MCU: What If...? (2021) | poster excerpt

‘What If…?’ Marvel Studios Tries Something Completely Different?

Marvel Studios’ What If…? on Disney+ is an intriguing animated and narrative exercise in the MCU, but why isn’t it as exciting as we anticipated?

What If...?
A. C. Bradley
MCU / Disney+
11 August 2021- (US)

What If…? The Episodes

The series starts on the right foot, though, with a spin on Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011). In episode one, “What If Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?” British agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) must become the world’s first super-soldier instead of Steve Rogers (Josh Keaton, replacing Chris Evans) during the Second World War. Steve, instead, becomes an Iron Man-like hero, and they fight Nazis and Hydra until Steve is captured (much like Steve’s friend Bucky in the main timeline). Carter discovers an interdimensional Hydra experiment and must seal herself in a portal to prevent a monster from coming through.

Seventy years later, she is retrieved by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), much like Steve was discovered trapped in ice in the main timeline. This is a fun episode, one of the best of the season, which is likely why it was first released. Captain Carter was popular enough to make a live-action appearance in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (Raimi, 2022), which is the only crossover from What If…? to the proper MCU so far. What If…? is off and running quite a feat, quite an episode.

The quality continues with a spin on Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn, 2014) by way of Black Panther (Coogler, 2018). In the former, Peter Quill is abducted from Earth as a boy and grows up to be a space-pirate “Ravager” who names himself Star-Lord. In “What If T’Challa Became a Star-Lord?” the Ravagers accidentally abduct the prince of Wakanda, and future Black Panther, instead. In this world, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is a charismatic, well-liked space adventurer who has even convinced Thanos (Josh Brolin) to give up his genocidal plans. He is approached by Nebula (Karen Gillan) to steal an item from the Collector (Benicio Del Toro). Along the way, he discovers that Wakanda has not been destroyed as he was led to believe.

This is another fun episode that allows Boseman to let loose with his full charisma, not held back by the royal stiffness that was essential to his character in Black Panther. Beyond his performance, this is a basic Guardians of the Galaxy-type caper. Not spectacular, but a good time.

After two generally good episodes, What If…? stumbles with episode 3, “What If Earth Lost Its Mightiest Heroes?” In this episode, all of the original Avengers, Iron Man, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Hulk, and Thor, are killed before the superteam is formed by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of SHIELD. The investigation leads to Hank Pym/Ant-Man (Michael Douglas), who is embittered by the death of his daughter, Hope, as a SHIELD agent. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) comes to Earth to avenge Thor’s death and partners with Fury to capture Pym.

After, Loki decides to remain to conquer Earth. This is a dour exercise that mostly asks, “What if your favourite characters were all horribly murdered?” It has shock value but little entertainment value and not a whole lot to say. I did appreciate the focus on Nick Fury, who is too often relegated to supporting positions. It is also a fun twist for him and Loki to become allies in contrast to their antagonism in The Avengers (Whedon, 2012). Overall, though, this is the first misstep. It is followed by the bleakest What If…? episode and possibly the best one.

In Doctor Strange (Derrickson, 2016), Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a renowned surgeon who severely injures his hands in a car accident and turns to the mystic arts to heal them. In “What If Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?”, Strange loses his girlfriend, Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), in the crash. He turns to the mystic arts to find a way to bring her back to life, breaking rules and threatening the space-time continuum. Ultimately, he becomes Strange Supreme, absorbing mystical beings to gain new powers. His actions tear his universe apart, and it collapses, leaving him alone.

This is not a fun episode, but it makes up for that with a strong character study. Strange is a character who will break any rule to get what he wants, and in the films, he has fortunately remained on the side of good. This episode depicts a scenario where he goes too far, ignoring the consequences, which is compelling. This is a story with something to say, making it one of the strongest episodes.

Episode five shares episode four’s bleakness and episode three’s desire to kill beloved heroes in creative ways, but it has nothing to say. “What If Zombies?!” is inspired by the Marvel Zombies comics that ran across five limited series from 2005 to 2010. In the episode, Hank Pym accidentally brings a zombie virus from the tiny Quantum Realm to the regular world. Two weeks later, a zombie apocalypse has ravaged the Earth. A small group of heroes travels to a military base to meet Vision (Paul Bettany), who has a cure. They lose members along the way, but eventually, T’Challa, Spider-Man (Hudson Thames, replacing Tom Holland), and the head of Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) prepare to broadcast the cure. Just then, Zombie Thanos arrives with most of the Infinity Stones.

Zombie horror films have become quite popular over the past 50 years, and there is some fun to be had by adding superpowers to the mix. The episode plays like a zombie B-movie, with a dwindling band of survivors trying to find safety or a cure and a downbeat ending. But unlike the best zombie stories, there are a lot of zombies for the sake of zombies and nothing much to say.

By episode six, “What If Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark?”, What If…? reaches three downbeat episodes in a row. Likely, the reportedly upbeat Tony Stark/Gamora episode that was delayed to season two would have broken up this dour stretch. As it stands, the series is a slog at this point and never fully recovers.

Episode six is a character study, like the Doctor Strange episode, which at least gives it more of a point than Zombies. It supposes that Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), the memorable villain from Black Panther, saves Tony Stark (Mick Wingert, replacing Robert Downey Jr.) from capture in Afghanistan at the very beginning of Iron Man (Favreau, 2008). In Black Panther, Erik manipulates many sides to infiltrate Wakanda and take the throne from T’Challa. This episode sees him execute a similar but more intricate plan. He gains Stark’s trust to build a drone army, attracting the attention of T’Challa. Erik then murders T’Challa and Stark, sparking a war between the United States and Wakanda. He helps Wakanda defeat an attack, earning him the title of Black Panther and King.

