‘WandaVision’: A Marvel Expert and Casual Fan Unpack ‘The Series Finale’ and the Double-Edged Sword of Fan Theories

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you haven’t seen “The Series Finale,” the ninth and final episode of “WandaVision” on Disney Plus.

“WandaVision,” the first big television show of 2021, ended up being both an oddity and an inevitability. While the Disney Plus series is from the powerful production house of Marvel Studios, it also proved to be a deliciously strange, surprisingly poignant reflection on grief, family and community. Watching Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) wind her way through decades of sitcom history, layers of her own trauma, and an increasingly tragic love story with her considerate (and synthetic) counterpart Vision (Paul Bettany) became a weekly event that united viewers in a pressing need to know what on earth was going to happen next.

As the series evolved, though, it became clear that fans were watching and appreciating “WandaVision” very differently depending on their level of affection for the ever broadening Marvel Cinematic Universe. Some came to the show with years of knowledge of the comics, the movies, or both; others went in relatively cold, deciding to give it a shot despite not knowing all the ins and outs of what had happened to the characters before they ended up in the mysterious town of Westview. Both fanbases, however, had plenty of strong opinions about how the show unfolded and, as of March 5, ended.

And so to look back at “WandaVision” as a whole, Variety Senior Entertainment Writer Adam B. Vary and Chief TV Critic Caroline Framke got together to talk about how differently they experienced this unusual series, their thoughts on that finale, and what they’ve learned about Marvel Studios’ approach to TV since tuning in to The Wanda Show.

Caroline Framke: Let’s get this out of the way now: I’m one of those people who had to watch the little recap package Disney Plus put together for neophytes going into “WandaVision,” having not rewatched any of the “Avengers” movies in a hot minute. Even though I always liked Wanda and Vision as characters, I’m a casual Marvel viewer who wasn’t about to remember their every interaction, so was worried about how lost I might get while watching a series all about them.

But after watching the first three episodes, I was pleasantly surprised. At that point, “WandaVision” was a series of clever sitcom homages that were extremely friendly to anyone who might not have understood all the Marvel backstory leading up to that point. Olsen and Bettany were great, the songs were near perfect, and the subtext of Wanda plastering a broad grin across her face lest it shatter under the pressure of her own grief was powerful enough to keep me intrigued. I knew better, but I couldn’t help but wonder if “WandaVision” might have the room and guts to pull off maybe the boldest Marvel show of all, aka a Marvel show that could tell a self-contained story without having to tie back in to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The fourth episode, of course, is when “WandaVision” takes its first turn back into the Marvel-verse, which is fine, or at least inevitable. And hey, I’m never mad about spending more time with actors like Teyonah Parris, Kat Dennings and Randall Park, who anchored those segments with real presence and charm. But there was nonetheless a part of me that was disappointed to realize that “WandaVision” was, in fact, made to serve the bigger picture after all — a feeling that only intensified after the finale, which is almost entirely a Big Boss sky battle in the style of basically every Marvel movie to date.

Adam, as someone who knows the comics and Marvel basically inside out, I know you had a wildly different experience of “WandaVision” than I did. With that in mind, what was it like for you to watch this show week in and out?

Adam B. Vary: First, I have to say, Caroline, I’m so pleased to know that you were able to follow “WandaVision” from the start. As someone who has seen every MCU movie at least twice (yes, even “Iron Man 2”), I found those early episodes to be remarkably brave for how little they bothered to explain who Wanda and Vision even are, let alone how they got their powers or where they came from. Those first three episodes are a real tightrope walk, forging ahead with a story that makes little sense both to the uninitiated and the core believers. Yes, “WandaVision” draws from several comic storylines in Marvel history, but none of them were explicitly set in a sitcom fantasyland mere days after Wanda and the rest of the MCU vanquished Thanos and half the population of the universe was blipped back into existence. So I truly had no idea where “WandaVision” was going, and I loved it all the more for that.

As the show progressed, it also became increasingly clear that “WandaVision” wasn’t just a show about grief, but about feeling alienated from your own life, and seeking refuge in the cozy comforts of home — even if those comforts are a high-gloss pastiche of family-friendly situation comedies. Of course, there’s no way that head writer Jac Schaeffer and director Matt Shakman could have known when they were making this show that it would debut 10 months into a once-in-a-century pandemic that has riven the world with overwhelming loss. But clearly, some kind of chaos magic was in the air over at Marvel, because I think a large part of what made “WandaVision” such a sensation — what allowed it to captivate Marvel newbies and diehards alike — was that it spoke directly to our lives now in a way the MCU has never quite managed before.

