The Marvel Cinematic Universe is stepping into uncharted territory with WandaVision, premiering on Disney Plus on Friday, with an homage to sitcom television directed by an expert in the genre, former child star from sitcoms like Just The Ten of Us (a spin-off of Growing Pains) and Webster, Matt Shakman.
“We wanted to be as authentic as possible, that was one of the biggest goals,” Shakman said at a virtual press conference moderated by another former child star who played Steve Urkel in Family Matters, Jaleel White.
In fact, during the press conference Shakman and White revealed that they were both “unceremoniously fired” from a show called Good Morning, Miss Bliss, which was reworked from middle school to high school and later became Saved By the Bell. Shakman has since gone on to receive an Emmy nomination for directing the MRC/Hulu pilot for The Great, starring Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult.
The WandaVision series explores two fan-favourite Marvel Characters, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany), through the lens of sitcom-styles from several decades, including the 50s, 60s and 70s, pulling references from iconic shows like I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bewitched and even Full House, which starred Elizabeth Olsen’s twin sisters Mary-Kate and Ashley.
“Get ready for the new and the different,” Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studio said. “I hope all of our movies have said that one after the other over the years, but certainly with the Disney Plus opportunities, it’s allowed us to expand creatively what we do.”
“This was our test run… The idea always was, yes, to do something that could not be done as a feature, that plays for the format and plays with the medium.”
Olsen said that as she stepped into the shoes of Wanda again in a new television-based format, translating the character through different periods of television history, it was the first episode being filmed in front of a live studio audience that was particularly “nerve wracking” for her.
“There was a lot of adrenaline, there were a lot of quick changes, and it totally confused my brain,” Olsen said. “It really messed with my brain, the idea of not playing to an audience but feeding off an audience and having a camera, and I was really grateful when we added the fourth wall.”
Shakman described the live audience component as a more “theatrical” experience.
“I Love Lucy, Dick Van Dyke, you can feel the energy of that through the theatrical performance working with the audience,” he said. “When you get into ‘60s shows like Bewitched or I Dream of Jeannie, it is a fourth wall and all of a sudden it's much more like doing a movie these days.”
‘There were shows that were a little disappointing’
But not everything from television sitcoms of the past translates in 2020 and head writer Jac Schaeffer was quick to point that out.
“When we looked back and we were doing our research, and looking at these older shows, there were shows that were a little disappointing and that were not acceptable for today,” Schaeffer said.
Olsen identified that for Wanda, as a woman, “the decades change so much when it comes to what society wants from them.” She also worked on how the character’s physicality would change throughout the decades.
“In the ‘60s she gets to wear some pants, and that would adjust how someone moves through space,” she said. “Manners were a huge part of every decade and so we would get this book of manners for the time as well.”
“But we also have to remember that we're not depicting an honest reality of the ‘60s or the ‘70s, we were depicting the sitcom reality, which is its own set of rules.”
Shakman said the team honed in on grounding the story in family sitcoms, in particular.
“The key references that we were looking at are those miraculous shows that have managed to be...timely and timeless,” he said.
Shakman revealed he and Feige had lunch with Dick Van Dyke who gave them a key piece of advice for making the sitcom genre work, “if it couldn't happen in real life, it can’t happen on the show.”
“If you're drawing something that's grounded, and it's real and it's resonated with everyone’s experience at home, you can do crazy things,” Shakman explained. “You can tumble over ottomans, you can be goofy, you can be anything but as long as it's grounded in real life, that makes it work.”
References for darker moments in the series
Although the sitcom genre is a key component of WandaVision, it is still beginning of phase four in the MCU, after Avengers: Endgame. Shakman and Schaeffer both said The Twilight Zone was a big reference point for any of the darker moments in the series.
“We were thinking about, what were the period shows that addressed the odd and strange, and how could we embrace that,” Shakman said.
“Twilight Zone is an enormous influence on me, personally,” Schaeffer revealed. “I really think that's actually kind of how I learned to tell stories.”
“You think you're in one sort of thing and then suddenly it's flipped on its head and so, we were all incredibly enamoured of that.”
Feige stressed that WandaVision does not parody these classic television formats, but highlights something people loved, especially as he personally found a “comfort” in television.
“I watched too much TV as a kid and TV meant a lot to me, and I found comfort in television families,” he said. “There's one thing we talked about early on is, these are not parodies, [this is not] direct satire, we love these things and they meant a lot to us, dated and silly, as they may seem now, there's a comfort factor there.”