'WandaVision' is anti-binging TV

There’s too much to take in all at once.

Marvel Studios

This article contains spoilers for WandaVision.

Hello sky beam! After eight episodes of old TV pastiches, slow buildup and plenty of character examination, the final episode of Disney+'s WandaVision finally gave the audience the big punchy energy blast fight that we’ve come to expect after seeing dozens of Marvel and DC films. For those who had been hating the show so far, maybe it was a relief. For those who were enjoying how the series strayed from the norm… it’s probably a case of mixed feelings. Because what made the show such a delight was that it was so different from previous superhero outings, a feeling amplified by the way the show was delivered in weekly doses instead of all at once.

Streaming has changed how people watch TV, with so many now expecting a quick fix where they can watch everything at once and not have to wait to see cliffhangers. Want to see if Captain Picard survives being turned into a Borg? In my day you had to wait an entire summer for the answer; now you just wait for the next episode to load on Paramount+. Binging emerged because people started consuming old media via DVD collections and streaming services, rewatching old favorites like The Office for comfort and new favorites like Game of Thrones so they could be part of the conversation at work and online. Savoring the shows' individual components was never the point.

WandaVision, Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olden
Marvel Studios

Netflix looked at these viewing patterns and decided that was how people preferred to watch series, releasing its original programming all in one big drop at 3am. And at first it worked, with people planning out their weekends around the new season of House of Cards or Orange is the New Black. It even reached a point where some people were taking Fridays off so they could see all of Daredevil or Luke Cage as soon as it arrived, often plowing through all 13 episodes before most people had even gotten up for work.

While some services like Peacock have followed Netflix’s lead, others still hew to a weekly release. Paramount+ does this with Star Trek, and Disney+ has been doing it with its big marquee originals like The Mandalorian and now WandaVision. Part of this decision is simply practical: if you stretch out the release of a show, you guarantee that subscribers stick around for several weeks, instead of binging everything over a weekend and cancelling their subscription until the next season drops. Of course, people can still do that now, but that means being the last to see the show and missing out on the initial watercooler talk.

Kathryn Hahn as Agatha Harkness
Marvel Studios

In the case of WandaVision, it also means losing a lot of the impact. Not just in spoilers — though missing out on the buzz around "Agatha All Along" is a shame, because it’s just such a bop (and amusing meme). But in how each episode is constructed as a unique piece of art, utilizing different styles and focusing on different aspects of the sitcom format, even episode length. Dick Van Dyke was a consultant for the first installment — would we really have appreciated that fact as much if we immediately had eight more episodes after it to fill our thoughts?

Even once we left the sitcom style the last two episodes still felt unique, with last week’s functioning as an emotional tour de force about Wanda’s ongoing trauma and this week, as I said earlier, basically embracing a more action-packed fighting with energy blasts. But it still found ways to distinguish itself. There’s a discussion of the Ship of Theseus conundrum, and even a part that sort of wanders into zombie territory (Marvel Studios hasn’t really done horror before, so it was either a nice or very unpleasant surprise depending on your personal comfort levels).

Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany
Marvel Studios

Even as I sit here digesting what the episode means for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I can’t help but think about how people who chose to wait will absorb the show. Taken as a whole, WandaVision really does operate like a Marvel film, albeit slightly longer. The first three episodes are the intro, then episode four shows us what’s really going on, then the plot really starts to take off from there before we roll into the big reveal at the end of episode six followed by the big emotional beats and climactic battle. Even last week’s episode, with Agatha taking Wanda on a stroll through her past reminded me of the flashbacks that Captain America, Iron Man and even Thor have had in their respective outings — just stretched out a bit, to give Wanda the characterization she so desperately lacked in the films.

If a Marvel movie was broken up into segments, there’s a possibility that many viewers would feel disappointed by those. In the first Iron Man, Tony Stark doesn’t suit up until over a half hour into the film. And that’s only the prototype — the “real” suit doesn’t make its debut until an hour has passed and we’re halfway done with the movie. Iron Man 3 even flipped the script by starting Tony out in the suit and then stripping it away for a full hour in the middle. (Which is why the film is sometimes derided as boring, despite being one of my favorite Marvel flicks because of how it threw out the standard conventions.)

Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda
Marvel Studios

WandaVision is still using that overall structure, but now we had to wait a week between the major story beats. And yes, this is anecdotal, but a lot of the people I know who hate WandaVision… are the same ones who hated Iron Man 3. Had they been able to watch it all at once, maybe their initial disappointment would have faded once they got to the “pew pew pew” parts in episodes four and nine. Binging a show — or watching a movie — doesn’t give you a lot of time to think about the component parts, just the work as a whole. And if the end delivers what you want, you’re more likely to have a positive opinion of it.

However, WandaVision was a celebration of the art of television as much as it was a superhero story, and the intent was to get you to think about its ingredients and the craft that went into them — as well as the emotional beats they hit. Had I watched it all at once I’d only probably be focused right now on the questions we’re left with at the end — where did white Vision go, what do the Skrulls want with Monica and what happened to poor, poor Ralph — but instead I’m also aware of what each episode intended to accomplish. Taken as a whole, it probably would have made for a mediocre superhero movie. But as a series, it’s been a pretty great ride.