[Ed. note: Spoilers ahead for episode 1-6 of WandaVision.]
Something is wrong with Wanda Maximoff and the Vision. Viewers could tell as much from the very start of WandaVision, a Marvel Cinematic Universe TV show that doesn’t fit the mold of the MCU films, or the previous, rather neglected Marvel shows on traditional networks. Now, in the final few weeks of the series’ nine-episode run, there’s a relatively clear picture. The initially inexplicable sitcom setting of the early episodes is all a manifestation of Wanda’s grief over the Vision’s death in Avengers: Infinity War, a death that could not be reversed in Avengers: Endgame. This is a horrible, tragic fate for these characters, and yet some viewers have been restless, claiming not enough is happening. Others, correctly, note Wanda’s terrible grief, and say there is plenty going on. To some extent, both opinions are true: WandaVision is exploring a character in a way the MCU hasn’t done before. And in spite of that, I feel nothing at all for her.
This is a scab I’ve been trying to pick at for a while now, since, once WandaVision premiered, I had to be consistently reminded there was a new episode out every Friday. It feels odd. I thoroughly enjoyed The Mandalorian and never had trouble remembering to watch it, even though I’d characterize it as extremely light on story, to the point where I could not tell you much about what this most recent season was about. (Mando needed to find a nanny for Grogu?) It’s not a matter of favorites, either. Given the choice of living in a world without Marvel superheroes or one without Star Wars, I’d rather live in the one with stories about the Hulk starting beef with Freddie Prinze, Jr.
So yes, I like the MCU, and find Wanda and Vision’s comic-book history compelling. I also like the extraneous bits of watching MCU projects: observing fans piecing together narrative puzzles in forums and social media, coming up with ideas of my own, and waiting to see how right or wrong we all are.
None of this has anything to do with telling a story, or enjoying one. This is what video games commonly call lore: something that has the cadence of a story, but might as well be a Wiki entry. It’s narrative ephemera that can enhance, but never substitute for, the experience of watching a character overcome an immediate conflict or emotional struggle.
What WandaVision is missing is the sense that anyone in the story is being confronted with the opportunity to change, and wrestling with what it might mean to embrace it. There are binary choices (like, will Wanda move on from her loss and lift the hex that’s holding Westview hostage?) but nothing more complicated, because neither Wanda nor Vision have well-developed interior lives. They have the raw materials for rich character work, but no foundation to build them on.
This is the heart of the problem with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It refuses to follow one of the most basic tenets of storytelling: show, don’t tell.
One of the peculiar things about MCU projects is how frequently they come with talking points. These usually arrive in the form of shorthand descriptors given well in advance, usually by a figurehead like top MCU producer Kevin Feige. And they usually serve to position a given project as Not Just Another Superhero Blockbuster. For example: Captain America: The Winter Soldier was billed as a ’70s-style political thriller — and directors Joe and Anthony Russo absolutely loved talking about that genre of movie. But upon close examination, the comparison is purely superficial. We’re often told how to receive a Marvel project, which can be a problem when presented with something like WandaVision. It’s been billed as an ode to classic sitcoms, and to a certain extent it is, but now that the big picture is taking shape, that’s being superseded by another overriding idea: Wanda’s grief.
Trouble is, this telling-not-showing aspect of the MCU extends to character arcs. WandaVision is, on paper, a story shot through with sorrow, but I cannot connect with its sadness because I haven’t witnessed any of the emotions preceding it. Wanda and Vision never spent much time together on-screen before Vision’s death — they got a few scenes as weird roommates in Captain America: Civil War, and they’re shown mid-relationship in Avengers: Infinity War. There’s no meet-cute, no moment that illustrates something one loves about the other, nothing to really anchor the terrible moment where Wanda has to kill the person she loves, only to find that he died for nothing. She weeps, yet I am unmoved.
This is not to say that no one could find this moving; emotions are extremely subjective. Maybe their scant onscreen relationship is enough for you! I tend to think of myself as very willing to cry at sad things on a screen, but I do want movies and TV to do the basic work of winning me over and establishing the stakes, and I chafe when a relationship is described rather than shown.
Part of the reason why WandaVision’s minimal groundwork is so bothersome is because Marvel movies can do this work. Black Panther is a film suffused with emotion — it’s funny, jubilant, angry, and sad in equal measure. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the friendship between Steve Rogers and Bucky is a little on the thin side, but I understand the kind of devotion that could come from finding out that your only pal from the 1940s has also been frozen for decades. I’m not sure why Sam Wilson feels so loyal to Cap, outside of thinking that he’s a solid dude and that they happen to be in the same movies. But in a few weeks, I’ll likely be expected to watch a story about those characters’ deep connection to Captain America in Falcon and the Winter Soldier — a connection that at the moment, I only partly understand.
In this regard, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is WandaVision’s biggest antagonist. It’s the reason why it’s possible to feel like nothing is happening, even as the depth of Wanda Maximoff’s plight looks increasingly horrible. It’s what happens when careful plotting of where characters will be and what they will do supersede how they will feel — and, by extension, what the audience should invest in. It’s why I’m certain that, as WandaVision barrels toward its conclusion, I’m fairly confident that while this show about death, loss, and mourning might thrill me, it’ll never hex me into shedding a tear.