How Disney+'s 'WandaVision' expands the Marvel Cinematic Universe, hurtles through sitcom history

Brian Truitt

The Avengers have dealt with cosmic supervillain Thanos. How bad could a live studio audience be?

Heroic witch Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and her android love Vision (Paul Bettany) hurtle through decades of TV sitcom history in “WandaVision” (streaming first two episodes Friday, then weekly), the first of several Disney+ streaming series that expand the big-screen Marvel Cinematic Universe. Olsen and Bettany were at ground zero for this new evolution, taping the first, “Dick Van Dyke Show”-inspired episode of “WandaVision” in front of a crowd.

Olsen confesses to being “terrified” beforehand. “I was really thinking back in my head, ‘Yeah, but if we really mess up, we'll get to do it again.’ ”

Bettany says he was also “really resistant. I tried to get out of it." But by the time the audience was laughing, “we all felt fearless after having made that tonal decision and leap into the unknown.”

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Avengers couple Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) are dropped into a 1950s black-and-white world in "WandaVision," Marvel's first Disney+ series.

“WandaVision” drops its main characters into seemingly idyllic, black-and-white 1950s suburban Westview. Vision goes to work – though he doesn’t exactly know what he does – Wanda is a magical housewife and they have a kooky nosy neighbor named Agnes (Kathryn Hahn). Each episode finds Wanda and Vision in a wacky setup, like doing a magic act at the town talent show, mimicking TV comedy eras, with nods to series from “Bewitched” and “The Brady Bunch” to “Family Ties” and “Malcolm in the Middle,” complete with faux commercials. 

“We aren't trying to satirize or parody the sitcoms. We're trying to authentically re-create them, even as absurd as ‘The Brady Bunch’ is,” Olsen says.

“They decide to just take it on the chin and go along with it,” Bettany adds of the main couple. “As they start through the American century at breakneck speed through different sitcoms, Vision is the first to go, ‘Wait a second. There's something wrong about this town. This can’t be right.’ So he starts to investigate and the audience comes along with him.”

It wouldn’t be a Marvel project if everything was normal. Both Wanda and Vision notice strange things in their retro life, hinting at the slow-burn mystery that’s “completely connected to Wanda and Vision and how we know them,” Olsen teases.

The show also finally puts the spotlight on these two characters, who spent years playing supporting roles to more high-profile personas like Chris Evans’ Captain America and Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark in blockbuster Marvel movies.

Bettany has been in the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the beginning, first as the voice of Stark’s helpful AI J.A.R.V.I.S. in 2008’s “Iron Man” and then, under a whole lot of makeup, as the powerful Vision in 2015’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” That film also featured Olsen'sfirst appearance as Wanda, initially as a vengeful antagonist and later a reluctant hero. There’s even a moment where a flying Vision swoops in to save Wanda, with a look between them that acts as an Easter egg to their romance in the comic books and a tease of their relationship to come in the movies.

Vision (Paul Bettany, center) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) hung with Avengers like Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) in "Captain America: Civil War."

“We did that because we knew if we got the chance, we'd love to keep building on that," says “WandaVision” producer and Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige. 

After being introduced as “this omnipotent but totally naïve being,” Vision ironically became one of the Avengers’ most human characters, Bettany says. “And now we just throw in a little Dick Van Dyke and Bryan Cranston. That was the special sauce.” The British actor grew up watching American sitcoms, so he appreciates throwback “WandaVision” storylines, as when Wanda cooks a last-minute dinner for Vision’s boss, or her out-of-nowhere pregnancy is quickly followed by a 3-week-old baby. “It feels so accurate. And also, I look like I went back in time in a DeLorean and wrestled Robert Redford to the ground, shaved his head and stuck it on mine.”

Olsen, who showcases many different sides of Wanda, was inspired by the likes of classic sitcom actresses Elizabeth Montgomery ("Bewitched"), and Mary Tyler Moore, as well as the more modern “Modern Family” star Julie Bowen. She's “this straight, serious character, and the husband is the one freaking out all the time,” she says. “There's lot of that dynamic consistent as a trope through our sitcoms.” 

Vision (Paul Bettany) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) notice some weird things happening around them in "WandaVision."

“WandaVision" kicks off a sizable slate of Disney+ shows that will tie into the growing Marvel Cinematic Universe. The first salvo is centered on recognizable faces: “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” (premiering March 12) features Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan’s title superheroes, and “Loki” (due in May) returns Tom Hiddleston’s trickster god. They “all had amazing moments and storylines in the movies, but we weren't able to focus as much time as we thought those characters deserved,” Feige says.

“WandaVision” might be seen as a risk, but Bettany reminds us that, in retrospect, Marvel's casting of Downey as Iron Man was “a maverick decision that paid off. They have usually been rewarded by taking big swings." By design, the show also happens to be essential fan viewing: It ties directly into the upcoming Marvel sequel “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” (due in theaters March 25, 2022).

“It would be foolish to pretend that the barrier between film and television isn't getting less and less tangible with every year," Bettany says. "We're going to have a Marvel Cinematic Universe that moves through (both) with ease and a multimedia platform now for telling these stories. And that is really cutting edge of them.”