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The Marvel Universe Goes Sitcom: An Inside Look at ‘WandaVision’

January 14, 2021Ben MK

The Marvel Cinematic Universe may be associated with a great many things — from blockbuster movies to scripted television dramas — but what you don't often associate the mega franchise with is sitcoms. That's all about to change, however, with the release of WandaVision, Marvel Studios' new streaming series for Disney Plus that's poised to bring the MCU into a new era, while taking viewers back to a few bygone ones.

The show finds Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany reprising their roles as Wanda Maximoff and Vision, two characters who were tragically separated at the climax of Avengers: Infinity War, thanks to the Mad Titan Thanos and his quest for the Infinity Stones. In WandaVision, though, the pair are still very much together — though albeit seemingly trapped in a never-ending series of sitcom-like situations that harken back to everything from the black-and-white worlds of such classic '50s sitcoms as the original I Dream of Jeannie and Leave It to Beaver to the '70s aesthetic of The Brady Bunch and beyond.

"This was our test run," states Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige. "Marvel, of course, has had a lot of good, successful TV in the past. This was Marvel Studios' first [television] foray directly [using] cast that we had seen in movies. And the idea always was to do something that could not be done as a feature, that plays with the format and plays with the medium. There were a lot of meetings before people actually understood what we were trying to go for. And we're only sitting here because Jac [Schaeffer] and Matt [Shakman] did, and were able to turn a wacky idea into a spectacular show."

Of course, that meant a whole new set of challenges for the WandaVision's two leads, not the least of which was shooting the first episode in front of a live studio audience. "It was the first thing we shot," says Olsen. "It was so nerve-racking. There was a lot of adrenaline. And it totally messed with my brain, the idea of not playing to an audience but feeding off an audience and having a camera. I was really grateful when we added a fourth wall for our second episode. And to watch our special effects team — that usually blows things up and sets things on fire — become puppeteers of things floating in the sky, and dealing with magnets in different ways to make things spin was so incredible. There's a lot of silly things that we got to [practically]."

"We wanted to be as authentic as possible," adds series director Matt Shakman. "That was one of the biggest goals. So production design, cinematography, costumes, everything was about going on this deep dive. And with the actors, we all wanted to do the same thing. As [Elizabeth] said, doing it in front of a live studio audience — which is this weird, quasi-theater-TV thing — really adds to it. You can feel the energy of that theatrical performance, working with the audience. And then when you get into '60s shows like Bewitched or I Dream of Jeannie, it is a fourth wall. All of a sudden, it's much more like doing a movie these days. That laugh track is all canned and it changes the energy, the approach, the style, everything."

At the core of the series, though, is the relationship between Wanda and Vision. "[They] are, as a couple, a fan favorite," says head writer Jac Schaeffer. "Because their love story has been so very tragic but also really warm and intimate. And we've seen them in these really beautiful, stolen moments in the MCU. It's actually been a small amount of screen time, but very powerful and very soulful. But what we have with WandaVision is we are opening up the stage for them. They're in this domestic sphere and we get to see them doing all the homebody stuff that you would never get to see a superhero participate in. It's a lot of cute-cute — until it's not."

As for those darker, more mysterious elements that Schaeffer alludes to, which become increasingly prevalent as the show progresses, WandaVision doesn't just draw inspiration from the family sitcoms of the past. "We often talked about, when we were [referencing] period sitcoms, how when something shifted into something outside of [itself], that it was going into The Twilight Zone," notes Shakman. "We [thought] about what the period shows [were] that addressed the odd and the strange. So that's how we approached the shooting of it and certainly the look of it."

"There are a lot of current shows, like prestige series, that are doing this very exciting thing," adds Schaeffer. "Where you watch a couple episodes and you think the show is one thing, and then by episode four or five it flips the script. That's really where the more contemporary references come in, in terms of boundary-pushing."

But what does that all mean for Wanda and Vision, as far as translating them from the larger scope of the MCU to the smaller scope of the television sitcom format? "I was worried about that," reflects Bettany. "Initially, I was like, 'It feels so different. How do I keep [Vision] the same?' And then I realized he's always been becoming something else. He's Jarvis, he's part Ultron, and he's part Tony Stark. He's omnipotent but he's also this naive ingenue. And then I realized what Vision is is just decent and honorable. [He] exists for Wanda."

As for what WandaVision might hint about the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? "I hope it says, 'Get ready for the new and the different.'" says Feige. "As is often the case, the unexpected has often served Marvel Studios well. And it has served us well in this case. I love how bold [WandaVision] is. I love how different it is."

WandaVision begins streaming January 15th, exclusively on Disney Plus.

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