Cultural Junkdrawer – Season’s End: WandaVision pt 1: (Hex)nuts and Bolts!

GameStop, Inc.

 SEASON’S END: WandaVision

Pt 1: (Hex)nuts and bolts!

 

 

 Season’s End is a less than regular feature I do for Cultural Junkdrawer where I take a season of a TV show, break it down, analyze it to death and chat about what worked and what didn’t. I occasionally make dumb jokes and do call backs to other entries in my three columns that you haven’t read.

 Since I’ve done a sum total of three of these Season’s end thingies: the 1st season of Gotham and the fourth seasons of The Flash and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.  With several years between them; I haven’t quite locked the format. So things might roll out a little different this time.

 I must also warn you that there will be SPOILERS FOR WandaVision in this column. If it isn’t obvious there will be spoilers you are… 

  1. A) Recently unfrozen from a block of ice dating back to 2000 BC. (If this is the case, congrats on navigating the internet and they’re called “airplanes” and not “Giant Bird gods!”)
  2. B) Living in a self imposed fantasy world where there are, like, Hobbits, unicorns, jumbo squid and shit. I pity/envy you!
  3. C) At the wrong website and were probably looking for porn. So split the difference and check out my ADULT CONTINUITY COLUMN.

 Main takeaway from this is: I’m gonna talk about the entire series and if you don’t want anything spoiled avert your eyes or be turned into a pillar of salt like that one chick in the bible that reflected on all the good times she had partying in Sodom and Gomorrah. In a metaphorical sense, of course. 

 Moving on!

 Either by happenstance or design, WandaVision was the first MCU Disney+ show. It was also the first new MCU material since Spiderman: Far from home dropped. So it’s been over a year and a half. Sure we were supposed to get a movie or two before the world became the disease riddled, burning-but-not-dying terrifying clown show it always was but just became unignorable. As such, there was a crapton of expectation. Had the spell been broken? Like when you finally put away that bag of fritos you’ve been snacking too much from, would people drop the MCU without that delicious open bag of salty corn flavored content we’ve had for the last ten or more years? Would the idea of robot/human love be too strange for people to deal with? Would WandaVision introduce Mutants into the MCU? Would this show finally be the flop Marvel detractors like DCEU Extremists, Martin Scorcese and (at least according to the GOP) antifa had a hard on for?

 The answers were: No, No, Personally HELL NO, No and No.

 WandaVision managed to not only be complex, fun, engrossing and do what Marvel does so freggin well. But also weird, experimental and a fascinating and nuanced exploration of grief and coping with it. So yeah, the magic, chaos or otherwise, is still there.

 In fact WandaVision seemed to achieve an even deeper cultural penetration than thought possible for the IP that has the all time world Box Office champion under its belt (fuck Avatar and their cheating re-release), makes billions in licensing fees alone (you don’t see kids wearing Na’Vari pajamas or backpacks do ya?) and whose existence is responsible for an entire on-lne industry based on analysis, speculation and easter egg hunting (25 things you missed in AVATAR because you watched it once in the theaters). The show spawned a #1 streamed iTunes song Agatha all along!, a lifetime worth of youtube hours dedicated to breaking down each episode and countless memes including the best justification of twitter since cute sloth videos: #VIShawn:

 


 

 So is the show all that?

 Yes, most definitely, yes. And for many many reasons.

 STUFF I DID LIKE – Marvel shows have been so successful because they are superhero stories but also because they can be different genres. Winter Soldier was an Action/Political thriller. Ragnarok a Road Trip/Buddy comedy. Spiderman: Homecoming is an 80’s John Hughes flavored teen action/comedy, Daredevil was a gritty crime/ vigilante drama with some ninjas thrown in. WandaVision gives us the “Family Sitcom homage/mystery box” show we never knew we wanted.

 WandaVision took an even greater step by being about almost anything you wanted it to be. The format allowed for deeply personal to widespread cultural resonance. I’ve read and viewed think pieces about grief, validation of women’s emotional trauma, a retrospective of American sit-com production design and a reflection of our own pandemic escapism habits. And it all scans. This is a new level for the MCU; a progression from owning the four quadrants to tapping into the collective unconscious.

 WandaVision isn’t just one, or two things. It manages to be what so much good art is: Everything while still being itself. So with that in mind, how do I tackle analyzing a show that manages to simultaneously invite and frustrate analysis?

 

 TECHNICAL ASPECT – WandaVision, from a technical aspect, is unrelentingly brilliant. Production design just NAILS it! From emulating the look and feel of every significant era of 70 years of family sit-coms to incorporating set pieces that specifically evoke particular shows. The tripping hassock from the Dick Van Dyke Show to the paneling found in the Brady Bunch house to the furniture supporting Modern Family monologues. The work of Make-up and Wardrobe might seem more readily noticeable (especially considering the success of period specific shows in the last decade) but no less impressive. 

