Full spoilers for The Mandalorian and WandaVision!
Disney+ has been live for about a year and a half now and other than putting Mulan and Soul on the service partly out of necessity, the only things they have to show for it are The Mandalorian and WandaVision…
Okay, obviously, this is facetious. These shows have been huge for the streaming service and for good reason. They represent the shifts to the small screen of the biggest movie franchises ever — Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. On top of that, they’re both very good. At least, they were…
I really loved the first season of The Mandalorian. After all of the controversy that was stirred up following The Last Jedi, it was great to have something that we all seemed to agree was good. And then after we all agreed The Rise of Skywalker was bad, it was nice for everyone to still agree that The Mandalorian was good.
The show diverted from the familiar story beats of Star Wars. Sure, there were still blasters and ships and sand planets, but it didn’t have anything to do with Skywalkers or Palpatines or Kenobis. It was a fun, adventure-of-the-week style of storytelling set in the Star Wars universe. It was special because even when we were introduced to familiar (at least to some fans) things like the Darksaber, it was headed in a direction that hadn’t yet been covered by the current Star Wars canon or lore.
And at the center of the story the whole time were the wonderful themes of found family and belonging, expressed in the relationship between Mando and Baby Yoda. Mando is a loner who doesn’t like to work with others, so it’s intriguing to watch him interact with and care for Baby Yoda who, up to this point, doesn’t seem to really “belong” anywhere. They meet and interact with new characters along the way, but they still fit into the, “I don’t know what happens to this character” mold, which creates basically unlimited possibility. It’s the perfect blend of storytelling, theme, and action.
As such, I was pretty disappointed to see the second season of the show slowly but surely go downhill. Instead of meeting new characters or spending more time with the characters from the first season, Mando and Baby Yoda spent much of their time almost playing sidekick to each episode’s cameo of the week. Whether it was Bo-Katan, Ahsoka Tano, Boba Fett (back from the dead), or Luke Freakin’ Skywalker, the show turned into episode after episode of, “Hey, hey, fan, you know this character! Be excited like you’re supposed to be!”
I was on board with Bo-Katan since she herself is a Mandalorian and there aren’t too many backs breaking to fit her into the storyline. Ahsoka is a bit of a stretch, which I was willing to forgive since she’s one of my all-time favorite Star Wars characters, but bringing in Boba Fett is where it really began to lose me. The introduction of the latter two brings so much speculation about Easter eggs and fan theories that it takes away from the journey of the characters.
Bringing in the likes of Ahsoka and Boba Fett feels so much like an MCU move that it took away from the quality of The Mandalorian for me. All of a sudden, gone were the days when we had a fun, western-type Star Wars show focused on two very specific characters. Instead, those characters are still along for the ride, but the show was functioning as connective tissue and a jumping off point for other Star Wars properties (both Ahsoka and Boba Fett have their own upcoming shows). It felt like cynical profit-driven storytelling instead of theme-driven storytelling and that was disappointing. It’s the same reason why only a few MCU movies really work for me.
For me, the final nail in the cynical coffin when it comes to The Mandalorian was the appearance of Luke. Scrolling through social media the day that episode premiered, it seemed like for every mention of the emotional goodbye between Baby Yoda and Mando, there were five declarations about why Good Guy Luke Skywalker’s violent appearance on the show is one of the best Star Wars moments of all time. I mean come on, it’s not even close to the top.
My problem was that the appearance of Luke, in a show where the most specific hint of him was the word “Jedi, took center stage away from the meaningful and emotional moment with the supposed main characters. Planting Easter eggs and showing people something or someone they recognize is a type of storytelling that just doesn’t interest me because all it wants to do is to get to the next “thing” instead of focus on the characters where they are now. By adding Luke, we now know where a character will end up. There’s an endpoint. Instead of generally wondering what will happen to Baby Yoda, we’re wondering if he’s going to be part of specific events in Luke’s overall arc. It took away the novelty of the show for me.
I came to realize that different people just want different things out of their pop culture entertainment. I’ve seen examples of movies being challenging and entertaining with Easter eggs and lore at the same time — The Last Jedi or Black Panther, for example — so I know it’s possible. But it seems like the majority of the fans are more than happy to just have the entertainment without the creators really challenging you intellectually.
Enter, WandaVision. I had neutral-to-low expectations for this show, mostly because I was afraid it was going to be too preoccupied with the things the second season of The Mandalorian was focused on. I’ve seen all of the MCU movies, most of them multiple times because they’re easy to sit through and rarely intellectually challenging. There are only four or five that I actually love and my three favorite are the two Guardians of the Galaxy movies and Black Panther, all of which feel director- and story-driven instead of Kevin Feige-driven. You can tell they’re part of the MCU, but they don’t feel like a big part of an interconnected story the way a lot of the others do. It allows me to take in that singular story instead of something much bigger than what I’m watching, and that’s part of what WandaVision does so well, too.
