If you follow me on Twitter, you have likely seen me tweet weekly about WandaVision. I had a good exchange with The Verge’s Julia Alexander about the show: she is a fan, and, as much as I appreciate the complexity of visual and narrative storytelling the show is pulling off, I am not a fan.
Polygon’s Joshua Rivera has written the most eloquent version of my perspective in “WandaVision’s biggest antagonist is the Marvel Cinematic Universe”:
So yes, I like the MCU, and find Wanda and Vision’s comic-book history compelling. I also like the extraneous bits of watching MCU projects: observing fans piecing together narrative puzzles in forums and social media, coming up with ideas of my own, and waiting to see how right or wrong we all are.
None of this has anything to do with telling a story, or enjoying one. This is what video games commonly call lore: something that has the cadence of a story, but might as well be a Wiki entry. It’s narrative ephemera that can enhance, but never substitute for, the experience of watching a character overcome an immediate conflict or emotional struggle.
What WandaVision is missing is the sense that anyone in the story is being confronted with the opportunity to change, and wrestling with what it might mean to embrace it. There are binary choices (like, will Wanda move on from her loss and lift the hex that’s holding Westview hostage?) but nothing more complicated, because neither Wanda nor Vision have well-developed interior lives. They have the raw materials for rich character work, but no foundation to build them on.
Julia’s last point in our exchange is worth highlighting here:
The experience of watching and enjoying WandaVision is subjective, that’s fair. So, whether I don’t like it or Julia does, the reality is Disney+ has 95MM+ subscribers, worldwide, who matter more than either of our perspectives.
Of course, that global audience is actually much bigger, something which a tweet from Parrot Analytics CEO Wared Seger on Saturday suggested:
Parrot Analytics is a helpful lens here because they monitor demand for a show across search traffic, social video platforms, illegal streaming, and social sharing worldwide. So when a show like WandaVision shows up at number one worldwide, it tells us is that a substantive critique like Joshua Rivera’s, one that I agree with, does not reflect what is driving broader audience demand for the show.
So what does drive demand for WandaVision, even if there are objective problems with the show’s structure and narrative?
One answer is obvious: there are many MCU fans like Julia and Joshua who like, if not love, the MCU. But there’s another answer, which I remember from a podcast conversation a year ago between The Ringer’s Bill Simmons and Stratechery’s Ben Thompson: Disney wants to learn more about its "billions" of fans worldwide who may not go to theaters or theme parks, and Disney+’s price point makes it easier to reach more of those "billions" of people.
That lens suggests the Parrot Analytics data is telling two stories:
Given the growth of piracy, and that Disney+ is nowhere near Netflix’s reach, that story is not surprising. But, given Disney+’s low price point relevant to other streamers, it is a little bit surprising.
What doesn’t add up for me is how a “weird”, imperfect MCU show is succeeding with both groups of audiences, globally, in a way that “weird” MCU content should not.
Arguably, at #1 worldwide, WandaVision is at Avengers: Endgame levels of demand for a show whose Rotten Tomatoes scores (92% critics, 80% fans) mathematically mirrors the difference between critical and audience reactions to the quirkier Ant-Man and The Wasp (87% critics, 75% average audience score) than to Avengers: Endgame (94% critics, 90% fans).
In terms of box office, Avengers: Endgame is #1 all-time, and Ant-Man and the Wasp is 19th of 23 MCU movies, to date. If past is precedent, WandaVision is over-performing with audiences as MCU content.
Signals from available data and critics chatter is that “weird” and imperfect is over-performing extraordinarily with MCU Universe content, both paid and free. Something else, something more is going here.
There are two simple, obvious answers. First, lying in these few quantitative and qualitative signals from the market suggest that Disney has hit the jackpot with Disney+, even in the implied piracy. There are audiences Disney is serving unusually well, and there are audiences in the “billions” they still have yet to reach.
Second, a simpler takeaway: there is rabid demand for MCU Universe content that the Disney “flywheel” had built up for 2020 and, pre-COVID, was ready to serve starting with Black Widow last May, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier last August, and then WandaVision in November 2020. With delays, it has been simply unmet for over nine months, now, and WandaVision is now meeting it, albeit imperfectly.
So, as an imperfect show that is over-performing relative to past imperfect MCU content, WandaVision tells us just how rabid, or inelastic, demand is worldwide for MCU content. But, it still doesn’t feel like a reliable signal for what’s to come for Disney+.