After a year-and-a-half hiatus, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is back — and stranger than ever.

Marvel on Friday officially commenced its fourth phase of stories with WandaVision, the MCU's first Disney+ original series. The show's two premiere episodes, which center around Elizabeth Olsen's Wanda Maximoff and Paul Bettany's Vision living a surreal, sitcom-esque suburban life under mysterious circumstances, offer a disorienting tribute to TV sitcoms and, ultimately, a delightfully weird launching pad for Marvel's next era.

As a quick recap: Wanda Maximoff, a.k.a. Scarlet Witch, is a member of the Avengers who gained enhanced abilities following experiments with the Mind Stone, while Vision is an android powered by that same Infinity Stone. The couple's romantic relationship ended tragically in Avengers: Infinity War when Thanos murdered Vision, ripping the Mind Stone out of his head to complete his Infinity Gauntlet and wipe out half the universe. Although Bruce Banner successfully brought back Infinity War's fallen heroes in Avengers: Endgame, because Vision was killed prior to Thanos' snap, he remained dead.

Cut to WandaVision, which has an intentionally confusing premise given those events: It follows Wanda and Vision living a peaceful life together in the suburbs, with the first two episodes plopping them into a fairly faithfully reproduced episode of a classic TV sitcom like The Dick Van Dyke Show or Bewitched. Not only are both episodes in black and white, with retro theme songs written by the Frozen songwriters, but the show was actually filmed in front of a real live studio audience. Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige has cited watching sitcom reruns on Nick at Nite as one of the inspirations for WandaVision, while head writer Jac Schaeffer told Entertainment Weekly the series as a whole is "a love letter to the golden age of television," though later episodes will continue through the decades all the way into the style of more modern TV comedies.

Sinister hints as to the true nature of this bizarre world are sprinkled throughout the first two episodes, each serving to unsettle the comforting sitcom formula. But a grand reveal as to how or why this is happening will have to wait for another week. Wanda and Vision are clearly inside some sort of fantasy world, but under what circumstances? What seems most likely is that Wanda retreated into a world of her own creation in which Vision is alive following the trauma she's experienced — in Avengers: Age of Ultron, we saw her give the Avengers lifelike visions — only to fully break with reality. But it could also be that some other force trapped her for unknown reasons. Presumably, the arc of the season will involve Wanda coming to this realization, accepting that Vision is dead, and returning to the real world.

But especially given that WandaVision is releasing on a weekly basis and not all at once, it's impressive just how committed to the bit these early episodes are. We're not talking about a brief cold open that pays tribute to the golden age of TV, only to snap back into something a bit more approachable. No, this is a two-episode premiere that spends the vast majority of its runtime playing out wacky sitcom hijinks with a fairly straight face, starting with the classic trope of things going wrong when the boss comes over for dinner. We know the show will eventually become more action heavy, but for now, we don't get a lot in the way of what one might expect after seeing that opening Marvel Studios logo, which is especially notable after 18 months of no MCU entries at all.

It's also surprising how in the dark these first two episodes are willing to keep audiences, perhaps to a degree that could frustrate viewers. Yes, there are moments throughout that acknowledge we're not really just watching an old TV sitcom and preview where this is going, but they're few and far between. Slashfilm's Hoai-Tran Bui wrote that WandaVision is "almost irritatingly dedicated to slowly playing out its mystery," while Uproxx's Mike Ryan wondered "what people will make of this who don't have a working knowledge of, say, Bewitched."

Keep in mind, this isn't some insignificant one-off, but apparently a critically important series for the future of the Marvel universe. Feige promises WandaVision "will have repercussions for the entire future of Phase 4 of the MCU,” e.g. all of Marvel's movies for the next several years. More specifically, it's tasked with setting up the events of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, which will also star Olsen. And, of course, it will serve to whet audiences' appetite for the very idea of Disney+ Marvel shows, hopefully leaving them eager to return for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki, What If…?, Hawkeye, and Ms. Marvel, all expected this year.

So the fact that Marvel is going out on such a limb with WandaVision, and starting the Disney+ train off with such an offbeat and potentially even off-putting set of episodes, is admirable. Of course, it wasn't always going to be like this. Before COVID-19, the start of Marvel's fourth phase was supposed to be Black Widow, and we were to see The Falcon and the Winter Soldier on Disney+ before WandaVision. But the way it worked out, debuting with WandaVision provides a shock to the system, a welcome one for those hoping Marvel will shake things up as it moves into a post-Endgame era.