The next phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, by far the most lucrative entertainment franchise in the world, quietly started in January … with a TV show.
WandaVision, a meditation on grief disguised as a genre-bending ode to several decades’ worth of TV sitcoms, laid the groundwork for not just the coming barrage of Marvel series on Disney+ — but several MCU films to follow. It did that, care of creator Jac Schaeffer, while simultaneously pulling some praiseworthy performances from leads Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany. The project is up for 23 Emmy nominations, more than any other limited series, including mentions for its two lead performers and supporting scene-stealer Kathryn Hahn. Its haul is all the more impressive when one considers that Marvel’s entire film franchise, with $23 billion in global box office to date, hasn’t approached that level of prestige (save maybe 2019 Oscar best picture nominee Black Panther) over 24 films.
Schaeffer spoke with THR about her cerebral spin on the characters, thriving within the parameters of the superhero studio and the challenge of making big fight scenes make sense.
What kinds of conversations did you have about how to make Wanda, who admittedly hasn’t gotten the most screen time in the films, a real draw for wider audiences?
I think it’s a little bit of a product of [the fact that] Wanda’s appearances in the MCU prior to the show were always very fraught. And if not fraught, if not in the middle of a battle, then they were quite melancholy. That thread of heartache, grief and intensity is true to her character in the comics, and it’s certainly the backbone of WandaVision as well. But this premise afforded an opportunity to see both Wanda and Vision be funny and silly and charming and domestic and mundane. I love that. I’m always interested in the most unexpected framing for a familiar character or really a familiar story.
With 23 nominations, WandaVision has more than any other limited series — but the genre seems to be more competitive than comedy or drama this year.
This field, it’s like the Pyrenees, a big mountain range of just icon and staggering talent after icon and staggering talent. It is incredible what’s happening in the limited series space, and I am deeply humbled to be in this company — especially the actor-creative hybrids. I May Destroy You was like an earthquake for me and my understanding of what writing and personal writing can be. The thing that was so shocking and groundbreaking, for me, was what the ending to a story can be. That series, especially, has stayed with me in a way that I aspire to it affecting my work forevermore.
I have a friend who, at the end of every group trip, asks everyone what their orchid (highlight) and onion (kind of stinky) was during the experience — so I’m wondering what those are for you and WandaVision?
Oh, it’s like “Good, bad, surprising.” The orchid is hard because this was a particularly charmed project, like a bouquet of orchids. It was my first time running a writers room. I hired a group of extraordinarily talented, kindhearted and hilarious people. We just had this incredible party-slash-therapy session for many, many weeks — and then birthed a show. That was one of my favorite experiences in my career thus far. This is hard because then the live taping was so extraordinary.
And the onion?
It’s kind of a bad answer, but it was the pandemic landing in the middle of the deal. It made it really hard for us to finish, and it was complicated for everybody on the entire planet. But it means that our company hasn’t really seen each other since the show. When it premiered, we couldn’t be in the same room with each other. So that’s made me kind of heartsick. We’ve had all this wonderful success and we’ve been embraced so thoroughly and I just want to embrace my colleagues. Hopefully, the Emmy ceremony will give us that opportunity.
In running a writers room for the first time, what did you learn about yourself that you think will influence the way you write moving forward?
I thought that I didn’t have the stuff for a writers room because I don’t know how to be on a team. I had always kind of seen myself as an individual-sport kind of a person. I threw shot put and discus in high school. I was a dancer. Any extracurricular that I could do as long as it was just me alone, that’s what I did. It was a surprise to enjoy the collaboration as much as I did. My tendency has always been to kind of go away to my corner of the sandbox and do the best work I can. And then come back bearing this thing that I’m like, “Look! It’s pretty, right?” To be in the trenches with other people, to share that burden and joy, it was so special. So, the change in me is: “Give me more TV shows!” I want to be with more wonderful people and not writing all by myself.
By all accounts, you had a lot of creative freedom here, but I can only imagine the parameters you’re given on a Marvel project. Is there a mandate you’re given — or is it, “Just get from point A to point B”?
No, not really. Kevin Feige is incredibly involved in all of the properties, and he is a masterful producer — obviously. Everything is a conversation, and I enjoy that. The people at Marvel are really good at what they do. So there were goals, like, “Let’s understand what it means to be the Scarlet Witch.” That was a box that we needed to check. This was always going to be an exploration of Wanda’s grief. And so let’s do that in the most elegant and moving way that we can. With the sitcoms, it was all, “How do we do that and not have it all be a big mess?” The execution was always up to me, but yeah, there were goals. I wouldn’t say mandate because it’s very fluid. I like working inside of parameters like that and find that often it yields, for me, the best writing.
What was toughest part of the story to crack?
The finale was the hardest because that’s the Marvel-iest part. It’s always tough to really nail down on the mythology. What does Agatha [Kathryn Hahn] want and what does her power set look like? What does that mean for Wanda? How do we make that interesting? What’s the chess board where all the players give everybody a satisfying conclusion? It’s the third act of a Marvel movie. I’ve been around the block on some of those, and they’re so fun — but that’s always the hardest to land. The emotional part of the finale was always very clear to me: their goodbye and the goodbye to the children. That was the grounding force. All the pyrotechnics and making sure that Wanda’s win against Agatha at the end really sings, that’s stuff that takes a long, long time.
I don’t have another question for you, but in my notes I just wrote, “Kathryn Hahn!”
Yeah, I want it for Kathryn Hahn. You should just link to that Lady Gaga meme where she’s like, “Amazing! Beautiful! Destroy your life! Rebuild it back up! You’ll never be the same!” Just do that.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
And the Odds Are…
Awards have been the elusive final frontier for Disney’s Marvel fare, which has dominated the box office (if not formal accolades) for well over a decade. Its TV efforts, however, may mark a turning point for the commercially unrivaled franchise. Inaugural series WandaVision has a wild 23 nominations, outperformed only by The Mandalorian and The Crown. And, unlike a lot of genre fare, it’s getting just as much love in sexier categories as it is in crafts. — M.O.
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.