Dirt: WandaVision is surveillance capitalism

All Marvel content is marketing for all other Marvel content.

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Watch: WandaVision (Disney+). John Fischer reviews Marvel’s latest offering, a fantasy that mostly serves as an on-ramp to more Marvel content.

I have to admit that I don’t know much about the entertainment behemoth known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe other than that it involves an endless parade of interchangeable superheroes and that its movies alone have grossed $22.5 billion dollars worldwide, roughly the GDP of Iceland. I get suckered into watching one every couple of years, like Guardians of the Galaxy before Chris Pratt was soft-canceled, or Logan before we all stopped flying on planes.

But how could I say no to the Marvel show WandaVision, which completed its first-season run on Disney+ this past week? The subscription was free, and the promotional ads promised something that seemed altogether novel: a cheerful housewife and a burgundy-colored robot-man transposed into a Dick Van Dyke sitcom set. Plus I’d seen a few of those delightful Kathryn Hahn reaction GIFs that recently made the rounds on Twitter, and she is a national treasure. So I binged it. And by the time, several days later, that the dust had settled on the fictional New Jersey town of Westview, I was sure of two things. WandaVision was a pretty okay show, and also I had been the mark in an entertainment industry short-con that has largely come to define the way we consume content nowadays.

On its face, the show is about a superpowered woman named Wanda Maximoff, who is so immured in grief over the death of her super-intelligent flying robot husband Vision that she constructs a synthetic universe from the television shows she loved as a child, and then populates it with her dead husband’s memory, a couple of kids, and a thousand or so forcibly-brainwashed humans. For most of WandaVision’s arc, the plot plays out via show-within-show episodes of Wanda’s old Nick at Nite favorites — cheeky simulacra of Bewitched and Full House, complete with period-appropriate commercials. It’s clever, and the small details are so painstakingly attended to that you can forgive it for being a commercial rip-off of the kind of meta-narratives that George Saunders and Steven Milhauser were writing in the 1990s. 

Even when WandaVision’s last two episodes go full CGI superhero brawl, you can hardly fault it. The emotional beats have all been in the right places: Wanda’s Kübler-Ross journey from denial to acceptance of her husband’s death mapping perfectly onto the “what exactly is happening in Westview?” mystery of the week; the emergence of the show’s true villains coinciding with Wanda’s recognition of her own internal demons. It even makes room for a pair of plucky POC sidekicks (and Kat Dennings!) who do the work of anchoring the show to its larger franchise frame, while simultaneously covering for its preoccupation with white trauma. As a television show about television shows, WandaVision is great at its job.

But WandaVision is also about something else, which has nothing to do with superheroes and everything to do with whether I’ll pay for my Disney+ subscription once my free trial expires. It is, in its arrangement of plots and characters and credulous references to Infinity Stones, a clear example of how entertainment and technology companies now treat their audiences less like people and more like a natural resource for exploitation. That what I am really watching, as I watch Wanda metamorphose into something called The Scarlet Witch or Vision say a tearful (if dubiously final) goodbye to his wife, is the equivalent of a shell-game being played. 

WandaVision’s plot and characters and emotions have been perfectly constructed to move me from this entertainment property to the next: the next show, the next recommendation, the next subscription cycle. So too it goes with the associated internet explainers and hot takes, the memes and recaps, which are really just straw spun from existing content in order to direct my eyeballs towards new content. Each multimedia extravaganza is a more or less explicit advertisement for the next, and the rest — which pushes the viewer to hit the subscribe button to gain access. 

Since the invention of the soap opera, entertainment has existed largely in the service of its commercial benefactors. For decades, the role of content has been to provide a vehicle for commercial messages, something known in the advertising industry as the “interruption model.” You tolerate the ads so you can find out what happens at the end of the show. But according to Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age ofSurveillance Capitalism, in a data-driven world, the relationship between content producers and content consumers has changed. As people interact with information products like social networks and streaming services, they create behavioral data that can be harvested by companies for little or no cost, which can in turn be used to influence people’s behavior at scale. Behavioral data, she argues, is replacing financial capital as the fundamental unit of value in the global economy. And as a result, audiences are no longer just valuable as recipients of commercial messages, but as producers of data and optimizable behavior.

It is in this respect that WandaVision is perhaps most successful. Already the internet is serving me ads for something called The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, for which I am not exactly interested, but at least now ambiently aware and passingly curious. Assuming I watch it, I imagine I will be nudged incrementally closer to whatever blockbuster movie Disney has slated for this summer. This is the age of the algorithm, after all, where anything you consume is simply a preview for your next act of consumption. As much as I enjoyed watching WandaVision, I wish it wasn’t quite so effective at watching me back. — By John Fischer

The Dirt: It’s an advertising cinematic universe.