Why ‘WandaVision’ deserves the first spot in Marvel’s Phase 4

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There will likely never be a cinematic achievement of the same caliber as the Infinity Saga, and “WandaVision” is proof that it doesn’t have to be.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has returned after a lengthy hiatus with the Disney+ series “WandaVision.” While not originally intended as the next subsequent installment, “WandaVision” was the perfect choice to begin Phase 4.

“WandaVision” follows sorceress Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and her android husband, Vision (Paul Bettany), as they move to Westview, navigating suburban life while concealing their powers. Despite the campy sitcom format, not everything is as it seems, especially after the trauma these characters previously endured. Tension and uneasiness build until the illusion collapses, and when things go nuclear for this nuclear family, Wanda and Vision must face their grief headfirst.

The series juxtaposes sitcom tropes and moments of levity with a sense of eeriness and deep emotional arcs, setting a tone that manages to balance all three. Themes of grief thematically tie to the events of previous Marvel films, as well as the aesthetics and structure of sitcoms, in a satisfying and cohesive manner. The final episode felt rushed, but Wanda and Vision’s character arcs and performances remain powerful throughout.

This is the first MCU release since “Spider-Man: Far From Home” in the summer of 2019. The movie served as an epilogue for Phase 3 and the Infinity Saga, the overarching story of every previous installment. While this point in the story seems like a perfect time for a hiatus, it was purely coincidental; as with almost every Hollywood production, filming and release schedules were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Disney’s original plan for Phase 4 would’ve seen “Black Widow” released in theaters May 2020, with the first Disney+ Marvel series, “Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” releasing that fall. “Eternals” and “Shang-Chi: Legend of the Ten Rings” would then release before “WandaVision,” which shared a spring 2021 timeslot with the “Loki” series. The pandemic scrambled this schedule, and even projects that were nearly finished required delays for reshoots and editing.

After restructuring to prioritize streaming, Disney released “WandaVision” on Jan. 15. “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” premiered on March 19, with “Loki” and the animated anthology “What If?” coming this summer. Following several delays, Disney revealed on Tuesday that “Black Widow” will release July 9 in theaters and Disney+ Premier Access, a one-time $30 premium for subscribers to see theatrical releases before being added to Disney+ at no additional cost.

This begs the question: why “WandaVision?” If the pandemic hadn’t affected the release schedule, or if the three shows were in relatively interchangeable levels of completion, “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” would still be first to air. One could also make the argument that Loki’s ravenous popularity gives his series priority, or that Disney could’ve easily released the completely finished “Black Widow” at any time. Why should “WandaVision” go first?

Beyond the delays messing up everything, “WandaVision” fits perfectly as the MCU’s comeback because it’s the least like anything before it. The Infinity Saga is an unprecedented cinematic achievement, spanning more than 20 movies over 11 years, but now that the main story arc has concluded, Phase 4’s focus on serialized content will explore new directions that were previously impossible, which “WandaVision” demonstrates better than any of the upcoming shows.

While every MCU production falls under the superhero genre, Marvel remains fresh by exploring additional genres. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a spy thriller, “Ant-Man” is a heist movie, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is a teen movie, etc. Even movies with similar genres are distinct; “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Thor: Ragnarok” are action comedies, but James Gunn’s meticulously scripted scenes and Taika Waititi’s improv-based writing are separate directorial visions.

Naturally, certain genres are better suited for different mediums, which is why every Marvel movie, like most blockbusters, focuses on action for worldwide appeal. Likewise, genres that benefit from serialized storytelling can now be introduced to the MCU through streaming shows. Dramedies are all the rage these days, and “WandaVision” uses that genre with elements of sitcoms and supernatural mysteries to create a compelling conflict with very few action scenes.

Compared to the average runtime for theatrical releases, serialization means Marvel shows have more time to pace out story elements instead of cramming everything into one movie. Marvel’s shows are planned to be roughly six hours each, but episode lengths will vary between shows. “WandaVision” ran for nine episodes of different lengths, showing viewers that while some will have uniform runtimes, MCU shows can pace themselves as the plot needs.

Because of the streaming-centric genres and flexible pacing, Marvel shows have infinite storytelling potential where blockbuster films are limited. As opposed to heroes with more general audience appeal, the MCU can explore motivations and perspectives of more underrated characters. Wanda was previously one of the most compelling Avengers, given her unfathomable strength and equal parts grief, but “WandaVision” fleshed out her relationship with Vision to an emotionally powerful degree.

Characters aside, the potential concepts and plots to be adapted from Marvel Comics mean upcoming MCU projects aren’t afraid to get weird, in the best possible way. “Secret Invasion” and “Armor Wars” stick out as comics that ooze potential and will both be featured as their own series. “WandaVision” itself incorporates elements from Marvel’s catalog that could only be told in serialization, including Tom King’s incredible 2015 run of “Vision.”

To be clear, none of this means the other shows are any less exciting than “WandaVision.” The premiere of “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” introduced engaging and nuanced conflicts for its titular leads, and as a time-traveling crime thriller starring one of Marvel’s best antiheroes, “Loki” is poised to be one of Marvel’s most exciting projects yet. “WandaVision” just happens to be the best choice to demonstrate Phase 4’s potential.

There will likely never be a cinematic achievement of the same caliber as the Infinity Saga, and “WandaVision” is proof that it doesn’t have to be. By exploring the unique attributes of streaming content, Phase 4 will deliver more personal and specific character studies using genres and directorial styles that weren’t previously possible. We’ve said goodbye to the MCU before, and it couldn’t feel better to say hello again.

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Sean Mullins
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