Cleverness is a welcome thing, but it can’t be the only thing. “WandaVision,” the first collaboration between Marvel Studios and Disney+ that begins airing on the streaming service on January 15, has a strong grasp of sitcom tropes, is deft at subverting them with a wink to the audience, and finally lets Paul Bettany be funny again. (“A Knight’s Tale” fans, rejoice, for Bettany returns to the same kind of zaniness that made his Chaucer so fun.) But it’s difficult to tell where “WandaVision” is going to go based on the series’ first three episodes provided for review. Each half-hour installment is so defined by allusions to classic TV like “I Dream of Jeannie,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Bewitched,” “I Love Lucy,” and “The Brady Bunch” that its titular characters seem sidelined in their own series. The show-within-a-show format makes for cheeky diversions—like a series of commercials that reference other elements of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including Stark Industries and Hydra—but ultimately feels somewhat shallow. “WandaVision” makes an initial commitment to playfulness, but the realization that this experimentation remains in service of a larger, continued narrative rather than fully standing on its own removes (at least in these first 90 or so minutes) any real sense of narrative stakes.
Set after the events of 2018’s “Avengers: Infinity War” and 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame” and influenced by various Marvel Comics runs (including the 1980s series The Vision and the Scarlet Witch and 2005’s House of M), “WandaVision” imagines a reality in which Vision (Bettany) didn’t die in “Infinity War” so that villain Thanos could retrieve the Mind Stone. Vision’s romantic partner Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) also died in “Infinity War” but was brought back to life in “Endgame,” nearly defeating Thanos single handedly through her combination of mutant powers, including telekinesis and telepathy. Still, Wanda (also known as Scarlet Witch) couldn’t restore Vision at the end of “Endgame” because of some time-travel hijinks with the Mind Stone, and so when “WandaVision” begins with the two of them reunited, it’s already starting off with a mystery.
The premiere sets the stage: Wanda and Vision are newlyweds who settle into a new home in the suburb of Westview, but there’s a twist: The characters also happen to be starring in a 1950s-style sitcom about their own lives. A cheery theme song wonders “How will this duo fit in?”, and the first episode focuses on the complications of domestic life: Wanda’s burgeoning friendship with their pushily friendly neighbor Agnes (a wonderfully hammy Kathryn Hahn); Vision struggling to understand his job in “computational services”; a miscommunication about a meal with Vision’s boss. With Olsen’s Wanda as the straight woman and Bettany’s Vision as her goofy foil, the two have excellent chemistry. A scene where they both struggle to figure out the importance of a certain date marked on their calendar is strengthened by the chummy relationship these two actors have built over various films together, and the pair does all they can to elevate a fairly recognizable plot about a dinner party gone wrong.
But the premiere’s final few minutes clue us into something else amiss: When Vision’s boss’s wife (a welcome Debra Jo Rupp) asks how Wanda and Vision met and where they lived before moving to Westview, neither can answer the question. The laugh track fades out. The camera stays still first on Wanda’s stricken face, centered in the frame, and then Vision’s. What are they not remembering? And when the episode of the show-within-a-show ends and it’s revealed that someone is watching all this on one monitor among many, “WandaVision” tips its hand. Each of the two subsequent episodes provided for review follows a similar format. Wanda and Vision jump into a new decade to recreate another recognizable sitcom; reflect the social mores of the 1960s, 1970s, or whatever time in their characterizations, their relationship, and their status in the suburbs (with nods to “The Stepford Wives” and even more modern fare like “Pleasantville”); and incrementally realize that their reality is not really their reality. The disappointing thing, though, is how quickly we realize that too, and how “WandaVision” is more interested in maintaining fawning mimicry than furthering its own storytelling.
Director Matt Shakman, head writer Jac Schaeffer, and production designer Mark Worthington clearly have oodles of affection for these TV classics, and practically every detail here serves as a kind of homage. There’s unchallenging comfort to be found in these recognizable scenarios and in the clear delight from Olsen, Bettany, and the supporting cast, in particular the sassily mugging Hahn as the nosy neighbor (her delivery of “How is anybody doing this sober?” during a particularly painful women’s committee meeting is fantastic) and the reliably warm Teyonah Parris as Wanda’s fast friend Geraldine. But there are only so many ways to make jokes about Vision not eating food, and about the couple using Wanda’s Sarkovian ancestry to explain their strangeness, and about Vision not understanding the details of human sex. And once “WandaVision” starts recycling the same content in each episode, it becomes difficult to ignore that the show’s primary interest is playing with form rather than propelling its story forward.
To be fair, the series is comparatively quite different from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s films, which grew darker as the franchise’s Phase Three came to an end, and from Marvel’s series on Netflix, like “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones,” and “Luke Cage,” which were interconnected within themselves but didn’t really link up with the films at large. In “WandaVision,” though, characters actually laugh! Wanda and Vision are able to be in love! Vision makes a joke about mistaking “mastication” for “masturbation”! On those low-stakes pleasures alone, “WandaVision” delivers. But the question remains: What do we learn about Wanda and Vision by recreating the aspect ratios, costume design, and special effects of the past? What is the benefit of placing them in the suburbia of yesteryears, and what singular insights are really provided from these times and this place? “WandaVision” doesn’t explain why its titular characters would retreat into this nostalgia, and without that core knowledge, its recreations feel increasingly hollow. Perhaps the series will explore that in the remaining six episodes that were not provided for review. But until then, “WandaVision” asks the question “What exactly is your story?” of its titular characters, but doesn’t have an answer for it.
“WandaVision” premieres on Disney+ on Friday, January 15. Three episodes of nine screened for review.