Friday, March 19, 2021

WandaVision and the MCU: Art vs. Commodification [Guest Poster: Hannah E.]

The following contains spoilers for WandaVision.

Since the release of Iron Man in 2008, Marvel has slowly grown into an unstoppable juggernaut of entertainment. They’ve just entered their so-called Phase 4, which includes 11 movies and 13 TV shows planned through 2023 and beyond. As they’ve grown more confident in their broader cinematic universe, there’s been a push to make everything more interconnected. It’s not enough for each movie to be successful on its own — Marvel wants every movie to be the wild chart-topping success that the Avengers movies are. Individual stories are consistently sacrificed in service of the bigger picture. All of Thor’s character development in Thor: Ragnarok is quickly forgotten because his role in Avengers: Infinity War was decided several years prior to that film and wasn’t going to bend for Taika Waititi. That’s why the most popular critique leveled at the MCU films is that they all feel the same. They aren’t movies made in the service of art as much as they’re movies made in service of cultivating a brand to make the parent company, Disney, more money. It’s a never ending, interconnected web of content aimed at creating cradle-to-grave watchers.

Enter WandaVision, easily the most avant-garde project the MCU has greenlit so far. Due to pandemic-related filming delays it became Marvel’s first TV show to air on Disney+ (the original plan was for Falcon and the Winter Soldier to air a few weeks prior), and found a substantial audience with people who hadn’t been interested in the MCU before. I myself had only seen a handful of Marvel’s other movies, largely against my will, and had no interest in investing in a series of movies that — to me — represented the most cynical, cash-grabbing side of Hollywood and filmmaking. 

But the trailers for WandaVision felt so unique compared to every other Marvel property I’d seen, so I decided to give the show a chance. And broadly speaking, the show delivered on the uniqueness of the advertising. Six of the nine episodes are filmed in period-accurate pastiche of famous sitcoms from the past, and the recreation is startlingly accurate. It’s especially impressive how they adapt Wanda and Vision’s characters to both fit the stereotypes of “dad” and “housewife” from the eras while also feeling true to their real characterizations. 

What really made WandaVision stand out from other MCU properties was the commitment to the emotional journey of Wanda. The show takes place three weeks after the events of Avengers: Endgame, where she comes back from the “blip” — meaning it’s been only three weeks for her since her partner, Vision, died twice. Relegating normal Marvel trappings to the B-plot, the show was largely focused on Wanda’s arc of accepting the loss she had suffered, letting go of her false reality, and moving on.

There’s just one problem with that: WandaVision isn’t even a show in its own right. It exists to set Wanda up as a character in the upcoming Doctor Strange sequel, because prior movies had forgotten to give her much meaningful screentime. And unfortunately because of that, a show genuinely interested in the process of grief ends up having a fairly muddied ending; while Wanda has to give up the family she’s created, there’s still another version of Vision flying around and sure to appear in some upcoming Marvel property. And the final post-credit scene reveals that her kids, who she thought were gone, are actually alive somewhere just waiting to become plot devices in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Wanda’s arc in accepting grief is harshly undercut by the realization that none of it is permanent, everything she had to let go of is already primed to reappear in the MCU proper. WandaVision cannot conclude a chapter in Wanda’s arc because that would be a lost storytelling opportunity for future movies years from now. And worse, if the show had a conclusive end, viewers might not show up on opening night of the new Doctor Strange

Which leads me to the question I’ve been struggling with ever since the finale aired: Is WandaVision art or content? Art is made because someone wants to communicate something, any small piece or heartbeat of the human experience. Content is the commodification of art; a business model for corporations to make money. The MCU is the embodiment of art’s corruption into content: a massive studio latching itself onto a pre-existing project with millions of fans that runs indefinitely and is intentionally built around the idea of selling merchandise. They also have an agreement with the military; in return for receiving funding and permission to use real equipment, the Pentagon gets to have say in the script and edit of their films. They even used the feminist cred of Captain Marvel to lead a recruitment campaign for women to join the Air Force. All of that feels a little gross. Where is the artistic merit in making the same movie 20 times, wrapped in a slightly different package, made to be as inoffensive and broadly appealing as possible? When looking at the forest instead of the trees, the MCU seems irredeemably bad. 

