Shakman’s Juggling Skills
In April 2019, Matt Shakman was hired to direct all nine episodes of WandaVision. Marvel insisted on one director for the entire series, ensuring a singular directorial vision like a film. Shakman was the perfect person to helm the project, having begun his career as a child actor in sitcoms in the ‘80s and ‘90s. As a television director, he has directed single-camera sitcoms and dramas. All of this experience prepared him to juggle the various tones of WandaVision, particularly as it begins to cut between the sitcom reality inside of Wanda’s hex and the actual reality of law enforcement agents camped outside the hex.
Each episode of the show feels like the pilot episode of a new show, as costumes, set design, filming techniques, and visual effects change. Speaking of visual effects, the series features more effects shots than the massive spectacle of Avengers: Endgame. Though to be fair, WandaVision is longer and the effects are generally less complex. Christophe Beck was hired to score the series, with an entertainingly diverse mixture of sitcom scores through the decades, balanced with the standard superhero scoring as the outside increasingly intrudes.
Arguably more memorable are the contributions of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, the songwriters most famous for their work on Frozen (Buck and Lee, 2013). The songwriters created a four-note motif (“Wan-Da-Vi-Sion”), which forms the basis of the six distinct opening theme songs featured in the show. As the decades progress and musical stylings change, the motif ties the world together. This was the challenge of the writers, director, composers, costume designers, set designers, everyone: to make the whole show feel of a piece, despite changes in style and decades, because it all stems from Wanda.
Filming began in November 2019 and prioritized filming interior sets until March 2020. At that point, there was a planned four-week hiatus before filming exteriors. The timing was incredibly fortunate, as the four-week hiatus became a six-month break in shooting due to Covid. Filming resumed from September to November 2020, with only minor tweaks needed to respect Covid protocols. The fortunate timing, and prioritization of interior filming early pre-Covid, allowed WandaVision to be completed despite lockdowns and quarantines. This resulted in the show being the first new MCU release in 18 months. Originally planned to be the fourth release of Phase 4, and the second Marvel Disney+ series, WandaVision was suddenly leading the charge.
It is the perfect production to do so. The show is a huge success across a wide audience. It appeals to those who are desperate for new MCU content or celebrating a break from their relentless output; those who automatically adore every Marvel release or feel like Marvel’s ubiquity and house style represent the death of popular art; even those who saw Marvel Studios’ expansion into corporate synergized streaming content on Disney+ as a boon or a cynical corporate cash grab. Regardless, people tend to see WandaVision as an admirable achievement.
The series uses the trappings of family sitcoms and superhero films in the service of a deeply personal story about dealing with loss, grief, and trauma. At the same time, it offers metacommentary on the media of sitcoms and superhero narratives. That the filmmakers present these ideas, in addition to ever-changing period elements, and psychedelic magical elements and fantastical superhero elements in a package that feels cohesive and singular is impressive. That the end result is so great is remarkable. WandaVision is impressive on every level.
The Stages of Grief
The first episode, “Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience”, is essentially a straightforward ‘50s sitcom in the style of I Love Lucy (1951-1957) or The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet (1956-1966). Wanda and Vision are newlyweds, just moved to Westview, and hiding the fact that she can do magic and he is an android. When they forget that Vision’s boss is coming over for dinner, Wanda and Vision must scramble to distract them long enough to put together a memorable dinner. Hijinks ensue!
This is followed by “Don’t Touch That Dial”, a ‘60s sitcom in the style of The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966) or Bewitched (1964-1972). As they prepare to perform magic at the town talent show, Wanda attends the planning meeting and Vision attends a neighbourhood watch meeting. But Vision ingests some gum, which gets stuck in his gears and causes him to malfunction! Hijinks ensue!
The third episode, “Now in Colour”, is a ‘70s sitcom in the style of The Brady Bunch (1969-1974). Wanda finds herself with a rapidly accelerating pregnancy, causing her powers to malfunction and making Vision nervous. With the help of Geraldine (Teyonah Parris), Wanda gives birth to twins, Tommy and Billy. But some of Geraldine’s comments upset Wanda, and she is thrown out of the hex to a nearby camp.
