WandaVision: A Magical Tribute to TV – Disney+ Review

Marvel’s first Phase Four series gives us an homage to the history of televised love.

SUMMARY

Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) is married to the android Vision (Paul Bettany), who is somehow back from the dead after having Thanos rip his head open. They now live in the town of Westview, New Jersey, which just so happens to mirror the setting of classic sitcoms, aging from the 1950s to the 2010s as the couple moves forward in their relationship. They regularly interact with their nosy neighbor Agnes (Kathryn Hahn) and eventually have two children named Billy and Tommy (Julian Hilliard and Jett Kline). At the same time, in the “real” world, S.W.O.R.D. Agent Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), and astrophysicist Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) attempt to find Wanda and end the strange things happening to Westview, while avoiding SWORD director Tyler Hayward (Josh Stamberg).

Yes, ’70s Wanda and Vision are swingers.

END SUMMARY

When Marvel announced they were shifting to television for their fourth phase, I admit that I wasn’t quite sure how to feel. I liked Agents of SHIELD, but it was fairly inconsistent in terms of storytelling. Some arcs were amazing, others felt like they just ran out of ideas and were pulling from broad genre tropes that they forced in. Agent Carter felt more coherent, but it also got cancelled pretty quickly. The announcement of WandaVision initially excited me, but then I got worried that maybe the show would just be an excuse to do some hackneyed jokes based around the idea of the two characters living in a sitcom. Fortunately, this show focused just as much on the mystery as it did on the sitcom elements, which kept the series from overusing the premise. 

I do think it’s weird that NO agent of SHIELD showed up in the series.

Part of what makes it work is that the show plays the corny sitcom tropes completely straight for most of the first episode. That season is the 1950s and most of the jokes are, appropriately, pratfalls or bland and non offensive observations. If you rewatch most of the shows from that period that aren’t the Dick Van Dyke Show or I Love Lucy, a lot of shows largely relied on the novelty of just performing on television to make the spectacle enjoyable. Both Bettany and Olsen do a great job of duplicating the speaking and reaction style that were hallmarks of most of the shows during that period. As the show gets closer to the present, through the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, the jokes from the “sitcoms” get more modern and better crafted, for the most part, but they also become more rare because the “fourth wall” gets progressively destroyed, starting with a moment that is deeply out of character at the end of the first episode. However, for at least the first two episodes, there are only a few minutes that appear to be anything outside of the sitcom, which really helps keep the balance between the show and the show within the show.

Also, kudos to the costumers and set designers. Great stuff.

The supporting cast ranges from classic sitcom guests like Fred Melamed, Debra Jo Rupp, and Emma Caulfield to the recurring “real world” cast of FBI and SWORD agents. It’s interesting in that we see both the “sitcom” version of the characters as well as their “real” versions and they are deeply different, in a way that reflects how dour reality is compared to the curated image of life that used to permeate television. It is compounded by the fact that, when their true selves show, they are dealing with having been essentially imprisoned by having their wills supressed. Some of the scenes of this are played darkly straight and make the entire situation seem even more disturbing. As far as the “real world” cast goes, Parris, Park, and Dennings are a near perfect balance of comic relief and competent supporting character. None of them are stupid, they’re just believably quirky people who have their own motivations and flaws. I will say I look forward to Parris becoming a superhero in future installments.

I am surprised that Kitty Foreman wasn’t in the 1970s episode, though.

I will admit that I regret not reviewing this show earlier, but I felt like I could not appropriately give praise to the best parts of the show without spoilers, and I wanted to give a week for that period to pass. So, SPOILER WARNING:

Kathryn Hahn is a god-given treasure to this show (and, let’s face it, any show she’s on). She not only plays the neighbor Agnes for most of the series, which was one of the more amusing and consistent parts of the “television show” illusion, but is revealed to be the witch Agatha Harkness, who essentially manipulated Wanda so that she could steal her powers. Hahn is not only clever, but her snarky delivery makes her likable even when she is acting as the villain. I’m hopeful that Marvel continues to use her. Another notable casting decision was Evan Peters as “Ralph Bohner,” an actor who is cast by Agatha as Quicksilver, Wanda’s brother. Peters played the character in the X-men Universe and, while it was kind of a let down that this wasn’t actually the alternate universe version of the character, it was still a great nod to the X-Men series by the creators.

Greatest. Character. Intro. Ever.

Overall, just a great series. If you haven’t watched it, or you quit after the first episode, give it another shot.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All TimeCollection of TV EpisodesCollection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

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Uncle Frank: Great Performances, Mediocre Film – Amazon Prime Review

Paul Bettany brings some heavy emotions, but the film can’t hold up.

SUMMARY (Spoiler-Free)

In 1973, Beth Bledsoe (Sophia Lillis) moves from her traditional Southern family in South Carolina to go to college in New York where her uncle, Frank (Paul Bettany), teaches. Beth attends a party and finds out that Frank is gay and has been living with his boyfriend Wally (Peter Macdissi) for a decade. Beth agrees to keep Frank’s secret, but this is quickly put to the test when Frank’s dad, Frank Sr. (Stephen Root), dies. Frank has to go visit his mother (Famous Celebrity Character Actress Margo Martindale), brother Mike (Steve Zahn) and his wife Kitty (Judy Greer), and the rest of his family, which is complicated when Wally tries to secretly follow along. 

You could guess what decade it is just from this shot.

END SUMMARY

I constantly go back and forth about how much a good performance can salvage a mediocre or even bad film, but this movie is proof that a bunch of good performances can at least keep a mediocre outing interesting. What’s really sad is that, with relatively few changes, it feels like this movie could have been amazing, because Bettany and Lillis really seem to nail their characters far beyond what was on the page. 

Their interplay is strong.

The problem with this movie is the same problem that many films about a queer character coming out to a conservative family has: It wants to have it both ways. It wants the main character to go through the dread of interacting with a family that might reject him (despite the fact that he’s used a beard for a while) and also to have the family not really be monstrous towards him so that it seems reasonable that he still wants to be with them. To its credit, the film does a better job than many movies, like Happiest Season for example, because not everyone in the film goes immediately from “gays are defective” to “rainbow pride,” but it still makes a lot of the characters come off as less real than they need to be for this kind of drama. 

Stephen Root’s character is too unbelievable in a different way.

The other problem with this movie is that they actually waste a ton of the talent in the cast by not giving them more to work with. While I may have thought Judy Greer ended up being a little underused in Halloween, this is exactly the kind of film where she could have shone if given something good to say. The same is true of Margo Martindale, who, as BoJack Horseman repeatedly informed us, makes everything she’s in better, as well as Steve Zahn, who, honestly, has a few decent scenes as Beth’s cantankerous and somewhat off-putting father. 

Margo Martindale is a treasure. Always.

Overall, the movie isn’t bad. It’s actually pretty good. It just needed a little polish to be great and I think it’s sad that it didn’t reach that mark. 

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All TimeCollection of TV EpisodesCollection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.