It is harder to root for Erik than for Doctor Strange. This is not a good man who loses his way through grief but an ambitious, largely-immoral man who achieves his goal through a calculated series of murders and deceptions. It is impressive to watch his plan unfold, however. This is also the third episode to murder Tony Stark, the main character of the MCU up to this point.

After such dour seriousness, episode seven is a breath of fresh air. In “What If Thor Were an Only Child?”, Odin, the King of Asgard, does not adopt the baby Frost Giant, Loki, as his son. Therefore Thor (Chris Hemsworth) grows up not only without a sibling but also without a trickster constantly humbling him. The result is a boisterous, incredibly entitled god of thunder with major “rich kid bro” energy.

When Odin falls into a coma-like sleep and Thor’s mother, Frigga (Josette Eales, replacing Rene Russo), goes on a trip, Thor decides to throw a massive party on Earth. Aliens from all over the cosmos drop by to visit, notably one of Thor’s best friends, Loki the Frost Giant (Tom Hiddleston). Soon the whole planet seems enraptured in the destructive good time, including astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). SHIELD, led by Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), tries to stop him by calling in Captain Marvel (Alexandra Daniels, replacing Brie Larson) and then a nuclear strike. To avoid disaster, Jane reaches out to Frigga, who shuts the party down.

This is the one purely comedic episode of What If…?, and it is a very good time. It is like a high school or college house party film, but the house is Planet Earth, and the host is a massively powerful alien. It ends when someone calls the superhero’s mom to shut him down and tell him to clean up his mess, humbling him for possibly the first time. It is a sheer delight.

Episode eight, “What If Ultron Won?”, returns to seriousness, but at least with a season-ending objective in mind and a break in format. In Avengers: Age of Ultron (Whedon, 2015), Tony Stark and Bruce Banner create an advanced artificial intelligence system to protect Earth, but it turns on humanity. In this episode, Ultron (Ross Marquand, replacing James Spader) defeats the Avengers and destroys humanity in a nuclear holocaust. It then defeats Thanos, gains the all-powerful Infinity Stones, and begins to wipe out natural life across the universe. Ultron is so powerful at this point that it hears Uatu’s narration, alerting it to the existence of the multiverse. Ultron attacks Uatu, and they fight across the multiverse until Uatu flees to Strange Supreme for help.

Meanwhile, Black Widow (Lake Bell, replacing Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), survive Ultron’s initial onslaught long enough to create a computer virus, Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), that can defeat Ultron. This is the penultimate episode of the series, and it is full of twists. Ultron is not the first to notice Uatu, Strange Supreme did so in episode four. But Uatu’s narration allows Ultron to discover and threaten the multiverse. This is Uatu’s fault, and this mistake leads to him breaking his oath of nonintervention by orchestrating events in the final episode. It is here that What If…? begins to pull together threads from what felt like a disconnected series of episodes up to this point.

In the ninth and final episode, “What If the Watcher Broke His Oath?” Uatu assembles a team consisting of Captain Carter (episode one), Star-Lord T’Challa (episode two), Strange Supreme (episode four), Black Panther Killmonger (episode six), Party Thor (episode seven), and a Gamora (Cynthia McWilliams, replacing Zoe Saldana, from the delayed episode), to be his Guardians of the Universe to defeat Ultron (episode eight). They confront Ultron in one universe, and Strange summons a horde of zombies (episode five), but they are defeated. The Guardians then find Black Widow and her virus. Zola takes over Ultron, ending one threat, but Zola then turns on the heroes. Killmonger steals Infinity Stones to fight Zola. Uatu traps Zola and Killmonger in a pocket universe, to fight forever without threatening anyone else.

The multiverse is saved. The Guardians are returned to their universes, except Black Widow, who travels to the universe Loki is attempting to take over (episode three) and defeats him.

Honestly, this final episode sticks the landing so well that it nearly redeems the entirety of What If…?. It ties together characters and loose ends from eight preceding, seemingly disconnected episodes (and one yet-to-air episode) in an exciting, satisfying conclusion to the season. Very impressive. Even so, the show is constrained in both the writing and the visuals in disappointing ways for a show freed from the limitations of continuity and live-action. The animation style is interesting but not used in particularly exciting ways. The voice cast is mostly true to the films, but sometimes distractingly not. Some stories have interesting twists, but some fall flat. More often than not, the show veers into joylessness or carnage.

What If…? premiered in August 2021 and ran until October. It remains an intriguing narrative and visual experiment for Marvel Studios. As the Marvel Cinematic Universe expands, and as the concept of the multiverse becomes more of an integral concept in the MCU, I hope future seasons become more visually and narratively daring. It will also be interesting to see which elements if any, transfer into live-action MCU films.

What If…? could be used as a testing ground for wackier concepts before they are shifted to films. Regardless of the quality and legacy, I am glad Marvel Studios took a chance on something different. I hope they continue to test their boundaries in terms of narrative, structure, and media.

Credits Scene(s)
In the mid-credits of the final episode, Black Widow and Captain Carter find the remains of Steve Rogers’ mechanical suit from episode one with someone alive inside.

First Appearances
This season’s only new cast members were voice artists taking over for live-action stars. I presume they will be back for season two.

Marvel Cinematic Universe Viewing Order
What If…? is too much of an outlier to place into the larger viewing order. First watch Avengers: Endgame. Season one does not touch on anything after Endgame, so it will fit nicely as a wacky postscript for everything that came before.

Next Time: The Marvel Cinematic Universe debuts its first all-new superhero in 2.5 years with Shang-Chi.