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What does WandaVision, the first addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, mean for the future of the most financially successful and commercially impactful franchise in the history of cinema?

15th January 2021
TV, film, media production and technology

Dr Terence McSweeney, Senior Lecturer in Film & TV, says:

Disney’s WandaVision began streaming on Disney+ from 15 January 2021 and marks the first new content for the MCU, otherwise known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, eighteen months after cinemas closed across the world for the majority of 2020, as a result of COVID-19.

Between 2008 and 2019 the twenty two films released as part of the series, now referred to as the “Infinity Saga”, culminated with Avengers: Endgame (2019), which surpassed Avatar (2009), to become the most financially successful film ever made - earning a remarkable $2.798 billion at the global box office! And billions more in subsidiary revenue streams like DVD sales and merchandising.

It is hard to underestimate the impact of the MCU, which has arguably defined the shifting contours of contemporary blockbuster film making, in terms of production, reception and exhibition.

WandaVision is certainly not the first TV show to be a part of the MCU, in fact by some counts it is actually the thirteenth. This began in 2013 with the start of the seven season long Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D (ABC, 2013-20) which featured largely unknown secondary characters interacting with the broader events of the cinematic MCU, in ways that became increasingly tangential as the run continued. This seemed to be a very conscious decision on the part of Disney/Marvel Studios, extremely reluctant to dilute the commercial value of their more profitable film series by allowing iconic characters to appear on the small screen. The same held true for a range of series produced by, and streamed on Netflix, aimed at more mature audiences like Daredevil (2015-18), Jessica Jones (2015-19), Luke Cage (2016-18) and Iron Fist (2017-18). These series, for the most part, managed to craft compelling narratives in their own right, but were also largely disconnected from the twenty-two films which comprised Phases One, Two and Three of the MCU, as it became a global cultural phenomenon.

While events from the films filter through and are referenced across all of the TV shows, the opposite was never the case. By 2019, only a single character had migrated from TV to film, with James D’Arcy’s brief cameo as Edwin Jarvis (the man who would later inspire Tony Stark’s advance artificial intelligence J.A. R.V.I.S) in Avengers: Endgame.

All that comes to an end with the release of WandaVision, the first of an expansive slate of productions by Disney, each of which feature high profile characters and actors from the film series, in their own televisual instalments, intimately connected and contributing to the broader arc of the MCU.

WandaVision stars Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff, and Paul Bettany as Visionand is due to be followed in the coming months with other additions including Sebastian Stan and Anthony Mackie in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2021), Tom Hiddleston in Loki (2021), and Jeremy Renner in Hawkeye (2021).

What viewers will make of these developments remains to be seen, and much of their success will depend on whether they are able to tell the stories the fans want to see in the way they want to see them, something that both Disney and Marvel have been astonishingly successful at since 2008.

Thus, WandaVision portrays new dimensions of the superhero genre, literally and figuratively, which heralds the start of a new relationship between what constitutes “home” and “big screen” entertainment, categorisations that once seemed so rigid, but have become increasingly blurry in the last decade in ways which would have been impossible to predict.

Dr Terence McSweeney, Senior Lecturer in Film and Television at Solent University, is the author of The Contemporary Superhero Film: Projections of Power and Identity (2020)