I Understood That Reference: ‘WandaVision’ is Pop-Culture Recycling Machine

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Every time I think about WandaVision, I can’t help but imagine how Marvel landed on this far-out concept. We’re making our first MCU TV show…so let’s make it about…TV? It’s about Wanda and Vision… WandaVision… That sounds like a retro TV show! I want to see Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany do slapstick comedy NOW! (this hypothetical person in the pitch room is me). What’s popular on streaming- old sitcoms? Let’s capitalise on THAT! 

In reality, it has unfolded as a touching exploration of grief, trauma, and coping with loss. But on no matter how you slice it, it’s a unique and pretty unexpected direction for Marvel to go in right after the record-breaking blockbuster fireworks show that was Avengers: Endgame. But I think it has a lot more in common with Endgame than its quirky genre might initially suggest. Love it or hate it, WandaVision (and it’s success) reveals a whole lot about our current pop-culture landscape. 

Let’s rewind for a bit of background. In just the decade between the premiere of Iron Man and the release of Avengers: Endgame, Marvel has changed the nature of the film industry by creating a mega-successful cinematic universe (a concept that many have tried to mimic, to varying degrees of success). Marvel movies are successful for plenty of reasons- the popularity of the superhero genre, the reliability and sheer quantity of comics for source material, the stalwart Disney machine making sure everything goes according to plan, the list goes on. To me, the most groundbreaking thing about the MCU was its ability to create a 23-film series that would appeal to both people that had seen every film and people that had seen none. Sure, if you’ve seen every film and even read the comics, you’ll get more out of it and be rewarded with plenty of easter eggs. But you can also go see the new Spiderman as a casual viewer without being too intimidated by the expansive universe. You can also skip a couple of movies without worrying- they’ll fill you in when the next Avengers movie comes along.

However, it’s important to note that Marvel doesn’t really need to worry about casual fans anymore. Endgame, which is one of the few Marvel movies that is so intertextual that it probably wouldn’t be enjoyable unless you’d seen most of the other ones, is the highest-grossing film of all time. If I had to guess, I think Marvel saw Endgame’s success as a green-light to get a little bit more creative and less accessible than their first decade of content. They know they have enough people on the Marvel train that they wouldn’t be leaving many others behind. This is where WandaVision comes in. 

New WandaVision TV Spots: The Universe is Expanding
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If Endgame was the moment Marvel realised that their audience had probably seen most Marvel movies and could handle a movie full of references and in-jokes (the characters literally travel back into three previous films, including one of Marvel’s most unpopular films, Thor: The Dark World), WandaVision might be the moment Marvel stops worrying altogether about less-informed viewers “understanding” what’s going on. With a week between each episode, that leaves ample time for online theorising. If I see a character or a reference that I don’t understand or remember, I can look that up on my phone and remedy it in ten seconds. Marvel knows this! For example, when I saw the WandaVision mid-episode commercial referencing Lagos, I had to look that up- even thought it was a reference to Age of Ultron, a film that I’ve seen!

At this point, the MCU movies are beginning to function like the comics – a (very google-able) baseline for future Marvel content to reference and jump off of. Instead of being held back by the fact that we’re not watching these big-budget superhero showdowns on the big screen, Marvel is smartly capitalising on the benefits of the streaming television medium. Google “WandaVision” any day, and dozens of articles will pop up, quantifying easter eggs, listing theories, or plumbing the never-ending depths of pop culture references in each episode. Theorising, researching, and discussing the show week-to-week makes us more invested viewers, and makes WandaVision more engaging at-home viewing than any of the MCU movies ever were.

It wasn’t on purpose, but WandaVision is the perfect introduction to Marvel phase 4. Black Widow and The Falcon & the Winter Soldier were both originally slated to come first, but I’m glad the campy, creative, mysterious WandaVision is our introduction to this new, post-Endgame phase. Upon first glance, it might seem like WandaVision represents everything wrong with our current media landscape. The popularity of Marvel movies in the past decade, and of big franchise movies in general, has been detrimental to original films. Nowadays, people always lament, everything is either a remake or a sequel. It’s basically true! For example- the top 10 films of 2019 (box office-wise) were ALL remakes or sequels (if you count Captain Marvel and Joker, which I do). While it’s pretty inarguable that Marvel is to blame for this, we can acknowledge the toxicity of the Disney machine while at the same time examining the effect the resulting media landscape has on the content that is being produced. Because the start of phase 4 is the most intriguing point in the Marvel timeline- where do we go after Endgame? The answer, in more ways than one, is television. 

