Keep an eye on the aspect ratio
Something that I continually find striking about Disney/Marvel’s WandaVision on Disney+ is what a deeply weird, dark, and wonderful show it is. What makes this even more impressive is when you consider what Disney+ had riding on WandaVision as Marvel Studios’ first true effort to bring the characters and storylines of the multibillion-dollar Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) to the small screen. Upping the level of difficulty even more is the fact that WandaVision isn’t just a great TV show, but its format could only be done on TV, even as it integrates, sometimes resembles, and creates a bridge to its cinematic origins.
Watch the trailer for WandaVision below.
WandaVision is our first glimpse of the world after the events of Avengers: Endgame, which ended with telekinetic mind controller Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) grieving the death of her vibranium android boyfriend Vision (Paul Bettany), who was killed by Thanos so he could retrieve the Mind Stone from Vision’s forehead. Yet WandaVision begins with Wanda and Vision somehow starring in a 1950s-era I Love Lucy-style black and white sitcom, living in wedded suburban bliss in the town of Westview while attempting to keep their superhero powers and identities hidden. As WandaVision shifts to family sitcoms from different eras (think the Brady Bunch, Family Ties, and Malcolm in the Middle) from episode to episode, the sense of foreboding grows as it becomes more and more apparent that something dark and mysterious is happening in Westview, with Wanda and her powers seemingly at the center of it. Meanwhile S.W.O.R.D., the security agency that replaced S.H.I.E.L.D., has set up a base outside a mysterious energy barrier known as the Hex that surrounds Westview, with broadcasts of the ‘WandaVision’ sitcoms as their only clue to what is going on within.
Here’s the second trailer for WandaVision.
According to Parrot Analytics, WandaVision is currently the most popular TV show in the world — in fact, the show is so popular that it briefly crashed Disney+’s servers just after midnight when episode seven premiered as fans rushed the channel to watch it immediately before details of the episode could get spoiled. Many might find the success of WandaVision unsurprising considering that it’s a spinoff of the world’s most popular movie franchise. But when you account for how dark and strange WandaVision is — including aspects that are more befitting a horror movie or supernatural thriller — and how different it is from previous MCU fare, the show’s success was by no means a sure thing.
That’s because WandaVision is, at its core, a show about dealing with trauma. Wanda and her twin brother Pietro’s parents were killed in front of them in a missile strike when the twins were children, and in just a few short years, Wanda has endured the death of Pietro at the hands of Ultron, accidentally caused the death or injury of dozens of civilians at the beginning of Captain America: Civil War, and was forced to kill Vision in Avengers: Infinity War in an attempt to keep Thanos from getting the Mind Stone. Far from a typical superhero story about saving the world from an evil supervillain, WandaVision is about how a young superhero with enormous powers might respond to post-traumatic stress by not just immersing herself in a fantasy world, but by actually creating one and forcing others against their will to inhabit it, essentially putting Wanda in the role of the villain. For a franchise that has successfully straddled being both for kids and adults, WandaVision falls thematically on the more complex adult end. I really don’t know what a kid under the age of fifteen would make of WandaVision, especially the older sitcoms Wanda replicates that would be totally unfamiliar to anyone under thirty.
Which brings us to how brilliantly WandaVision uses the medium, format, and genres of television to bring the MCU into our homes in a way that manages to be simultaneously cinematic and distinctly made for television.
WandaVision isn’t Marvel’s first attempt to bring the MCU to the small screen. We’ve already had Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and Agent Carter, which star supporting characters from MCU films, as well as shows like Luke Cage and Jessica Jones on Netflix, which reference events and characters from the MCU but are largely separate from it. In these cases, what made the shows distinctly television projects mostly had to do with the fact that they were about lesser-known, new, or less important characters, often with peripheral storylines that had little or no effect on the larger MCU. These Marvel shows found fairly spotty success, with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D running for seven seasons — though never becoming a hit or essential viewing for MCU fans — while most of the other shows never got past their second seasons.
