The Marvel Cinematic Universe comes to television with WandaVision the new Disney+ series that places a super-powered Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany in the suburbs of classic sitcoms.
EMMY – When you wish upon a luxurious star, you just might land at Club 33 in Disneyland.
Tucked away above New Orleans Square and decorated with historic flourishes (the harpsichord at reception belonged to Walt Disney’s wife, Lillian), it’s a pricey, ultra-exclusive club for members and VIPS. On August 25, 2019, Marvel Studios president and chief creative officer Kevin Feige, joined by producer-director Matt Shakman, enjoyed lunch and swapped stories there with Dick Van Dyke and his wife, Arlene.
“It was unbelievable!” Feige recalls. “You sit down and don’t know what to say because you’re so starstruck.” Shakman is more succinct: “It was the best afternoon of my life.”
They weren’t there just to catch up with a 93-year-old legend. They were about to start production on an innovative Disney+ series called WandaVision — which Shakman will only describe as a “love letter to television” — and they wanted to hear about the star’s experiences on his groundbreaking 1960s sitcom, The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Van Dyke waxed about his fellow actor and the show creator, Carl Reiner, who mined real-life anecdotes for the episodes, as well as his own delight at filming in front of live studio audiences.
In turn, Feige talked about the new series he was executive-producing with Shakman, among others. “I tried to explain how there was this robot and a witch and how she had to kill him because Thanos reversed time,” he says with a laugh. “I’m thinking, ‘He doesn’t need to hear this!'”
With the premiere of WandaVision on January 15, it will all click. Set after the events of the 2019 blockbuster Avengers: Endgame, the weekly series — which is patterned on prototypical sitcoms of various eras — explores the adventures of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and her love, an android named Vision (Paul Bettany).
Yes, Vision died when the Mind Stone was ripped from his forehead in the 2018 film Avengers: Infinity War, and he is still dead. But rules can be malleable when one of the two main characters is also known as Scarlet Witch.
“What I love about Wanda in the comic books, and what drew me to her originally,” Olsen says, “is what we get to explore in a beautiful way.” To that end, even a witch couldn’t have manipulated the series’ timing any better.
When Disney+ launched in November 2019, it did so with the promise that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) would soon unveil new series based on some of its lower-profile action heroes. At last, fans of the gazillion-grossing, 23-movie Infinity Saga would enjoy extensive and exclusive insights into the likes of Falcon, the Winter Soldier, Wanda, Vision, Loki and others, all in episodic installments.
But the global pandemic wreaked havoc on production schedules. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier — which required a complex, multi-city shoot and was set to lead the charge — got pushed to 2021. That left WandaVision, which aims to change the future of the medium by paying homage to its past.
“The show is complicated,” explains co-executive producer Mary Livanos, “because we’re incorporating the rules of the MCU and narrowing in on suburban family sitcoms — but not all the episodes are structurally similar.
“What’s fun about it is that it leads the audience to ask questions about when this takes place or whether this is a social experiment and if this is an alternative reality and an unraveling of the mystery. We’re excited that the Disney+ platform allows us the creative space to play around.”
Indeed, with revenues from cruises, theme parks and cinema down sharply due to the pandemic, Disney+ emerged as the clear winner in the Disney portfolio, signing more than 73 million global members in just 11 months. (The company had initially set its five-year goal at 60 million to 90 million.)
Meanwhile, the Star Wars series The Mandalorian nabbed an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Drama Series — and seven awards in crafts categories — and the MCU has expanded into the freshly minted series She-Hulk, Moon Knight and Ms. Marvel.
Those successes led to a major announcement this fall from new chief executive Bob Chapek: Disney would realign its business divisions to focus future creative efforts squarely on Disney+.
Feige admits to growing up with “a near-unhealthy love and obsession” for some of the characters on his favorite shows, like Alice and Little House on the Prairie, and he’s just as committed now to his behemoth production studio.
“Streaming is 100 percent the future and where consumers want to watch things,” he says. “And hopefully they’ll want to watch our longform narrative series. An experience like WandaVision is something you can’t get in a movie. You go to movies for things you can’t get on streaming, and you go to streaming for things you can’t get in a theater. And of course, everything in a theater goes to streaming eventually.”
It was back in the days of yore — ahem, early 2018 — when then–Disney CEO Bob Iger approached Feige about extending the MCU for what would be a new Disney streaming service. At the time, Feige, who started at Marvel Studios as a producer in 2000 and became president of production in 2007, was wrapping up the 10-year-long Infinity Saga storyline.
“My team and I were wondering internally about where to go from here, and what would be the next step that was equally challenging and unexpected,” he relates. The notion of extending the brand to television “was an adrenaline boost.” Looking to showcase MCU characters who hadn’t yet reached their potential in terms of screen time, he zeroed in on Wanda and Vision and their romantic but doomed love story.
“Elizabeth and Paul were these amazing actors — who had done amazing things in four movies — but never had a chance to dominate the narrative because there was so much else going on,” he explains. “It felt fun to finally give them a platform to showcase their astounding talent.”
Bettany, for one, assumed that his run as Vision had ended with his death in Infinity War. “I was called in to see Kevin and [Marvel copresident] Louis D’Esposito and was convinced that they were going to be gentlemen and say, ‘It’s been a great ride; thank you for your work and good luck,'” he recalls. Instead, they pitched him what he describes as an “exciting and bonkers” idea for the character’s return. “Of course, I said I was in.”
During Olsen’s meeting? “Kevin told me he wanted to merge two different comic series as inspiration. He explained the series would show how Wanda is originally from an Eastern European country and grew up on American black-market products like television,” she says, then cuts herself off to avoid revealing spoilers.
At first, she says, “I was a little bit nervous about Marvel doing something on television, because what does that mean and how could it possibly intertwine? But I got so excited when I heard that nugget of the idea.”
That nugget grew into a fleshed-out narrative in early 2019 after Livanos, who is also director of production and development at Marvel Studios, tapped screenwriter Jac Schaeffer (Captain Marvel, Black Widow) as head writer. “We envisioned Wanda and Vision in this sitcom setting but didn’t know what that meant until Jac came on,” Livanos says.
Schaeffer remembers: “I got wind of this percolating crazy notion of this project and told myself that I needed to get in on that!” …