'WandaVision' Was Designed To Be A Love Letter To Sitcoms – And Act As A Test Run For Marvel's Long-Form Storytelling

What do Urkel, Full House, The Twilight Zone, and The Mandalorian all have in common? They all paved the way, in some fashion, for WandaVision, the upcoming Marvel series on Disney+ and the unlikely first entry in Marvel's Phase 4.

The cast and creative team behind WandaVision gathered for a virtual press conference moderated by Jaleel White of Family Matters fame to dive into Marvel's big TV experiment — a love letter to sitcoms that will act as a test run for Marvel's foray into long-form storytelling.

Why was Jaleel White the moderator for a WandaVision panel, of all people? Aside from the obvious answer of getting a sitcom icon to moderate a panel for a superhero series that pays loving homage to sitcoms, White goes way back with the director of WandaVision, Matt Shakman, who has his own history acting in sitcoms back in the '80s. White and Shakman both starred in the short-lived Disney Channel sitcom Good Morning, Miss Bliss, which would end up becoming retooled as the popular show Saved by the Bell.

Upon learning this, the resounding phrase among the cast and creative team at the conference was "I can't believe we never knew that!" The assembled talent included stars Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Kathryn Hahn, Teyonah Parris, writer Jac Schaeffer, and Marvel chief Kevin Feige. But the unexpected may be par for the course for WandaVision, which takes on the auspicious task of being the first Marvel project after Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home, kicking off Marvel's Phase 4.

"Yes, the original plan was Falcon and the Winter Soldier was going to debut first," Feige said. "Last year, followed very soon behind with WandaVision. [But] part of having a long lead plan is having the ability and the ideas of how to shuffle, should the need arise."

Feige continued:

"I'm not saying we were prepped for a global pandemic. But we've always over the past 12, 15 years of Marvel Studios been able to shuffle around. This required no shuffling so ever, in terms of the creative logistics, just in terms of production. And as is often the case when you're throwing curveballs... the unexpected has often served Marvel Studios well, and it has served as well in this case. Because this show being our first one, I love how bold it is, I love how different is, and I love that it is something you can only see on a Disney+, that we have things that you will only be able to see initially in theaters, we have things that could end and are made for that. And this is very much made to to be seen, week after week, on television, which is very different for us, it was very fun and it is as bold as it comes thanks to everyone, you're looking at here today."

The weekly release may not have been possible were it not for the success of another Disney+ show, The Mandalorian. WandaVision was well underway long before the Star Wars series debuted on the streaming service, but "there is lots and lots of The Mandalorian that has inspired us at Marvel Studios," Feige said. "The least of which is the Stagecraft technology that they pioneered that we're using on some upcoming projects," he continued, referring to the groundbreaking tech that allows a full-scale Star Wars show to look as amazing as the movies.

But The Mandalorian's success as a weekly release, bringing back the water cooler discussions that used to be common around TV, encouraged the weekly release of Marvel shows like WandaVision and other upcoming series, Feige said.

"They certainly showed that they can do that spectacularly on Disney+ with The Mandalorian with the fun week-to-week discussion," Feige said.

But WandaVision has to offer something interesting to keep those kind of weekly water cooler discussions going. However, its experimental sitcom-based storytelling merged with an overarching mystery may be able to achieve just that. The series has already built up a lot of interest for its unique send-up of classic sitcom tropes, but the cast and crew want to assure fans that they're dedicated to not not satirizing the genre, but crafting a love letter to shows like Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, I Love Lucy, and a whole lot of Dick van Dyke. That last one refers to both the show and its lead actor, as Bettany revealed that his take on the bumbling suburban Vision was mostly inspired by van Dyke. The dedication to the sitcom formula includes the technology used for certain effects, the live audience for the first episode ("It was so nerve-wracking!" Olsen said), and the specific movements of the characters.

"The way the way women moved throughout the decades changes so much when it comes to what society wants from them," Olsen said of having to nail the physical tics as well as the physical comedy as Wanda Maximoff. "And so, Jac did write in quite a few nods to how those were evolving throughout the decades...and that would adjust how someone moves through space... But we also have to remember that we're not depicting an honest reality of the 60s or the 70s we were depicting reality, which is its own set of rules."

Added Hahn, who plays the couple's "nosy neighbor" Agnes: "I feel like the sitcom is always represented as this kind of like aspirational view this kind of comfortable ideal. And so not only are we trying to do the tics, we're just trying to be to just kind of live within each decade. But kind of like presents this kind of like this kind of comfortable ideal, like you know the structure of a sitcom which is the setup, the misunderstanding, and the resolution. It's so comforting."

But what about when the comforting becomes...less comfortable? There's obviously something wrong in WandaVision's cheery vision of black-and-white suburbia, and Shakman and Schaeffer both drew from another '60s TV staple to telegraph the uneasy mystery lingering behind those white picket fences. Shakman said:

"When something shifted from, say, a Dick Van Dyke or an I Love Lucy style into something that was outside of that, it was going into kind of The Twilight Zone. You know, we were thinking about what were the purity added shows that had addressed, you know the odd and the strange, and how could we embrace that so that's a little bit about how we approached the shooting of it certainly and we'll look at it."

Schaeffer added: "The Twilight Zone is an enormous influence on me, personally, I really think that's actually kind of how I learned [storytelling]. And it was so incredibly deft at that turn, right you think you're in one sort of thing, and then suddenly it's flipped on its head. So we were all incredibly enamored of that."

But these heel-turns weren't always completely based in Twilight Zone-inspired mystery. WandaVision also takes a cue from contemporary dramas. "I think there are a lot of current shows right now," Schaeffer said, "like prestige series that are doing this very exciting thing where you watch a couple episodes and you think the show was one thing and then, and then by episode four or five, it flips the script so that's really where the more contemporary references come in in terms of boundary pushing in genre."

That kind of boundary pushing is where Feige hopes WandaVision will help lead the way, in terms of Marvel's foray into TV and long-form storytelling.

"This was our test run," Feige said. "This was Marvel Studios — Marvel, of course has had a lot of good successful TV in the past — this was Marvel Studios' first foray [into TV] directly, with cast and amazing characters that we've seen in movies coming on to television. And the idea, always was, yes, to do something that could not be done as a feature, that plays with a format and plays within the medium."

Feige concluded, "Because of what Jac and Matt did, we were able to turn up a wacky idea into a spectacular show, and we've got lots of other things we've announced that [are] coming up."


WandaVision premieres on Disney+ on January 15, 2021.