From a production standpoint, these episodes are fascinating. The first two are in black and white, but “Don’t Touch That Dial” introduces colour in its final moments to coincide with Wanda’s pregnancy. They are filmed in the 4:3 aspect ratio, which is compatible with square-shaped older television screens. This is contrasted with brief glimpses of the outside world in a 2.40:1 widescreen aspect ratio. They are generally filmed with three or four cameras from one side, like a stage, but switch to single-camera setups whenever the illusion is shaken. The set design and costumes change according to the era. The first episode was even, as the title suggests, filmed in front of a real, live studio audience before the show shifts to a laugh-track in episode two. WandaVision is immersive and true to each era.
The episodes that address Wanda’s mindset take place early on in the series when her hold on the hex is near total. Schaeffer insisted on these episodes only containing subtle references to the real world, stoking the mystery of what is occurring. Beginning with ‘50s-era sitcoms is more than a stylistic choice. Sitcoms of the post-war era, during the Baby Boom, were designed to sell the bright, optimistic vision of (white) suburban familial bliss and stability. That is precisely what Wanda is looking for most. She has friendly neighbours, like Geraldine and the nosy Agnes (Katheryn Hahn), an adoring husband in Vision, and silly problems are resolved in 20-minutes. The sitcoms of the ‘50s and ‘60s were also far more performative in their delivery. The intentional artificiality of the performances clues viewers in to the fact that the shows are illusions.
But even from the beginning, cracks appear in Wanda’s hex. The first episode is about hilarious forgetfulness, with regards to the dinner party, but Vision is also disturbed about their situation. What does his company do? Why do he and Wanda have no anniversary or wedding rings? Even as a magical construct, Vision is a brilliant android, questioning everything.
When Vision’s boss begins to break character at dinner, demanding to know why Wanda and Vision came to the town, he starts to choke. Wanda hesitates before breaking character to ask Vision to save him, then the ‘show’ resets. In the second episode, Wanda finds a toy helicopter that appears to viewers in colour and she hears strange voices over the radio. A man emerges from the sewer in a beekeeper costume before Wanda literally rewinds the ‘show’ to erase him.
In the third episode, Agnes and Herb (David Payton) act strangely and suggest to Vision that Geraldine does not belong in the town. At the same time, the birth of the twins reminds Geraldine that Wanda is a twin too and that her twin, Pietro was killed by Ultron. This touch of reality is too much for Wanda, and she ejects Geraldine. These narrative cracks indicate that Wanda is not fully in control. She tries to keep everything from the real world out of her ‘show’, but reality seeps in. The hex deteriorates rapidly, but these episodes demonstrate it was never fully together. Wanda can run from her trauma and grief, but it will break through in unexpected ways.
As a commentary on sitcoms, the first three episodes are pitch-perfect. Shakman even consulted with Dick Van Dyke before filming. Wanda begins as the ideal housewife: pretty, chipper, loving, doting on her husband. She and Hahn received vocal coaching, which includes speaking in higher, “girlie” tones and ending sentences almost as questions. Women should not make too many statements, after all. Wanda is determined to keep her house in order and help her husband land that important promotion.
By the second episode, things loosen a bit. It opens with a scene in a bedroom (scandalous!), but with Wanda and Vision in separate beds. By the end of the scene, Wanda has magically joined the beds into one. Wanda also wears pants for much of the episode, as dresses were no longer a requirement. But the loving perfection of the couple remains.
By episode three, Wanda and Vision are not quite on the same page. This is a result of Vision’s growing skepticism, but it also reflects a bit more reality seeping into American sitcoms in the ‘70s. Couples could disagree and argue, so long as their love for one another was always reaffirmed. Also, Wanda’s pregnancy occurring so quickly, and her efforts to mask it in front of company, reflects the ways sitcoms handle pregnancies (both in-show and in real-life) in that era. Pregnancies were not something to be dwelt on or discussed too much, as they may acknowledge the existence of sex.
Finally, the first episode features one person of colour, Vision’s coworker Norm (Asif Ali). By episode two, the show adds Geraldine and Herb. The slow diversification of characters is a conscious choice to reflect changing attitudes towards people of colour in mainstream American pop culture.
But then WandaVision steps out of the illusion with episode four, “We Interrupt This Program”. Geraldine is actually Monica Rambeau, who last appeared as a young girl in Captain Marvel (Boden & Fleck, 2019). She disappeared for five years when Thanos eliminated half of all life, and she returns to learn her mother died while she was gone. Monica reports to the Sentient Weapon Observation and Response Division (SWORD).