The rest of the entries in the MCU, for me, are somewhere on the spectrum of okay to good. In other words, they’re not really my thing. I don’t dislike them, or else I wouldn’t watch them. But as noted Marvel enthusiast Martin Scorsese so non-controversially put it, I think of the movies more as theme parks designed to give me thrills (but yes, they’re still cinema — someone can make a good point with incorrect statements or assertions within). The construction of the MCU can tend to be something I more respect than enjoy. All of this, then, is to say that I didn’t have high expectations for WandaVision.
I enjoyed the first few episodes. The show does a good job of satirizing different eras of sitcoms and those were honestly probably the most straight up entertaining episodes to watch. You can tell that care and craft went into making them what they were. Elizabeth Olson and Paul Bettany as Wanda and Vision, respectively are an absolute delight. They have an obvious chemistry that has been built up over the last few years of growing their on-screen relationship together. It’s just the natural effect of how long they have been playing these characters.
But it wasn’t until a few episodes in that I really began to be legitimately engaged with the show. It dives deep into Wanda’s feelings of grief. She’s lost her parents, her brother, her home, and now Vision. Her own eight-episode show is the perfect way to interrogate that idea in a way the MCU never has before. We even got a profound quote about grief that I never would have expected from this show in a hundred years.
The show slowly morphs away from send-ups of sitcoms to something quite philosophical in its approach to theme, at least compared to much of the rest of the MCU. All the while, it leaves door after door open for the possibility of a big time cameo or multiverse introduction to keep the MCU moving along, but that was never its intention.
It’s funny — I saw two very different reactions to the finales of The Mandalorian and WandaVision. After The Mandalorian, people were losing their minds because Luke Skywalker showed up and said about 10 words. After WandaVision, people were losing their minds because Magneto or Mr. Fantastic didn’t show up. I personally was frustrated by one and loved the other.
See, WandaVision is special because it was able to serialize its story and get people invested in a way it wouldn’t have if it were a movie. The different eras of storytelling were a gateway into something very personal and heartfelt. Stakes were slowly built up as we realized the full extent of Wanda’s trauma. And on top of her trauma, she was being taken advantage of by Agnes, played by the incredible Kathryn Hahn (it’s a shame she’s just now getting recognition for how great she is. Yes, I’m looking at you for not appreciating her sooner. Step Brothers?? Parks and Rec??). Wanda’s literally constructed a new reality in which she hasn’t lost those who are important to her, but it’s affecting an entire town. It’s a perfect lesson in letting a story come to you and be what is is, instead of projecting onto it what you want it to be. Because by projecting, you’re just setting yourself up to be ultimately let down.
I’ve seen a lot of people criticize the final episode for being a generic Marvel fight and lamenting the fact that the show got away from its sitcom roots and to that I say, that’s the whole point! We were with Wanda in her headspace at the beginning before her facade started to crack, but eventually it all came crumbling down around her, sitcoms and all. What were you expecting, a final battle Schitt’s Creek style? Of course not. The stakes were so beautifully built so that we both feel Wanda’s pain and philosophize with Vision. It’s impressive that the Ship of Theseus story worked for the character of Vision and that of Wanda at the same time.
We didn’t need to have the next big character or storyline revealed because the show itself wrapped up on a perfect note, all while nicely setting up what’s coming next for the MCU in the mid- and post-credits stingers (and the loose threads along the lines of White Vision’s location being unknown). And as for the Bohner in the room, I’m sure there’s more to come with Evan Peters in the MCU. But in WandaVision, it functioned perfectly. His arrival kept us in the same headspace as the audience. She wanted it to be her brother and we wanted it to be Quicksilver from the X-Men movies. We were both let down on that front.
As for any talk about whether this show deserves a second season, I don’t think it’s that simple with the MCU. If it was solely based on quality and popularity like most TV, then of course we’d get a season two. But the MCU has its own way of moving along its narrative. Personally, I’m happy to ruminate on the one season we have, because it was able to do something that not a lot of the MCU does for me — make me care. If more of these movies spent this much time focusing on the character instead of the world or the powers or the big moments, then I may be a bigger fan than I am.
In the end, WandaVision was able to do what The Mandalorian couldn’t. It stayed true to itself. It had a central story to tell about central characters and in and of itself, it didn’t stray one bit. The Mandalorian did and it’s worse off for it.
So I’m happy WandaVision is what it is. It’s vaulted itself into the Actually Really Good category of the MCU for me, which Is exclusive to just five other pieces. It took a character in Wanda who maybe never got the credit or attention that she deserved, and got beneath the surface and through all the layers to discover something deep and profound. It even gives me hope for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier which features Bucky, a character who is great on paper but is actually bland on screen. But it’s really just the power and excellence of WandaVision that has me thinking this way. It’s a show that had no business being as good as it is, much less going above and beyond to become great.