“How do you measure the value of art that can’t stand on its own?”
Sometimes, it can be hard to believe that it has been nearly 13 years since Marvel took over the pop culture landscape with 2008’s Iron Man. Perhaps what’s even more unbelievable though, is the fact that they are still as dominant at controlling the cultural conversation today, as they ever have been. The most recent property that has propelled them into the center of the pop culture universe, and our Twitter timelines, is Disney+’s WandaVision.
This show was in a very strange, and rather difficult, position when it originally premiered on the streaming service just under one month ago. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, both of Marvel’s films set to be released in 2020, Black Widow and Eternals, were pushed back to 2021. Those decisions meant that WandaVision would be the first MCU product that Marvel was able to give to fans since Spiderman: Far From Home was released in theaters all the way back on July 2, 2019. That 19 month gap between projects is the longest Marvel has gone without releasing anything MCU related since Iron Man 2 came out on May 7, 2010, which was nearly two full years after the film that came before it, The Incredible Hulk. (For reference, those were the 2nd and 3rd films ever released in the MCU.)
Needless to say, there was a fair amount of pressure on WandaVision to reintroduce fans to the world of the MCU after its relatively long hiatus. And although there were some mixed reviews at first—it is safe to say that after five episodes of the series, WandaVision has successfully been able to capture the attention and imagination of Marvel’s crazed, theory-loving fans, especially after the Evan Peters cameo that came at the end of the most recent episode. This was a necessary task for WandaVision to accomplish because a lot of the MCU’s past success can be attributed to Marvel’s decision to cater to their diehard fans. They have been known to fill their films, and now their shows, with references and easter eggs that only fans who possess a great amount of knowledge of the comic books will understand. If you’re more of a casual fan like myself though, you probably found yourself running to a recap video or article online after each episode of WandaVision, to try to figure out what the hell was going on.
After watching and reading many of these recaps, I began to notice a similar quality that they all shared, which gave me an anxious feeling about Marvel’s hold on our culture. All of the fans that put together these “recaps” or “episode analyses” were far more focused on what the future of the MCU might look like, rather than the actual events of the episode they were supposed to be talking about. Now, it is not new for TV fans to speculate about the future of a series after an important episode. The difference with Marvel fans and WandaVision though, is that fans weren’t just speculating about the next episode or even the next season. Instead, they were speculating about films and shows, starring completely different characters, that were anywhere from a few months to multiple years away from being released. Moreover, what fans—including myself—seemed to be enjoying the most about WandaVision were the ways in which it could, or does, connect to the surrounding universe. This felt inherently strange to me, and it made me worry about how we—as fans—will engage with entertainment in the future if the Marvel model becomes the norm. It also made me wonder whether there will be a time in the future when mainstream TV shows or movies that don’t connect to some sort of larger universe, or existing IP, will even be able to exist. And when trying to make sense of my own feelings towards WandaVision, I was left contemplating how you measure the value of art that can’t stand on its own.
Before I continue to examine WandaVision in more depth, I think it’s important to share my thoughts on Marvel, and how I feel about the MCU specifically. Overall, I’d say my view of the MCU is complicated. I enjoy many of Marvel’s films for the fun blockbusters that they are, but I have worried about the impact that the company has had on the larger film landscape for a while now. Even though I’ve defended Marvel in the past against those who claimed the MCU “ruined Hollywood,” I do think Marvel is at least somewhat responsible for the lack of originality, and the rise of IP-driven content, when it comes to modern day movies. And although I do feel that the Martin Scorsese style of “Marvel films are not cinema” criticism can often times be too harsh and even a little bit silly, I do think it is perfectly fair to place MCU films in a different category than traditional standalone movies.
