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Marvel StudiosKathryn Hahn in WandaVision

The first episode of WandaVision is a 30-minute comedy in black and white that sends up ’50s-era shows like I Love Lucy. If you come to the show expecting superhero business and immediately feel confused, well, that’s the point. Trailers for the show suggested that Wanda, in her deep depression following Vision’s death, has created some kind of parallel dimension where she can delude herself into thinking that he is still alive, and where they get to live not as an android and a witch but a “normal” couple with all the trappings of normalcy, down to the white picket fence.

Each episode tackles a new decade of family sitcom, from I Love Lucy in the 1950s to Modern Family in the 2010s. At its core, WandaVision is a send-up of these comedies, and a good one at that. Vision phases through a chair in a nod to Rob Petrie tripping over an ottoman in the opening credits to the Dick Van Dyke show. By the 1970s, Wanda and Vision’s house looks eerily similar to the one once occupied by the Brady Bunch. The whole show seems to nod, meta-textually, to the fact that star Elizabeth Olsen grew up on sitcom sets since her sisters Mary-Kate and Ashely Olsen starred in Full House. Kathryn Hahn is an utter delight as the nosy next-door neighbor who seems to be hiding a secret. Each episode has its own theme song, written by Frozen vets Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez in the style of the era.

In this small-screen version of the character, Olsen gets to play emotions other than brave or scared. Her comedic timing is excellent, and she exudes both the determination to build her bubble of happiness as well as the fragility of someone who has experienced trauma, a range that the stuffed Marvel movies rarely have the time to explore.

By the second and third episodes, the show falls into a rhythm, balancing comedic moments with an underlying sense of dread. Wanda’s dream begins to fracture, a la The Truman Show or Pleasantville. Sharp-eyed Marvel fans will spot the allusions to Hydra in the commercial breaks or notice the voice of Randall Park’s character from Ant-Man playing over the radio trying to communicate with Wanda.

Somewhere in Disney’s office probably sits a Venn Diagram that shows how many early family sitcom buffs are also devout Marvel fans. The overlap may be small, but that’s what makes WandaVision Marvel’s most exciting experiment in years. There’s a chance that Marvel agnostics intrigued by the comedic aspects will be turned off by the underlying mystery and Marvel fans will grow impatient with the homages to old Hollywood. The show has to hit just the right balance to pull off both.

Marvel has never actually been all that experimental

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2.
©Marvel StudiosRocket, voiced by Bradley Cooper, and Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel in Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2.

The biggest franchise in film history has bizarre origins. The first Iron Man movie is not weird, per se, but it certainly does not have the Disney sheen of the movies that would come after it. Iron Man drinks heavily, beds plenty of women and generally acts fairly unheroic. Aspects of that character remained after Disney acquired Marvel Studios between the first and second Iron Man movies, but his spikiest edges were buffed away until he became a responsible father-like figure in the Avengers and, especially, Spider-Man movies.

What followed was a string of hero origin stories: a hero who is flawed and must be humbled and prove themselves worthy of the cape: Iron Man, Thor and Doctor Strange are hubristic; Ant-Man, Spider-Man, Black Panther and Captain Marvel have their priorities out-of-whack; Captain America isn’t jacked enough. They usually end up fighting someone with their exact same powers. In the sequels, things get personal. The hero must face an AI they themselves created, a rival they ticked off or a sibling/best friend/father who became a villain. Team-up movies would pop up in between.

As time wore on, the heroes got more fantastical—not humans with scientifically-enhanced powers but talking trees and wizards and aliens. The backdrops got cooler—Doctor Strange’s universe beautifully bent in on itself, and a gorgeously-rendered Wakanda inspired millions of moviegoers. But for all the fanfare around Guardians of the Galaxy’s daring decision to feature a talking tree, the stories themselves remained relatively formulaic. (Plus, Lord of the Rings already introduced the world to Ents, so Groot wasn’t a huge stretch.)

To Marvel’s credit, the studio seems to offer its directors more creative bandwidth than, say, LucasFilm, which has earned a reputation for ensuring directors will align with the Star Wars vision (and even firing

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