A 'WandaVision' Discussion (Part 1) | On Monica, Fietro and that 'Bohner' Joke
Updated: Mar 22, 2021
The following review contains extensive spoilers for the 2021 Marvel event, 'WandaVision'.
For a few weeks now I’ve promised on Twitter that I’ll post an in-depth review of WandaVision in lieu of episodic coverage; anyone who follows me on the platform will know just how exciting I found the bulk of the series. The thing is, dear reader, since viewing the series finale I’m not sure a simple review would prove efficient in processing my thoughts and feelings about this programme, and that's partly because so much I have to say about this show is tied completely to its real-world context...
I was enthralled by WandaVision right from episode one. While some viewers found the show’s sit-com conceit too slow-paced and repetitive, I found WandaVision’s ode to the likes of Bewitched and The Dick Van Dyke Show utterly charming. Elizabeth Olsen really was spell-binding as The Scarlet Witch, delivering an Emmy-worthy performance and displaying a proficiency in acting not oft seen in a genre such as this. Paul Bettany, returning as Vision, was also an absolute delight, while WandaVision’s supporting cast (with a particular shoutout to Kathryn Hahn and Teyonah Parris) were key to the show’s captivating, magical mystique.
But then I saw the series finale, which was equal parts gratifying and disappointing. It was the televised equivalent, as I put it to my brother over WhatsApp, of a delicious takeaway that arrives just a tiny bit too cold. Fan theories (and the disappointment that came when the show declared them wrong) were a major cause of the show’s flat-ending; perhaps we all got a little too carried away. But I do find issue in putting the blame squarely on fans when Marvel Studios themselves seem to have devised a densely packed mystery-box television show which seems to hold more red herrings than there are tangible clues.
Don’t get me wrong, my adoration for WandaVision far outweighs any frustration I have for the way the series wrapped. I love the way the show explores super-womanhood, how it explores motherhood, and jealousy, and grief, and the importance of dealing with trauma in a constructive and healthy way. I love how successful the earlier episodes of the show are in delivering a solid sit-com pastiche which is as goofy as it is reverent. I love how the show successfully introduced some of Marvel’s most important Black and Queer characters, and I love how it sets these characters up to play pivotal roles in the films ahead. But vanilla adoration won’t help me to decipher my issues with the series, and it would make for a pretty one-note blog post. I’ve decided, then, to hereby tackle the six main problems I have with the show now that I’ve processed it in its entirety, and I’ll do so in two parts (expect the second at some point next week).
I think the context of WandaVision’s release can helpfully inform our understanding of both the positive and negative fan-fervour that has defined the show’s reception
I’m sure many of you know this, but WandaVision was never intended to be our first trip back into the Marvel Cinematic Universe post-Spider-man: Far From Home. Marvel Studios was due to return from its short hiatus in May 2020 with Black Widow, a film set in the recent-past which would see Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff finally lead a Marvel project. Coming off of the hype of Avengers: Endgame, Black Widow promised to help bring the ‘Infinity Saga’ rollercoaster to a halt, reducing fan expectations and resetting the height of Marvel movie stakes to a far more intimate level. The film was set to directly influence the events of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, which was to be Marvel Studio’s Disney+ debut and first foray into television. The show was to be the first in a procession of MCU-television projects which would explicitly and directly link to the ongoing narrative of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. WandaVision was intended to follow on from The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, and hoped to introduce audiences to the stranger, mystical elements of Marvel’s latest phase. But the best laid plans of mice and men...something...something something, and when a surprise pathogen took the world (and the entertainment industry) by storm in early 2020, Marvel was forced to shut down filming for The Falcon and The Winter Soldier and delay the release of Black Widow indefinitely.
