WandaVision was a smash success. It brought together Marvel Cinematic Universe fans, classic television fans, X-Men fans, and even comedy fans for eight weeks. It brought a new, metaphysical lens to the MCU and even included some catchy songs.
The follow-up, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, has brought Marvel back to its roots — which is a relief to some, but perhaps a step back for the MCU as a whole.
WandaVision and Falcon and Winter Soldier: two sides of the same coin
When looking at how movies are adapted into TV shows, it’s best to look not at what’s similar about the two, but what’s different. The line between movies and TV is blurry in the day of the binge model, but the biggest difference is the idea of forced chapter breaks.
Yes, you can binge-watch a show and you can pause at various moments in a movie. But by and large, movies are meant to be viewed all at once, and TV shows with breaks in between, even if those breaks are little more than end-credits into new intros.
WandaVision took this concept of discrete episodes and used it to create a series where television itself was a plot device. The first three episodes were all their own self-contained sitcom episodes, and even the later ones featured self-contained stories that fed into one another and built to both individual episode endings and a heartbreaking season finale.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier takes a different approach. Instead of using the television model as inspiration for the content, the content takes center stage. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier trucks along with near-constant levels of drama and action, and the ending of the episodes happen when Sam and Bucky are set to go on the next part of their journey.
Oddly enough, this conventional approach seems ... unusual. Certainly, it feels that way after WandaVision was allowed to set the MCU’s television tone.
But there’s an alternate universe where The Falcon and the Winter Soldier aired first. It was Marvel’s original plan, and in that plan, MCU fans would have gotten exactly what they expected from a Marvel television show: a 6-hour adventure that feels, start to finish, like a Marvel movie.
It would have smoothed the transition to WandaVision by adding elements of TV mainstays like a new character appearing at the end of an episode (Ayo of Wakanda setting up Ralph Bohner of Westview), or a small cast without erasing what defines Marvel: heart, humor, and action.
Had The Falcon and the Winter Soldier gone first, WandaVision would be primed to dial up all of these elements, adding in more complicated versions of what we’ve seen in the previous show. Bucky’s struggling with his PTSD and coping by seeking revenge? Now tune into WandaVision, where the Scarlet Witch is coping by holding an entire town hostage in a reality-warped TV show.
It would have been an exercise in escalation. Instead, something else has happened, and is still happening. Where The Falcon and the Winter Soldier could have operated as a table-setter, it’s clear now the show is suffering in the shadow of its Disney+ predecessor.
Falcon and the Winter Soldier and the price of expectations
Aside from the readiness of one program over the other, it’s hard to see how switching the release order between Falcon and Winter Soldier and WandaVision was a good idea at all.
There’s not much in Falcon that is reliant on WandaVision, nor does there seem to be anything that would spoil it either. Having WandaVision air second would have assured MCU fans it’s the exception, not the rule, when it comes to MCU TV, properly setting our expectations.
And you can’t talk about expectations without talking about the fan theories.
WandaVision’s structure was so out of the ordinary, it felt like there had to be some mastermind behind the entire ordeal, some Thanos-like being who would go on to become the Big Bad of the next MCU phase. But there wasn’t. There was Agatha Harkness causing mischief, but it was ultimately Wanda who was the villain in her own story.
That sort of wild speculation doesn’t map as well onto The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Is this because the storytelling of the show is so much more conventional, or because expectations have been put in place by WandaVision? Perhaps if WandaVision went second in the lineup as intended, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier would have established that the expectations for the movies and streaming shows are different.
With these two shows becoming benchmarks of the extremes of Disney+ series, it seems like every show after these will be placed somewhere along this spectrum, trying to strike the perfect balance and perfect the formula of what makes a Marvel show, just as the MCU previously worked to define what makes a Marvel movie.
Ironically enough, maybe it will be Loki that manages to split the difference...
WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier are now streaming on Disney+.