 The cinematography and camera work could also be a crash course in the evolving visual language of TV. The first episode looked and felt like a TV show from the 50s; shot on stage in front of a live audience. Mounted, three camera coverage with smooth but limited movement, mostly static wide shots. The second episode mimicking late 50’s early 60’s production styles including the incorporation of actual outdoor locations, more medium and tighter shots (coverage and editing) and, of course, crisp black and white cinematography. I don’t know if the verisimilitude extended to actual equipment (I’d feel bad for set electric if they had to use heavy head arcs for episode two) but the way the camera moves and framing to the aspect ratio of the shots to the style of the cinematography, shows that the crew did their homework. The same holds for the first several episodes when the show takes on a different decade/style each time. The look, language and execution evolving along with the story.

 I’d like to think that the department heads and crew had a blast NOT being locked into a single look/style like a regular TV production.

 

 ACTING and WRITING – The writing and acting also perfectly emulated each era. Think of the mugging and dialogue rhythms from the first few episodes to the stylized but more sedate acting of the Family Ties/ Malcolm in the Middle section and the more naturalistic acting and pacing of the Mockumentary style perfected by the likes of The Office and Modern Family.

 The writing sounded like and captured the situations typified in each era also. Wanda struggles to hide her abilities so she seems normal to the community ala every Bewitched episode. The hyperreality of the 90’s Malcolm in the Middle including the breaking of the fourth wall. Even if you want to go further, the final episodes are the “characters flying around shooting cgi energy beams” of the modern superhero epic. The writing also pulled off the complex task of telling a story with stakes, progression, plot and character while framing the episodes in the lens of multiple nostalgia trips.

 One thing that remained consistent throughout the shifting styles, eras and even the excursions into the “reality” of the world outside the hex was the use of modern storytelling techniques. Media in res, unreliable narrator, multiple narrators, re-contextualization and non-linear storytelling were all employed in telling WandaVision. And unlike some other recent shows that tried the same tricks (I’m thinking, first and foremost the new version of “The Stand”) these narrative tools worked. The commercials appearing in the shows were a prime example of this technique: info on Wanda’s past traumas through the lens of era appropriate commercials. A masterstroke in my opinion because of the multiple levels (re-contextualization, format warping, emulation, postmodern narrative) and jobs they worked in. 

This is what you get when the (blanket term) “Mystery Box” narrative style is applied to the right story. Imagine if the show opened with Wanda leaving The Vision at SWORD, going to Westview, then casting the Hex. Having the explanation upfront would undercut a lot of the fun. Sure, we’d still have a surprise or two like Ralph Bohner/Quicksilver and Agatha Harkness. And some tension could be derived from knowing that Hayward was lying from the jump (most of us knew that bastard was shady by episode 4 anyways). But if WandaVision didn’t employ postmodern storytelling techniques the show wouldn’t have had that giddy confusion and “WTF is going on?!?!” energy that made it so engrossing.

 In addition I really liked Darci naming Wanda’s magic “The Hex”, kinda making her the Marvel version of the Arrowverse’s Cisco Ramon. I’d be happy to see and hear Kat Dennings name any term in the MCU. Too bad “Life model decoy” has already been established. She’d nail that.

 It was already part of the comic continuity, I think, but making “Scarlet Witch” a title and not just a code name for Wanda opens up plenty of possibilities.

 The easter eggs also ruled: The Grim Reaper helmet, Bova milk and Agnes’ cat in episode 2 animated opening. The comic accurate Halloween outfits. The strong possibility that Agatha was growing Wundergore everblooms. Sparky the dog. We expect these little tips of the hats in every Marvel Project. Sometimes they fuel wild speculation, other times its a nice way for hardcore fans to feel clever and/or catered to.

Katherine Hahn is a national treasure. End of discussion.

 All in all “WandaVision” really didn’t make a wrong move.

Or did it?

 

 Find out next week in Part 2: Quibbles, Trolls and the Future! THURSDAY at 1pm!

 

Stuff tangential to the column that I couldn’t fit in organically

 

 By the way; Sodom and Gomorrah are not two members of the Guardians of the Galaxy.

 Just one but she spells her name differently.

Another #VIShawn pic:

There was also L’Wanda pics. Mostly Elizabeth Olson in cornrows.

 Update on lighting: I watched the “Assembled” special about making the show and I am happy to report that it looks like Heavy head arcs weren’t used in the production of episode one or two. I’m sure you all are relieved to know that also.

 Though I did see a crew member carrying an S-60 Skypanel in one behind the scenes shot. If that wasn’t used for the outside the hex content the whole thing is ruined for me.

When I saw Avatar my very first kidney stone made its presence known. Even though I will forever connect that unbearable pain with the James Cameron movie it still doesn’t change the fact that for a movie that made 2.5 BILLION dollars it has no cultural footprint.

 And Cameron has, like 4 more of these things on deck in the next few years? At least it kept him from considering a “Titanic 2: The Spawning”.

 “Piranha 2: The Spawning” was James Cameron’s debut directing gig. “The Spawning” is my goto for sequel name jokes.

 

TUNE IN NEXT WEEK for PART 2 of “Season’s end” – WandaVision

 

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