But that perspective feels unfair to some of the trees. Taika Waititi and Ryan Coogler especially pushed the boundaries of the MCU with Ragnarok and Black Panther, which are both films pushing back against imperialism. Those two films marked a clear progression in how willing Marvel was to allow individual creators to influence their product. The big features, like Infinity War and Endgame were still done by the Russos to feel as bland as possible, but some of the smaller projects were given room to breathe. 

WandaVision marks an odd meeting ground for the art and content sides of Marvel. The MCU’s push into TV is clearly a cynical cash grab, as they try to corner an even bigger share of the entertainment market; and not only that, it’s also clearly a storytelling device giving them several extra hours to interconnect storylines, making the movies more dependent on each other, raising the odds that viewers will see all of them instead of just a few. 

As if to counterbalance the shamelessness, Marvel went out of its way to create a genuine artistic vision for WandaVision. The concept was born from Kevin Feige’s childhood love of sitcoms, and the entire format is a love letter to the unique storytelling of TV. Showrunner Jac Schaeffer worked extensively to pull every tiny detail that had been dropped about Wanda in the MCU films and blow it into an actual backstory, making her and Vision’s love story feel real. It also didn’t shy away from the profound sense of grief Wanda grapples with; the entire penultimate episode is a walkthrough of Wanda’s most emotionally harrowing experiences. The best scene of the episode is a quiet moment between Wanda and Vision, set before Civil War, where he consoles her as she grieves her dead brother; it beautifully captures Vision discovering what it’s like to be human in giving comfort to someone else and how grateful Wanda is to have someone again. The line, “What is grief, if not love persevering?” is genuinely beautiful (if also meme-able) and speaks to the central theme of the show — the power of love and grief, and how inseparable the two are. 

Elizabeth Olsen may have said it best in a recent interview, discussing how the hand motions Wanda uses to access her powers were rooted in her character’s backstory: “There is a lot of thought that goes into how those relate. And, you know, that’s when you’re like ‘We did a character piece, and we’re in the Marvel world.’”

A “character piece” and “Marvel world” are two opposite forces, struggling to exist in the same space. Reading interviews with both Elizabeth Olsen and Jac Schaeffer, it’s clear that it was a struggle to script an end to the grief arc while also servicing the upcoming Marvel projects; that led to the somewhat muddied ending I’d mentioned earlier, where Wanda’s acceptance of loss is undercut by the audience’s knowledge that it isn’t permanent.

So where does that leave WandaVision? The entire creative team behind the show was fully committed to a character piece, but couldn’t end things exactly how they wanted because it exists within the Marvel franchise. It couldn’t exist solely as art, because it had to do legwork for brand content. 

Pondering this question, I found myself thinking of Princess Diana. Bear with me for a second, and I promise these two things will relate. She became the People’s Princess at the height of royal unpopularity; the entire nation had just about had it with Prince Charles before they fell madly in love with his wife. Because of Diana’s charity work and human kindness, the approval ratings of the entire royal family shot up. Where it once seemed like the monarchy was on its knees, Diana had brought it back. Taking this in as a forest, that was very bad; the monarchy was outdated a hundred years ago and does nothing but hurt everything in and around it. But looking at the trees, it’s hard to believe it could be bad for Diana to be kind. 

The unfortunate nature of her circumstances meant that Diana gave a human face to a monstrous institution. But at the same time, she was just being kind; she didn’t intend to make the Crown look good, she just cared for people and couldn’t hide it. Diana was art, and the Crown is content.

WandaVision is putting a human face on the monster that is Disney corporate hegemony. Where I couldn’t stomach engaging in the MCU before, I fell hook, line, and sinker for WandaVision and will probably show up in theatres to see the Doctor Strange sequel. Marvel’s content model is working on me now. 

But that doesn’t take away from the artistic highs WandaVision reached. Elizabeth Olsen is probably the best performer in the MCU, and she put on an Emmy-worthy performance as Wanda in all nine episodes. When the show was allowed to just simply be, free of its Marvel restraints, it had a lot of very insightful things to say about grief and how to move on. “What is grief, if not love persevering?” is a line that will stick with me for years. 

I don’t think there’s an easy answer to be had here. WandaVision is both art and brand content, and that’s both good and bad. If the MCU is going to take over entertainment, I’m glad to see they’re willing to let talented creators really swing for the fences. But those home-runs help people forget just how terrified we should all be of Disney taking over the big and small screen.


Post a Comment