In fact, my main issue with the Marvel films, which is related to my anxious feelings about WandaVision, is that it can often times feel like the creators behind these movies are more focused on what is coming, rather than what they are currently making. The connected universe aspect of the MCU has made it so the people making these films have to be concerned with movies and stories that are years away from being released to the public, instead of just focusing on making the best singular film that they can. This leads a pervasive theory-obsessed culture amongst the fans, who constantly focus on what they could get in the future, rather than what they currently have in front of them. The first time I really noticed this problem was when I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron, but I believe it has negatively affected several other MCU films as well, including Iron Man 2, Ant-Man and the Wasp, and Captain Marvel. To Marvel’s credit though, they have made some incredibly effective standalone films over the years that I absolutely love.
Now, with all of that out of the way, let’s get back to WandaVision. I think it’s important to note that I genuinely have enjoyed this show so far. But while I have found it to be very compelling, I’ve also noticed a lack of any real emotional connection to the story and the characters. Most of the enjoyment that I, and others, have felt from this show seems to come from an analytical place of trying to figure out where the series is going and how it fits into the larger universe. In many ways, WandaVision feels more like a puzzle than a television series. The audience’s goal is not to connect with these characters and follow them on a journey, it is just simply to put the pieces together. And therein lies my problem, I don’t know how to feel about a project when its sole purpose of existing is to serve a larger story. It has caused me to ask questions such as “Do I actually like this show based on artistic merit, or am I just entertained because I’m familiar with the larger story at play?” Truthfully, I don’t have a concrete answer to that question.
As I noted earlier, these issues I’m referring to are not new for the MCU. However, WandaVision has really illustrated to me the fact that it may not be possible for Marvel to ever again make something that isn’t inherently connected to some overarching story; or isn’t about what’s coming next; or isn’t about something that already happened. If you need proof of this, you don’t have to look any further than the fact that they haven’t produced anything like that since Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014. One could make the argument that Black Panther stood on its own, but I am disqualifying it since that character was introduced to audiences in a different MCU film two years earlier.
Personally, I think the idea of creating art that cannot exist on its own is why so many traditional film critics have struggled with, or outright rejected, Marvel films from the beginning. But while I understand their arguments, I can’t say I completely agree with those critics because—as I’ve stated many times now—I still enjoy most of the work that exists within the MCU. However, that does not mean I want all other big entertainment franchises to follow a similar formula. The enjoyment you can have with a specific movie or show shouldn’t be limited by the amount of engagement you have with the surrounding universe. Unfortunately though, this is a problem we have already seen pop up in other franchises besides the MCU. In fact, this issue has noticeably presented itself in another big Disney-owned property, Star Wars.
For as much as I love both seasons of The Mandalorian, I do have some mixed feelings about the way the second season seemed to completely change the way fans were able to engage with the show going forward. Undeniably, it is no longer possible to just watch The Mandalorian as a singular episodic experience. In order to fully get the most out of the show, you need to possess knowledge from other Star Wars projects—such as Rebels, The Clone Wars, or even the films. Is this an innately bad thing? Maybe not, but it does start to make some of these shows and films feel like nothing more than advertisements for the producing company’s other shows and films. This runs the risk of devaluing the art itself. I’ll admit, I know it may sound silly to worry about the integrity of the art being compromised when it comes to things like WandaVision or The Mandalorian. But, it’s important to remember that these are the stories currently at the center of our culture.
I understand that some massive Marvel or Star Wars fans may disagree with me because they feel that the more content, the better. But my response to those people would be a simple request for them to take a closer look at what they are defending—which is essentially just multi-billion dollar corporations guaranteeing themselves more money by creating endless loops that they can stick their fans inside of. Disney knows that by following this formula, MCU fans will feel pressured to watch every piece of Marvel-related content they put out, regardless of how good it actually is, because they don’t want to feel uninformed or left out. This is why, as inconsequential as it may seem, a show like WandaVision really does make me worry about the future of mainstream storytelling. I can’t say I know exactly where we’re headed though. What I do know, however, is that the questions and issues I explored in this blog are only going to become more and more relevant in the streaming service era—which is really still just getting started. So, I guess we’ll find out together.