After the phenomenal success of Avengers: Endgame in 2019, the last year or so was supposed to represent something of a transition period for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) the passing of one era into the next. It would have seen the release of prequel movie Black Widow, followed by the introduction of major new characters the Eternals (starring Angelina Jolie) while on streaming service Disney+, Marvel Studios would have opened a new front in its campaign for cultural domination with The Falcon and the Winter Solider, a fairly safe and consistent choice to kick off its new range of Marvel TV shows. But of course, none of that happened. And now thanks to various Covid-19 filming complications the first Marvel show to premiere on Disney+ will be the relative curio of WandaVision, the strangest and most interesting project to come out of the MCU in years.
Created by Captain Marvel writer Jac Schaeffer, with direction from TV veteran Matt Shakman, the show is essentially one giant tribute to US sitcom classics at least on the basis of the three out of nine episodes given out for review. The first episode, for instance, introduces the odd couple of Elizabeth Olsen's Wanda Maximoff (AKA Scarlet Witch) and her late husband Vision (Paul Bettany) in the stylings of 60s black-and-white sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show, complete with a studio audience and a 4:3 aspect ratio. She is a mutant with the apparent power of magic, he is an indestructible android with the ability to fly through walls and they've just moved into the neighbourhood!
The first episode plays the sitcom premise almost entirely straight. There's a plot set around Wanda and Vision forgetting that the latter's boss (played by beloved comic actor Fred Melamed) is coming around for dinner, full of classic farce and misunderstanding. Kathryn Hahn puts in a borderline operatic performance as nosy neighbour Agnes, who pops around to give advice to Wanda and steals the show. At one point Wanda, dressed as the quintessential 50s housewife, floats plates around the kitchen suspended on airbrushed wires before earnestly asking Vision what he would say to a breakfast of pancakes, crispy hash browns, bacon, eggs, freshly squeezed orange juice and black coffee. "I'd say, 'I don't eat food!'" he replies a pastiche of a cheesy sitcom one-liner.
It's a charming and impressively faithful recreation of the broadest forms and conventions of 50s and 60s comedies, albeit one perhaps not immediately funny or sharp enough within its own right to stop you spending the episode waiting for the penny to drop (more on that shortly). After all, a relatively straight homage of a dry sitcom full of cliches is still a dry sitcom full of cliches.
This is presumably why Disney is launching the series with two episodes rather than one. For the second instalment a riff on 1964 fantasy sitcom Bewitched, featuring Wanda in trousers and an animated title sequence is when the show really starts to loosen up and find its groove, both in humour and weirdness.
The plot, once again, is a suburban sitcom staple: how do the couple impress the neighbourhood's most popular and powerful queen bee? A magic show in the local talent contest, of course! This episode is far funnier than the first with the magic show itself having two solid laugh-out-loud moments and does a great job at showcasing the range and comic talents of its leads.
Olsen in particular is a naturally gifted comic actor, and her choices of mannerisms and line readings make her a real joy to watch. Bettany, meanwhile, mostly plays his role in the mode of a bumbling Hugh Laurie. It's hammy fun a scene in which Vision becomes drunk after swallowing chewing gum is a highlight although he can often seem awkward and out of place. This is not entirely a criticism, though because he very much is out of place.
For comic book fans, the show has obvious roots in stories such as 80s series Vision and the Scarlet Witch where the couple marry and settle down and Tom King's 2016 tale The Visions, which follows Vision as he tries to live an ordinary life with an ordinary robot family in suburbia. Except, of course, within the canon of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Vision was last seen being killed by Thanos in 2018's Avengers: Infinity War. So how can he be alive here? And what even is 'here', anyway?
Those are the questions that are constantly ticking in the background, and which inform the show's most intriguing and surreal moments. A flash of colour in a black-and-white rose bush, a mysterious message from the radio, a neighbour suddenly acting strangely as the series progresses, so does your impression that this reality is beginning to crack.
This is especially true in the third episode, which drags the couple into the colourful and garish aesthetic of 70s sitcom The Brady Bunch. There is not much that can be said about the plot here for fear of spoilers but suffice to say that there are scenes in this episode that feel like they have been ripped straight from The Truman Show. Not to mention an ending that will leave you hungry for more not only to see where the larger mystery goes, or which sitcom era they will recreate next, but to find out what other thrilling creative risks they might take.
WandaVision may not have been Marvel's first choice to launch their new slate of Disney+ shows but it's certainly more than enough to raise excitement about the future.
WandaVision is streaming on Disney+ from 15 January 2020.
Love film and TV? JoinBBC Culture Film and TV Clubon Facebook, a community for cinephiles all over the world.
And if you liked this story,sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.