WandaVision: 10 Insane Fan Theories You Need To Know
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WandaVision is an unexpected mixture of many different pop-cultural elements. For the uninitiated, the show basically follows the Scarlet Witch (fan-favourite avenger Wanda Maximoff) and her boyfriend Vision (who we saw die in Avengers: Infinity War) starring in their own constantly-evolving sitcom. Investigators on the outside try to breach the Truman Show-like bubble that Wanda has supposedly created to act out these episodes. Mysterious neighbours, glitchy moments, and surprising cameos heighten the mystery as we slowly learn more about what’s going on. The characters are plucked from across the MCU: Wanda and Vision from Avengers: Age of Ultron, Darcy from Thor, Jimmy from Ant Man, Monica from Captain Marvel, and a few unknown/surprise additions along the way.

Already, at this point, Marvel is assuming that we’ve seen those movies, and if we haven’t, that we’ll do the research to figure out who’s who. But it isn’t just that- on top of all things Marvel, WandaVision is filled to the brim with sitcom references, as the show journeys through American TV history. There are even layers of references within the characters listed above: Darcy and Jimmy are played by Kat Dennings and Randall Park, who are known as sitcom stars (from Two Broke Girls and Fresh Off the Boat). This exemplifies WandaVision’s approach to storytelling- every detail is a reference to something else that then loops back and informs what we’re watching.

WandaVision is, for better or for worse, a microcosm of today’s media landscape. It takes our sequel/remake problem to its logical extreme, plucking Marvel characters and references from various films and mixing them with a huge variety of sitcom references. This strange combination rewards media-savvy viewers, but also puts derivative concepts and characters together to create something that is, paradoxically, original. WandaVision is probably the most creative Marvel property yet; it’s made from a thousand little puzzle pieces, and no one is going to have them all, but it makes it fun for us to try to put them together week to week. I don’t think this leaves the inside of the show hollow – I believe it uses the state of modern media to piece together something entirely new. Something that isn’t creating anything from scratch, but is instead using existing building blocks and shared pop-cultural language to create something we can all feel connected to.

WandaVision Episode 1 Recap / Ending, Explained
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Here, Marvel seems to be recognising the remakes-and-sequels problem that exists, but instead of falling into that trap yet again, they’re exaggerating it. This makes any reference to the MCU, or to any sitcom, feel clever and fun. WandaVision’s ornate intertextuality and huge appendix of references is a form of storytelling that could only exist today. Of course, it’s not the first show to do something like this – Once Upon a Time drew from Disney’s fairytale back-catalogue, while Penny Dreadful brought together a dream team of public-domain gothic monsters. But with WandaVision, Marvel is getting a little more confident. They are beginning to treat the films and comics of the MCU as texts to be drawn from indiscriminately, without worrying about shepherding viewers from film to film. They know we can fill in the blanks on our own. At its best, WandaVision is Marvel at its most original, untethered, and fun.

To tell the truth, I don’t know if this is good or bad. Is WandaVision just making the best of a creative wasteland where it’s only able to use what’s already there? Or is it genuinely doing something new, and commenting on the landscape it exists in by recycling old ideas into new ones? Everything is a copy of a copy of a copy, so why not have fun with that? By leaning into that to the point where it becomes almost camp (as campy as Marvel has ever gotten, at least), WandaVision is able to loosen itself up a bit and have fun. Sure, the show has entire episodes that spoof, for example, The Dick Van Dyke Show or Malcolm in the Middle, but it also has tiny references to a myriad of other shows and films, including Happy Endings, Two Broke Girls, Kick-Ass, the list goes on. It gives pop-culture obsessives (like myself) somewhere to direct that energy. Fun facts about certain references, actors, or scenes might actually be clues that matter to the overarching plot. An age of reboots and sequels has created an audience that loves a reference, a crossover, some intertextuality. So why not give us more? You like post-credit easter eggs? We’ll hide them everywhere in the actual episode instead! You like when a character makes a throwaway pop culture reference? Let’s make a show made up entirely of references! 

Again, I don’t think this is as bad as it sounds – the singularity isn’t coming for us (yet). I just think WandaVision knows its audience. And, to be fair, although almost every part of it is pulled from something else, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. WandaVision has resigned to the fact that everything is a remake and decided to run with that concept, recycling references until it loops back around and isn’t derivative anymore. Looking at it this way, being derivative or referential isn’t necessarily a bad thing- rather, it’s a different way to tell a story that is very unique to its modern audience. The way we tell stories can often say a lot about us and our current moment, and the pop-culture Frankenstein that is WandaVision is no exception. 

by Clare Reynders

Clare (she/her) majored in Media Studies at Vassar College, before moving to NYC to work as an assistant at NBC like the rom-com protagonist she is. She is also both a teenage film bro who just watched Fight Club and a middle-aged Nancy Meyers completist, depending on the day. Favourite movies include: Scott Pilgrim, Scream, The Social Network, The Princess Bride, Moonstruck, and Down With Love. You can find her on twitter @clarereyy or on letterboxd @clarerey.

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