If it seems like I’m avoiding your question, it’s because I am trying not to admit that the part of “WandaVision” that in some ways worked the least is the part that feels, at first glance, the most Marvel-y — i.e., S.W.O.R.D., a.k.a. S.H.I.E.L.D. But For Space Stuff. Obviously, there has to be some kind of external reaction to what Wanda’s doing in Westview, but as delightful as Parris, Dennings, and Park are, those segments never quite vibrated at the same frequency as what was happening in the Hex.

And yet, in the end, I don’t think the S.W.O.R.D. stuff was the biggest hurdle for  “WandaVision.” Instead, I’d point to the plot twist that was at once the most sitcom-y and the most Marvel-y moment of the show: the surprise appearance of Evan Peters as Wanda’s late brother Pietro. What did you make of that when it first happened, Caroline?

Framke: Though I already knew intellectually that diehard Marvel fans were watching this show at a different frequency than I was, it was Peters crashing the show that made me fully understand the gulf between our experiences. To me, that moment just felt like proof that things were starting to unravel beyond Wanda’s immediate control. For you and other (I say with great affection) extreme nerds, Peters showing up as Quiksilver teased the enormous implications of Fox’s “X-Men” universe possibly colliding with Marvel’s — a thing I only realized once I read your recap! Otherwise, he was just some funny dude in a beanie.

Still, your point about this casting twist being a bit of a fork in the road for “WandaVision” is, I think, a fair one. From “Halloween” on, the show is firmly in its endgame of revealing Agatha (the incomparable Kathryn Hahn) as The Big Bad, pushing Wanda to realize the depth of her trauma, and nudging her into owning her power as — we can say it now! — The Scarlet Witch. And look, for as much as I basically shrugged off the majority of the “Marvel-y” revelations and S.W.O.R.D. stuff (with the notable exception of Parris’ Monica Rambeau coming into her own superpowers), I still love a good origin story. Ending the show with Wanda adopting a fearsome new persona and exploring her capabilities is thrilling, even for someone who has no concept of what could be coming for her next.

That being said: it’s fitting that the most riveting scenes of the finale for me, by a long shot, weren’t of Agatha Harkness vs The Scarlet Witch, Vision vs Vision, or Wanda vs Westview (which was wrapped up entirely too quickly for my liking — those people will be traumatized for life!). The best parts of “The Series Finale,” and the show as a whole, are undoubtedly the quiet moments in which Wanda reckoned with her pain, with Vision right there to offer his steadfast support. Watching Wanda say goodbye to her sons, who she knew were about to disappear along with the fantasy town she got lost in, was devastating. Letting Vision and Wanda have their most honest, loving conversation to date as a crimson wave of magic loomed ominously in the near distance was an absolute gut punch. (And not for nothing: romantic as hell, thanks to Bettany and Olsen’s tender portrayals of doomed soulmates. More sexual tension and swooning in the MCU, please!) For as much as I understood that there was no escaping a final act of neon lightning fights, because Marvel gonna Marvel, I was ultimately a fan of “WandaVision” for moments like those.

Vary: For me, the best example of what you’re talking about came in the penultimate episode, when Vision, comforting Wanda while she grieves Pietro, tells her, “What is grief but love persevering.” That line — which has already been debated and meme’d around the world and back — is a perfect sentiment without being sentimental, underlining the theme of the series while also showing us the precise moment Wanda fell in love with Vision.

I do want to get back to Fietro for a second, though, because I think this gets at the divide we’re talking about here. We now know that Schaeffer cast Peters in that role to evoke stunt replacement casting on sitcoms, like the two Aunt Vivs on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” or the two Beckys on “Roseanne.” That point is even punctuated in the finale when Monica learns Fietro is really some dude named Ralph Bohner by finding his headshot.

That’s a really good joke. But it doesn’t fully work unless you also know Peters’ history as the other Quicksilver in the “X-Men” movies. And that’s where I think “WandaVision” got itself into some trouble. Suddenly, all kinds of multiverse shenanigans seemed to be at play, and the serious (and seriously online) fandom took that and sprinted with it, Pietro-style, getting far ahead of the story in a torrent of fan theorizing. I suspect, and please correct me if I’m wrong here, that it also made “WandaVision” feel a bit less welcoming to folks who don’t care that Magneto is Wanda’s father in the comics, or even that Olsen’s next MCU movie — “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” — has “multiverse” right there in the title. Was that the case for you?

Framke: Before I answer that, quick question: Does “Fietro” mean “Fake Pietro”?

Vary: Yes! Agatha calls him that!

Framke: Well! I didn’t even clock that, let alone that Wanda is Magneto’s daughter(?!?) in the comics, so there you go.