Somehow, though, WandaVision managed to complete production relatively unscathed by the coronavirus pandemic. Elizabeth Olsen has frequently expressed how proud she was that the cast and crew were so respectful to the covid guidelines, and despite the size of its cast and narrative ambition, WandaVision ultimately wrapped long before The Falcon and The Winter Soldier. I’m providing this context because I absolutely believe that this rejigged order of output from Marvel Studios, while unavoidable, has done a disservice to WandaVision. Audiences never did get the chance to disembark the Endgame thrill-ride, and instead of tempering our expectations we found ourselves accelerating into Wanda’s hex with little guidance on what to expect. We never had The Falcon and The Winter Soldier assure us that, while important, these Disney+ series wouldn’t have a monumental bearing on the overall Marvel filmic narrative. It didn’t help that our quarantine consumption habits had further blurred the delineation between film and serialized television; we expected a universe-altering blockbuster event, while what we got was a more simple (though solid) character study instead.
I suppose WandaVision has to take some of the blame for the fan-backlash, though, and I’m sure I speak for most of us when I suggest its biggest misstep was the whole “Fietro” fiasco. This is all a little hard to explain, I’ll be honest, I’ve been struggling with how to convey my thoughts about this for some time now. I guess I’ll just start at the beginning.
A few decades back, Marvel Studios was in some murky financial waters. In order to stay afloat, the company was forced to sell the film rights for some of its characters to rival studios, which is why Sony Pictures still owns the film rights for Spider-man to this day. Marvel also sold some of its heroes to 20th Century Fox, namely the Fantastic Four and the X-Men. Well...almost all of its X-Men. Pietro and Wanda Maximoff found themselves caught in the middle of the X-Men and the Avengers, meaning that both Fox and Marvel were entitled to use them in their films (though if they chose to do so, Marvel Studios were legally forbidden from referring to the twins’ Mutant identities or Magneto-parentage).
With the 2010s came the rise of the superhero film, and both Fox and Marvel Studios found themselves with Maximoffs on their hands. Avengers: Age of Ultron saw Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson take on the roles of Wanda and Pietro in the MCU, while X-Men: Days of Future Past introduced Evan Peters in the Quicksilver suit. In a possible acknowledgement of Peters’ popularity in the role, Marvel Studios decided not to let Taylor-Johnson stick around; Marvel Studios’ Quicksilver was killed off in the film that introduced him, and Olsen’s Wanda continued her journey through the Infinity Saga alone, repressing her grief for her twin brother.
But with Disney’s recent acquisition of 20th Century Fox comes the newfound ability for Marvel Studios to introduce X-Men into their MCU. It also sets the stage for the potential of a 'Multiverse' - a comic-book term which refers to a web of dimensions in which multiple realities co-exist. The MCU has dabbled in multiverse territory already, with Jake Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio claiming to derive from a parallel dimension in Far From Home. While Mysterio turned out to be a liar, we do know an adventure into the multiverse lines the horizon; Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness was recently announced for 2022, and promises to feature Wanda in a significant role. Kevin Feige even confirmed before WandaVision aired that the show would mark the first entry in the MCU’s ‘Multiverse Saga’, and Spider-man: No Way Home (the second in the pseudo-trilogy) is set to see Tom Holland’s Spider-man cross paths with both Andrew Garfield’s and Tobey Maguire’s.
This is all a very long-winded way of explaining that fans had every right to expect that WandaVision would have some sort of significance in regards to the Multiverse. And when Evan Peters randomly appeared mid-season in the role of Pietro Maximoff, it’s understandable that audiences excitably assumed he was resuming the role of Fox’s Pietro, somehow spliced into the Avengers’ world. Ultimately, for whatever reason, this all turned out to be...a prank? Peters’ true identity was revealed as the elusive ‘Ralph’, an aspiring actor possessed by Agatha the Witch, tricked into...performing as Wanda’s brother in an attempt to draw out her secrets. I’m feeling confused just writing this out, and I’ve seen the show multiple times.
Put bluntly, this was one of the most irritating fake-outs Marvel has ever pulled, and had no place in a mystery-box show which demanded audiences seek clues and hints in every scene and casting. Almost insultingly, the character was literally reduced to a dick joke in the final episode; “You’re Ralph Bohner?” It’s a shameful way to end Peters’ run as the fan-favourite speedster, and a self-sabotaging bit of stunt casting which significantly contributed to the building of fan-theories and expectations going into the show's finale - expectations that Marvel never wanted to meet in the first place...
