WandaVision is the Marvel universe’s most comic book show yet, if not in content at least in concept. It’s a dense-looking storyline that will be released on an episodic basis, with characters and a setting that are virtually impenetrable to new viewers — so much so that Marvel Studios even went so far as to produce a clip show recapping the critical moments of the 23-odd films that precede it.
It may seem like WandaVision would be barreling toward the same issue that has hounded traditional comics for years — a high barrier to entry with complex storylines, character dynamics, and lore that span decades and serve to confuse and drive away new readers — but WandaVision arguably doesn’t have that same problem.
Pick up a random issue of Spider-Man or Iron Man, and you’ll likely be confused by the contents, unless you’ve found a particularly accessible entry ramp like a creative reboot (for example, Jonathan Hickman’s recent run of the X-Men books) or a self-contained crossover. Comic sales are doing just fine, but the industry itself is a drop in the bucket compared to the massive pop culture impact of the Marvel blockbusters. Even the bestselling books of all time can’t come close in popularity.
The fact that WandaVision isn’t particularly accessible to new viewers isn’t a mark against it: it’s a spinoff of what’s arguably the single most popular film franchise ever made and a direct follow-up to Avengers: Endgame, the biggest movie in history. Comic book movies and shows are no longer tiny underdogs trying to lure in new viewers who aren’t the traditional comic audience — they are popular culture now.
WandaVision doesn’t have to cater to a new audience; it’s free to get as weird as it wants for the unprecedentedly large audience it already has, an audience that Disney is hoping will sign up for monthly Disney Plus subscriptions to watch it. (The same goes for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki and Hawkeye and Ms. Marvel and all of the other Marvel shows heading to the service.) After all, why sell customers a $15 movie ticket to a giant blockbuster only once when you can get them to subscribe to your streaming service for $8 per month forever?
In fact, Disney Plus’ very existence incentivizes Disney to make WandaVision more obtuse to new viewers. After all, all of the Marvel movies that you’d need to understand WandaVision are already on the streaming service. If someone opens up WandaVision on Friday and decides to shelve it while they work their way through the rest of the MCU on Disney Plus, then Disney wins just as much as it would have had they watched WandaVision itself. Even Marvel Legends — the recap show — requires a Disney Plus subscription to view, and it ends each episode with a list of movies (also streaming on Disney Plus) people should watch to better understand WandaVision.
It’s a strategy that we’ve already seen Disney use to great effect with Star Wars. The Mandalorian’s second season tied in heavily to past Star Wars shows like The Clone Wars and Rebels. For fans who were up to speed on the older shows, The Mandalorian was delivering payoffs that were years in the making. For fans who weren’t, they suddenly had a great reason to keep those subscriptions going after the season finale to catch up.
WandaVision is by all accounts one of the strangest Marvel entries yet. It’s not the show the studio was hoping to use to kick off its TV efforts. (That title goes to the delayed — and more mainstream — The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which will follow in March.) It doesn’t need to cater to new fans because of the sheer momentum of the Marvel machine, even though the first few episodes also demonstrate that it’s weird enough — and detached enough — from the main films that people can still come to it as its own thing.
But Marvel’s entertainment juggernaut is so big and consistent that it doesn’t really matter which show kicks off Disney Plus. The company has already won over viewers. All WandaVision needs to do is give them a reason to subscribe.