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'WandaVision' Is A Riddle Wrapped In A Mystery — Disguised As A TV Show

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The pandemic has changed the way movies are unveiled and their rollout schedules. One of the franchises that's been affected is the Marvel Universe, now controlled by Disney. The first major cycle of Marvel superhero movies ended with "The Avengers: Endgame," and the next wave was supposed to begin with a new major movie premiere. Instead, because of production and distribution schedules affected by the pandemic, the next wave of Marvel begins today on television on the Disney+ streaming service.

It's a new miniseries built around two minor recurring characters from the Marvel movies, Elizabeth Olsen as a witch called Wanda and Paul Bettany as an Android named Vision. The series is called "WandaVision," and our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: If you're curious to learn what I think about "WandaVision," the newest entry in the ever-expanding Marvel Universe of comic book narratives, well, so am I. Disney+ presents the first two episodes of this nine-part series today, with plans to stream the others on a weekly basis each Friday. But only the first three episodes were made available for critics to preview, and after three episodes, there's still no clear sense of the show's tone or content or intention. But what I've seen really intrigues me. And the lack of answers at this point doesn't bother me because being thrown into an unfamiliar world and trying to figure things out as I go along? Well, that's exactly what the main characters in "WandaVision" are going through too.

What I can't explain, for starters, is that Wanda and Vision are two minor characters from the most recent "Avengers" movies. Wanda is a modern witch with psychic and magical powers and is played by Elizabeth Olsen, the younger sister of "Full House" stars Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. Vision is a synthetic android played by Paul Bettany, the mysterious roommate of "A Beautiful Mind." Over the past few Marvel movies, these two characters used their limited screen time to fall in love, and one of them died. But when "WandaVision" begins, they're both alive. But when does it begin, and more important, where?

The very title, "WandaVision," not only is a mash up of the two main characters, but a clue to the show's puzzling premise. To this point, the best TV series based on Marvel characters and stories have been one-hour dramas, the very dark "Jessica Jones" on Netflix and the psychodelically strange "Legion" on FX, yet "WandaVision" is an abbreviated 30 minutes long and starts out shaped and presented as a situation comedy, complete with a laugh track. "WandaVision" is created by Jac Schaeffer, a writer on the movies "Captain Marvel" and "Black Widow," who places this Marvel superhero odd couple in a 1950s suburban home. The action is shot in black and white. Wanda wears an apron and pearls to do housework like Donna Reed. And the show even opens with a typical '50s TV-style theme song written by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, the award-winning composers of "The Book Of Mormon" and "Frozen."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WANDAVISION")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) She's a magical gal in a small town locale. He's a hubby who's part machine. How will this duo fit in and fulfill all? Oh, by sharing a love like you've never seen. "WandaVision."

BIANCULLI: "WandaVision" may be Wanda's vision or it may be an alternate reality or some sort of trap. It's like the movie "Pleasantville" or more than one episode of "The Twilight Zone," where characters find themselves in the nostalgic-but-potentially-sinister world of black-and-white TV. Vision has a job at a company analyzing something even he's not sure what. But when the boss and his wife show up for dinner, casual conversation quickly turns to lots of dead ends. If we viewers don't know why Wanda and Vision are in a typical TV home from the 1950s or how they got there, well, neither do they. Fred Melamed plays the boss, and Debra Jo Rupp from "That '70s Show" plays the boss's wife and asks the first probing question.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WANDAVISION")

DEBRA JO RUPP: (As Mrs. Hart) So where did you two move from? What brought you here? How long have you been married? And why don't you have children yet?

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL BETTANY: (As Vision) I think what my wife means to say is that we moved from...

ELIZABETH OLSEN: (As Wanda Maximoff) Yes, we moved from...

BETTANY: (As Vision) And we were married...

OLSEN: (As Wanda Maximoff) Yes, yes, we were married in...

FRED MELAMED: (As Mr. Hart) Well, moved from where, married when?

RUPP: (As Mrs. Hart) No. Patience, Arthur (ph). They're setting up their story. Let them tell it.

OLSEN: (As Wanda Maximoff) We - our story...

MELAMED: (As Mr. Hart) Yes, what exactly is your story?

RUPP: (As Mrs. Hart) Oh, just leave the poor kids alone.

MELAMED: (As Mr. Hart) Well, really, I mean, I think it's a perfectly simple question. Honestly, why did you come here?

BIANCULLI: In the three episodes I've seen, the sitcom framing remains, but the couple begins advancing through TV time. By Episode 3, Wanda has ditched her Donna Reed look for a relaxed, long-haired '60s style, and "WandaVision" is in living color. Supporting players include Emma Caulfield from "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" as a neighborhood snob and Kathryn Hahn as a nosy neighbor. Advance word has it that a few characters from the Marvel universe will begin popping in, though why and how and in what capacity I have no clue.

All I know is that I'm blown away by the set design and the recreations of old-style TV and that Bettany and Olsen, as the leads of a sitcom, are quite charming, even though I'm guessing the tone of "WandaVision" will get much more dramatic very quickly. But I'm only guessing. "Wandavision" at this point is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma disguised as a TV show, and as a TV critic and historian, that's right up my alley.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is a professor of television history at Rowan University in New Jersey and the editor of the website TV Worth Watching. He reviewed the new series "WandaVision" on Disney+ beginning today. On Monday's show, recently declassified documents reveal new details of the FBI's surveillance of Martin Luther King and the agency's efforts to discredit his work. We'll speak with Sam Pollard, one of the directors of the "Eyes On The Prize" series about the civil rights movement. His new documentary, MLK/FBI, is in theaters and available for streaming. I hope you can join us. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.