Despite WandaVision’s spattering of flaws, the series’ writer Jac Shaeffer brought a distinctly feminine power and sensitivity to the project which allowed its female characters to shine brightly. One of the series’ best contributions to the wider MCU will undoubtedly be Teyonah Parris, who takes on the role of Monica Rambeau (who we met as a child in 2019’s Captain Marvel). Parris is incredibly charming and charismatic, commanding the screen in both the show and in every interview I’ve seen her partake in to promote it. Her breathtaking, formal introduction to the audience in Episode 4, in which we saw her return from Thanos’ snap-cum-blip and simultaneously process the death of her mother, was genuinely thrilling and helped us form an instant affinity for the character (beyond our familiarity with her child-counterpart).
Parris first appears in WandaVision as part of Wanda’s Hex-cast, though, and she 'stars' as ‘Geraldine’ in The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Brady Bunch-inspired episodes. Parris treads new ground as ‘Geraldine’ - integrating a Black woman into classic American sitcoms is a fairly radical act. Parris explored this pertinence in her interview with WMagazine;
“It was important for me to have the conversation with my director and head writer about making sure that we are all on the same page as far as we’re not ignoring the fact that there is a whole Black woman traipsing around here and this is not typical of this American sitcom style. We worked to figure out a way to balance and integrate it in a way that felt right for what we were trying to accomplish."
"Classic Monica [in the comics] was definitely wearing a natural afro out, so I felt it important that when we’re introducing her she would have her natural hair, and then update it to the 2020s for what that might be. I see it as a huge opportunity when you’re introducing a Black female superhero. I am excited and I also see the responsibility that comes with that. It’s imperative to me that we pay attention to the details, so how her hair is matters, how we’re presenting her matters, in ways that might not always show up for other characters."
It’s clear and reassuring that the production was eager to make sure time and effort was put into Monica’s depiction on-screen, especially after the spate of reports last year which revealed Black women in iconic movie roles suffered racialized neglect behind-the-scenes. But my problem with Monica in WandaVision isn’t about what was on-screen, it’s about what wasn’t. The time devoted to her character seemed to take a significant hit after Evan Peters was introduced as ‘Fietro’ (she was literally kidnapped by him in the end) and as the central mystery of the show began to unfold I don’t think the show knew what to do with an open-book like Monica.
Sure, her superhero origin which saw her wade through the barrier of the Hex was super-cool and super-slick. The visuals for that sequence were refreshingly bold and vibrant, in a style not often seen in the visually-one note MCU, and our brief exploration of her powerset leaves me amped up for her next appearance. I just wish her narrative arc actually went somewhere. I just wish her link to Wanda via grief actually found some sort of narrative resolution, or had a bigger moment. There was an admittedly clunky line thrown in by her at the end, inappropriately asserting Wanda’s inherent goodness, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy her arc and convince audiences that her appearance was little more than an advert for future outings.
This suspicion was confirmed in WandaVision’s mid-credits sequence, which crudely set-up the characters re-emergence in Captain Marvel 2. I know that Marvel regularly introduce characters in this way in their films, and that when they do I eat it up, but Marvel have trained us to regard their films as individual episodes in a silver-screen-sized series. I expect more from a literal television show, which should be able to find ample time to service all of its cast-members in a satisfying and complete way before the series ends.
I won’t even begin to unpack my frustration with the “engineer” red herring - seriously Marvel, you can’t ask us to follow every crumb trail and then accuse us of being over eager!
I’ll have to cut myself off now - it’s about 4 am at this point and I’ve been typing since 3pm yesterday afternoon - but I think this is a good place to end the first part of this discussion; while most of WandaVision’s problems were a result of factors beyond its control, many of them were blindingly obvious mistakes which seemed determined to tease its fans and audience. I'd suggest that WandaVision was Marvel's boldest and most exciting project to date, it just also happened to contain its clunkiest missteps.
Make sure to stay tuned for the second half of my WandaVision ramble which will find its way onto the internet next week, and in the meantime I hope you’ll stick around for my coverage of the BFI Flare 2021 Film Festival over the coming days.
Written by James Green