembling the early 2000’s. But, more importantly, the increased frequency of those changes parallel Wanda’s slide into deep depression and how she cannot avoid dealing with the trauma any further.

“What does our company do, exactly?”

The majority of sit-coms, as a form of entertainment, portray a heightened reality where no conflict cannot be solved with emotional but ultimately empty platitudes that – despite their vapidity – lead to feel-good closure without much effort spent on actual introspection. What make comedy series like It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia and Peep Show brilliant is how both eschew making their characters aspirational and suggest that, were they real people, they’d be absolutely intolerable to deal with and even threatening around any other normal person. As silly as this may sound, I’d argue they’re basically the Watchmen (the comic, not the movie or HBO series – which’re both massive pieces of shit) of sitcoms. Both deconstruct tropes of the genre and the main cast darkly mirror their popular counterparts, and neither of them could possibly work in any other genre or storytelling format.

A trait they both share, and this relates to WandaVision as well, is how the cast go through situations where they should learn a lesson based on the “rules” of the genre but simply don’t. However, at the same time, that’s also been the case for their popular counterparts – we, as the audience, simply accepted that lack of development as a genre staple. It is only until the premise of a sit-com is grounded more in our reality that the problematic behavior of the characters is now made obvious, as someone who never learns their lessons and regularly repeat mistakes tend to be a terrible human being. The difference is that, unlike those shows, Wanda Maximova needs to actually learn and grow – it’s the conclusion heavily implied as part of her character study.

The showrunners display a deep understanding of sit-coms and put a ton of effort into how each decade is portrayed, right down to what visual effects are used, which is startling when compared to the scenes outside of these segments. You can tell that there was a lot more love and care put into them to the point where the lighting and sets felt appropriate with each sit-com decade – they don’t come off as if they were made in the here and now, then lazily filtered the footage through some computer program that only feels inauthentic. You can’t help but be glued to the screen to see what weird-as-fuck-but-nonetheless-amazing thing will happen next…only to be interrupted by the ultimately meaningless antics of Monica, Jimmy, and Darcy as if it were an in-house advertisement for another series.

It was bad enough when Age of Ultron wasted part of its runtime on “setting up” Civil War and Ragnarok, as if they weren’t already going to market these films to oblivion, that’ve been rendered pointless the moment both of those films were released. However, that film was woeful from beginning to end as is and WandaVision had more imagination in its first episode than the entirety of that wretched waste of celluloid’s one-hundred-and-forty-one minutes.

Roll Credits

Watching and writing about WandaVision has honestly been an exhausting experience, but not for the better. It’s not like with films such as, say, Sorry to Bother You or Downfall where the subject material is so heavy that, though it is far from being “fun”, is also what make them meaningful and justifies the emotional whirlwind it puts you through. I wanted WandaVision to do the same, actually – going into the uncomfortable depths of a psyche traumatized by loss, and how such trauma when ignored and untreated can cause one to lash out and harm others under petty justifications. As much as it tries to do that, it fails where those aforementioned films succeeded due to a lack of a committed (pun intended) vision. Perhaps that is somewhat unfair as there was a vision but one undermined by a risk-averse studio, who lacked much-needed faith in it, and that’s far worse.

This exhaustion was further compounded by The Falcon & Winter Soldier which, even if more cohesive in tone and style, took the potential to be truly profound social commentary about systemic issues…only to be sanitized much in the way WandaVision had been. Scenes such as Sam “The Falcon/Captain America” Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and his sister, Sarah (Adepero Oduye), being denied a loan based on implicitly racist reasons – or almost everything involving Isiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly) – are fantastic and a definite step up from the respectability politics of Luke Cage‘s first season. However, not unlike Black Panther, it still pulls its punches by the end and cartoonishly vilifies the primary antagonist, rendering otherwise legitimate grievances invalid with inexplicable acts of evil. The handling of the Flagsmashers and their leader, Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman), is easily one of the most tone-deaf creative decisions made in the MCU next to how Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) treats women like shit to…show he’s the bad guy, I guess? ‘Cause, hey, you can’t give credence to someone’s frustration with racial oppression and being left to suffer by his own family when he shoots and beats women, right?!

