“WandaVision” arrived on Disney+ back in January amid plenty of anticipation and mystery. The limited series starring Elizabeth Olsen (Wanda) and Paul Bettany (Vision) was Marvel Studios’ first foray into series television, but it didn’t touch down wearing a cape and shield. The charmingly fun comedy-drama instead featured a young suburban couple living out domestic bliss across nine episodes, most of which were inspired by different highlights in the history of American sitcoms.
It started with an ode to “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” followed by “Bewitched,” “The Brady Bunch” and so on. So what did this have to do with the tragic romance of Avenger lovers Wanda and Vision? Plenty, it turned out. “WandaVision” took an unconventional route into the hearts and minds of Marvel devotees, and the gamble paid off, as the quirky show became one of the most beloved and talked about sci-fi series of the year.
Wanda and Vision have been supporting characters in multiple films across the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But in “WandaVision,” Marvel Studios’ first TV series, their relationship is the story. What was it like to finally expand upon these characters?
Elizabeth Olsen: It was so miraculous when Lorraine Ali Jac Schaeffer pitched the show to me, and knowing what the show is going to be generally from [Marvel Studios President] Kevin Feige. Jac felt it and knew it and expanded upon it and blew it up. It made everything that I have done in Marvel feel purposeful, which I was really grateful for. She really created this thread that explained [Wanda] in a way that I saw her. I felt a lot of gratitude for her because of that.
“WandaVision” is tonally very different than the MCU from which it sprang and, initially, it gives fans no explanation. That was a really risky move.
Paul Bettany: It was like an explosion of creativity right from the beginning. It’s so clever, what Jac did. It breaks the first rule of television, which is that you make a deal with your audience about what the show is and you don’t renege on that contract, and then suddenly it’s reneging on that contract. But once you track it back, you realize, oh, it’s always been a show about grief. It didn’t renege on the deal at all. It just wasn’t telling you what the deal was up front. It’s a fascinating piece of construction from Jac and her brilliant writers team and Kevin, and director Matt Shakman.
Olsen: We were just like, “There’s going to be no in-between on this one,” because it really did feel like we were just swinging for the fences every day on set. It felt like something that Marvel had never done and something that was totally standing on its own, which is terrifying but also really rewarding that the audience joined us on that journey and trusted us and went with us.
And it’s the first in terms of Marvel’s leap from film to TV.
Bettany: We assumed it was going to be the sort of kooky cousin. I mean, we thought that if it does work, we’re going to be this sort of niche little thing. And through some sort of weird alchemy, it really tapped into a zeitgeist. Even the fact that they’re all living in the bubble was sort of prescient. There was a lot of luck. But I initially thought, “If this works, we’re going to be like the weird little sideshow.” It’s so fun that it hit a nerve for people.
How much did you know about Marvel comics before joining the cinematic universe?
Olsen: Well, Paul, you were at the beginning of it with “Iron Man.”
Bettany: I knew nothing about it. I grew up without comics, so it was a real steep learning curve to sort of immerse myself in all of it. I mean, I knew who Spider-Man was, and I knew who Batman was, and I knew who Superman was, but I didn’t know there was this rich tapestry of stories that was Marvel. That is Marvel. I’m endlessly surprised by how imaginative and resonant it can feel for people, which I think was the genius of what Jac did with “WandaVision,” and Matt and Kevin. And Lizzie Olsen and, to some small degree, myself.
Olsen: “Iron Man” was the only film I had seen. Other than that, I knew there were comics, but that’s it. But after being a part of it for a long period of time now, it feels like a modern-day Greeks for people. The stories and the metaphors and the human experiences, they’re far away enough from us to get lost in, but we can relate to them at the same time. That’s why they have such a massive appeal. And then they’re also entertaining. Marvel found a sweet spot with humor, which doesn’t always come across in superhero films.
“WandaVision” is super entertaining, but it’s also a moving portrait in grief and loss. Wanda lost her family in war and then was forced to kill Vision to save the world in “Avengers: Infinity War.”
Olsen: There’s a disarming quality when you get people to laugh. It’s a really clever way of exploring grief and trauma, because those are subjects that no one really wants to dive into. No one wants to hear, “Oh, yeah, you should really watch the show. It’s about all this grief and trauma!” But if you serve it all dolled up and entertaining, that makes it palatable.
Bettany: I also think that you’re helped by the fact that when discussing the grief, this woman who’s been through an insane amount of trauma is with an ingénue robot. It can’t seem preachy, you know what I mean? Which it really could otherwise. It could feel really earnest and mawkish, but it’s being delivered by a robot who’s just going, “Hmm, I don’t understand grief either, but it’s got to have a purpose.”
It also speaks to the chemistry between the witch and the robot, i.e. you and Lizzie, as performers.
Olsen: We’re both really disciplined, and we’re both over-preparers, which allows us to be playful and safe with one another on set. There’s an innate trust.
Bettany: I admire Lizzie’s dedication. She is bonkers prepared. And I am prepared mostly from a position of total neuroses and insecurity and fear of getting found out. I’ve always been convinced of this fact: I might not be the best actor for this job that walks in the door, but I’m going to be the most prepared actor that walks in for this audition, because it’s the only thing I control. I can’t control whether I’m gifted enough or any of those things. But the thing I can control is that I’ve f— put the work in and stayed up all night.
Can you talk about mirroring sitcoms from television history? Did you have a favorite era?
Olsen: It was so much fun that when we got to [the broader story of the] Marvel Cinematic World, we were just like, can’t we just do like slapstick stuff again, because it was so much fun to play. I really can’t decipher which one would be my favorite, because I had so much fun doing them all. The “Modern Family” style, that was so delicious. [“The Dick Van Dyke Show”] was hard, though, because it was the first thing we did; we did it in two days and in front of a live audience. There was no going back and making adjustments. It was just like you’re being shoved onto a stage.
Bettany: I felt like I knew “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” since I grew up watching reruns of it in England, but then I started bingeing it, and I came to Lizzie and said, “We’re in trouble. These are some big shoes to fill.” The amount of skill in it from both of these people [Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore] and the warmth that they’re able to effortlessly generate. I started to get terrified of the idea, then add on that we’re going to be in front of a live audience, and I really was resistant. Matt made us do it, and I’m so glad he did, because you can feel that energy.
The series walks this fine line between pleasing avid Marvel fans and connecting with viewers who know nothing about infinity stones.
Bettany: Lizzie and I have found ourselves a really good lane to swim in the movies, because it was our lane. Nobody else was doing the thing that we were doing, which was a sort of gentle romance and heart, with none of the wisecracks and the sort of earnestness that was needed tonally in the middle of all of those fast-talking jokes and wisecracking. I guess the question I had was whether people wanted to watch an entire show about love, and they did, so, you know, that was very heartening.