For the most part, though, I’ll say that not having all the MCU knowledge at my fingertips wasn’t really a problem. From my more limited vantage point, “WandaVision” was the story of a grieving woman denying her pain until she couldn’t, and also, there was magic and stuff. The most confused I got was in episode 4 with all the S.W.O.R.D. stuff, and even that made enough sense once I remembered the context of Thanos’ Snap and such.

My relative lack of backstory knowledge meant that I maybe had a less frustrating time watching “WandaVision” than the fans who couldn’t just watch an episode and walk away without investigating all the Easter Eggs and possible ways the show might feed into the MCU at large. I could enjoy Peters dropping by without unpacking everything that casting choice might mean, accept Wanda’s family story at face value, and leave the series more intrigued by The Scarlet Witch than anticipating what she’s going to do next according to the comics that first created her. But like you say: “WandaVision” is just as much for Marvel’s existing fans as the new ones it brought in, which means it had to walk a tightrope that I’m not sure that a series like “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” for instance, might bother to. From where I’m standing, that makes “WandaVision” a more immediately interesting show, but I can see how it might have been frustrating for fans expecting more.

Vary: It’s a perpetual risk for anything that draws from wildly popular source material: At least part of your audience is going to be writing their own show in their heads as they watch, and sharing that online by the droves, further warping audience expectations. It’s a problem that is only going to become bigger as mega-franchises like the MCU, “Star Wars” and HBO’s coming “Game of Thrones” spin-offs continue their relentless, streaming service-feeding expansions.

In that vein, one sentiment I heard from former MCU diehards who’ve grown weary of the Marvel machine is how grateful they were for just how different “WandaVision” felt in its early episodes. For them, the show’s turn to more familiar MCU tropes in its second half, especially in the finale, was even more disappointing. But how did you feel about it?

Framke: To be honest? I feel the same, but I wasn’t surprised at the eventual collision of the smaller Wanda/Westview story with the MCU. In retrospect, of course that was what was going to happen. What was a bit more disappointing was realizing that the relative daring of the early episodes — their ingenuity, creeping unease, and refreshing willingness to let subtext be subtext — was flying out the window. Watching the finale made me feel like I had been watching an “Avengers”-style Marvel movie all along and just didn’t realize it until it was too late.

I don’t mean that in terms of how some showrunners insist that their ten episode series is a ten-hour movie; “WandaVision,” even more so than many other streaming shows, respects TV as a medium so much that it spent half its runtime lovingly paying tribute to it. I just mean that by the time we got to the finale, which ended with a battle and two post-credits scenes teasing future movies, it felt more like a typical Marvel movie ending than I had been expecting — or more accurately, hoping for — given the rest of the show’s willingness to veer off course.

Vary: Huh! I think you’re right in that a Marvel thing is always going to be a Marvel thing, but “WandaVision” has also successfully pushed the boundaries of what a Marvel “thing” can be far further than I ever thought possible.

Take that finale, for instance. Yes, there was a lot of air fighting and ground pounding and things going boom. But the battles between Wanda and Agatha, and Hex Vision and Ghost Vision, ended not with shows of force but of intelligence: Wanda outsmarts Agatha with those runes, and Hex Vision uses expressions of logical paradoxes to pull Ghost Vision out of S.W.O.R.D.’s thrall.

Of course, “WandaVision” also has me hyped for “Doctor Strange 2,” and that was before the post-credits teaser of Wanda poring through the Darkhold. I’ve been all in on the MCU for years now, and everything Marvel’s doing with these shows only makes me more so.

So Caroline, did “WandaVision” make you keen to swim deeper into the MCU’s waters? Or are you still content to occasionally dip your toes?

Framke: I love a gentle wade into otherwise intense fandom waters, and think I’ll be sticking to that level of involvement for now. But the operative part of that sentence, for better and for worse, is “for now.” I deeply respect the relatively big swings “WandaVision” took from within the MCU machine, and am hopeful that more of the roughly eight million Marvel shows to come will do the same. If so, I’ll be happy to take a deeper dive — or else maybe I’ll be compelled to, whether I like it or not. Soon enough, there will be just too many Marvel shows happening for me to be able to just skim the surface like I’m used to.

All I can hope for is that future Marvel shows — and hell, let’s throw in the Star Wars universe while we’re talking Disney — will see how successful this show’s quieter, stranger moments were and trust that audiences might reward “riskier” storytelling like it in future. If nothing else, “WandaVision” proved that breaking the formula can be even more satisfying than leaning into what’s worked before. That alone makes the experiment worth it.

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