WandaVision' Finale Reveals Evan Peters' Pietro Real Identity
Wait, is this another season of American Horror Story?

Consider this one point: they redeem the secondary antagonist, John “U.S.Agent” Walker (Wyatt Russell), despite outright murdering a defenseless man with Captain America’s shield and staining it with blood in a fit of misdirected rage, while dozens of bystanders record it with smartphones, right at the very end of the series. Much like how WandaVision can’t allow Wanda to be the true villain of that story, The Falcon & Winter Soldier can’t allow it for U.S.Agent either. They throw other characters, whose actions made sense given their situation, under the bus to make them seem “less bad” (even though it doesn’t) no matter how abrupt and absurd their change of motivation or rationale.

Like, where were the showrunners on January 6th of this year? Did they completely miss that attempted coup which was, in fact, not done by antifascist activists – who the Flagsmashers bare a strong resemblance to – but the kind of jingoistic, bellicose dickheads who’d be more like U.S.Agent? Either they buried their head in the sand during the whole clusterfuck or they did notice and, being unreasonably risk-averse, didn’t want to offend anybody (even the fascists) and did this “both sides” bullshit to cover their bases. Whatever the reason, it’s absolutely craven on their part and proves that, far from going “full-on SJW” as the many man-children of the internet claim, Disney is willing to pander to the worst of humanity (they certainly did so with Rise of Skywalker…) as long as they get money. Any contrary assertion is downright delusional.

How about Loki, though? Of course I like it, so far – as I did with WandaVision and The Falcon & Winter Soldier in their first half. The thing is, however, that I really want to like this series more than those two yet dread it will still disappoint as they have (if not worse) by the end. Tom Hiddleston is always an absolute delight as Loki and, after finding Endgame‘s usage of it somewhat underwhelming after so much build-up, the series’ take on time-travel and tangent timelines is incredibly inventive rather than simply an excuse for fan-service or slapstick gags. Part of me knows how the series is going to end – the title of the upcoming Dr. Strange film is indicative enough – but I can only hope that, unlike WandaVision and The Falcon & Winter Soldier, it sticks to landing and ends with a proper bang than a compromised whimper.

A little over a year ago in my review of Jessica Jones‘ final season, I said “Ever since Endgame, it feels like the sky’s the limit…” and Far From Home helped reinforce that. That’s not so much the case now and I really didn’t want that to be the case – but that’s what happens when you get your hopes up, I suppose.

As I was tormenting myself to finish this piece, in spite of my avoidant behavior, I finished watching all of The Clone Wars and…I’ll tell you what I think, for next time (you might be surprised)!

There’re a bunch of pieces I’ve decided to drop simply because I either don’t have a lot to say about them, as I have with The Falcon & Winter Soldier, such as the follow-up to my JoJo’s NonFan ReviewThus Spoke Rohan Kishibe – despite liking it far more than that show. The most justice I could do is highly suggest watching it because, in my opinion, it’s better than entire sections of JoJo’s within only four episodes. At this point? I’d rather see more of it than an animated adaptation of the “Stone Ocean” storyline because the approach is so refreshing. There aren’t enough (decent) anthology series around and Rohan Kishibe is as perfect a host as the Crypt Keeper, for he is not always a participant in events but can act as a witness to observe and record them for others to know. To describe any episode in too much detail would ruin an otherwise fantastic experience of seeing them firsthand.

After that? A couple of rants about how much I find “Big Events” and continuity/canon in superhero comics overrated and that J.R.R. Tolkien’s influence only handicaps the fantasy genre. I am not looking forward to how people will respond to them, given prior experience…