Until 2021, Marvel’s TV projects were never seen as approaching anything near the scope, quality, budget, or integration of MCU movies. But all that changed with the launch of Disney+ and MCU mastermind Kevin Feige taking control of Marvel’s TV efforts (which Feige previously hadn’t thought much of). Now Marvel TV shows will get the same A-list actors, budgets, and integration into the larger MCU that the movies get, and WandaVision is an excellent example of this. But the makers of WandaVision did something way more clever than simply creating a long Marvel movie and chopping it into installments for episodic home viewing. Instead, by making much of WandaVision mimic TV shows, they declared that WandaVision was made for and should be watched on TV, to the point that it would arguably be a worse experience if watched on a movie screen.
Much of this is due to aspect ratio and picture quality. To replicate the TV formats through the decades as accurately as possible, we see the shows Wanda creates in the aspect ratios and picture qualities from their eras. That means that shows from the 80s and earlier are shown in a nearly square 4:3 aspect ratio without the sharpness, contrast, vibrance, and clarity that we now take for granted with our HD and 4K flatscreen TVs today.
If the older sitcom parts of WandaVision were blown up for a movie screen (and especially an IMAX screen) they most likely wouldn’t look great, with fuzzy images, washed out colors, and thick black bars on either side of the rectangular movie screen to maintain the correct aspect ratio. Standard definition TV broadcasts, especially ones from the 1950s that were made to be viewed on TV screens not much bigger than what you’d find on current laptops, simply couldn’t handle being blown up to large sizes. Improving the resolution or changing the aspect ratio of WandaVision’s sitcoms to make them look better on a movie screen would lessen the effect of WandaVision’s premise, take away some of the fun of seeing modern characters in old TV shows, and would lessen the feeling of the alternate reality Wanda has created to cope with her trauma.
But as much as WandaVision has embraced television both in its story and presentation, the cinematic world that defines the MCU has been given its own distinct visual treatment. In scenes that take place outside the Hex, we find ourselves back in the MCU we’ve known for almost thirteen years. The picture is in razor-sharp digital high dynamic range 4K (and in Dolby Vision if your TV offers it). The production value and budget feel blockbuster-sized with scores of military-outfitted extras, specialized vehicles, and a command post filled with high-tech equipment.
And perhaps most importantly, these scenes from the “real” world are presented in a cinematic widescreen 2.39:1 letterboxed aspect ratio that matches the Marvel movies, creating the effect of watching an MCU movie at home. It’s significantly wider than the 16:9 aspect ratio of current TV shows and flatscreen TVs, which WandaVision uses for Wanda’s sitcoms that are from 2000 and later when flatscreens started becoming more widespread. When the outside world intrudes on Wanda’s sitcom world — whether it be a character who has made it past the Hex or an upsetting memory from Wanda’s tragic past — the aspect ratio sometimes changes dynamically to represent “reality” forcing its way into the safe, controlled environment Wanda has created to protect herself from the traumas she’s endured, literally changing the way her world is perceived.
All this is to say that Disney seems to have done it again in bringing original content from their most valuable franchises to Disney+. First, they hit a grand slam with the Mandalorian, introducing compelling new characters and focusing on unexplored aspects of the Star Wars universe. And now we have WandaVision, which features familiar characters from the MCU but boldly and creatively puts them in a story and world maximized for television without minimizing the scope and ambition we’ve grown to expect from Marvel’s movies. Considering Feige’s stated plan to have the events of Marvel TV shows and movies interconnect, with streamed shows bridging the periods between movies and the events of shows and movies leading into and influencing each other, WandaVision is an exceptionally clever way to embody that strategy. By pushing the boundaries of what a MCU TV project can be in its first attempt while still being wildly successful, WandaVision has given the showrunners of future Marvel shows a lot of freedom to try ideas that are even more ambitious, complex, and idiosyncratic.
And if you’re a Marvel fan — or simply a fan of great television — that’s the best news you could hope for.