WHAT IF…? – Season One
Pivotal moments are turned on their head and the ramifications explored, as seen by The Watcher across the multiverse.
Having conquered cinema and made an impressive start on television this year (with WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Loki), Marvel Studios turn their attention to animation. What If…? is an anthology series inspired by the company’s popular comic-book strand, first published in 1977, which offers readers alternative versions of popular characters and events. They were only ever intended to be entertaining thought exercises, but this TV version debuts amidst Marvel films and TV shows that are teasing more involvement with the ‘multiverse’, making it feel likely these are canonical stories taking place across various divergent universes.
Nine episodes comprise the first season, with every story overseen by the mysterious Watcher (Jeffrey Wright), a god-like being able to see events in all these parallel universes but sworn not to interfere and change things. He also acts as a Rod Serling-style narrator most of the time, often melted into backgrounds, providing exposition as we dip into these weekly stories and ponder ‘what if…?’
The first episode was clearly intended to make a bold visual impact, as it contains many action set-pieces that are faithful interpretations of what Marvel does in live-action. The style of animation might not be the best when it comes to having characters emote through dialogue, but it captures the fluidity of human movement incredibly well. Here, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) is injected with the super-serum instead of Steve Rogers (Josh Keaton) during the chaos of a HYDRA attack, transforming her into muscular ‘Captain Carter’. She then goes on a disappointingly similar adventure to what Steve experienced in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), only with a Union Jack-styled costume and shield.
There isn’t much more to this premiere beyond a straight character swap that teases some 1940s-era gender politics that aren’t properly explored. The episode, written by A.C Bradley, is more interested in having fun and providing sheer spectacle, as it broadly follows the plot of The First Avenger. But in truncating a feature-length movie into a mere 33-minutes, a lot of character development suffers as a result. And while Atwell does a great job voicing Peggy again, it’s a shame Chris Evans isn’t playing Steve (who gets to become a proto-Iron Man here) and that Sebastian Stan is awfully wooden as Bucky Barnes.
A far more imaginative and consequential instalment, this episode did another character swap but the repercussions were wonderfully entertaining to see ripple out. Lifting from Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), in this universe Yondu (Michael Rooker) accidentally abducted an eight-year-old T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) instead of Peter Quill, meaning the adult ‘Star-Lord’ is now a black man full of confidence, charm, and regal grace. But rather than lazily repeat the Guardians film with Black Panther in the lead, the story cleverly imagines what a vast difference such a simple swap would have on the galaxy. The Ravagers become humanitarians trying to terraform inhospitable planets, and Nebula (Karen Gillan) isn’t tortured into becoming a cyborg by her tyrannical father Thanos (Josh Brolin) because the purple villain of Avengers: Infinity War (2018) is now a part of T’Challa’s gang!
This was one of the final performances Chadwick Boseman gave as T’Challa before his untimely death from cancer in 2020, and it works as a beautiful way to imagine he’s still around doing his thing in a neighbouring timeline. T’Challa is a more grounded character here, less weighted down by his role as a young King of Wakanda, and the story finds so many opportunities to play around with established lore while telling a thrilling sci-fi heist story. It even manages to make The Collector (Benecio Del Toro) a formidable villain, rather than the eccentric joke he was in the films.
Watchmen may have been a subtle influence on episode 3, as it boils down to being a murder mystery with Avengers candidates being killed before Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) got a chance to unite them in protecting Earth from Loki (Tom Hiddleston). The story runs through many of the MCU’s most iconic moments from Phase 1 but ending each one on a downbeat note. Tony Stark (Mick Wingert) is poisoned, Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) is blown up, and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is shot dead, etc. Fury and Black Widow (Lake Bell) lead an investigation into what’s happening to all the superheroes-in-waiting, and to be fair the reveal of the culprit makes sense and is a lot of fun to watch. It’s a more depressing story than the previous two, which gives it a little edge, even as a ray of light presents itself by the end.
If the previous episode was a little downbeat, this Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) adventure is outright bleak. In this universe, Strange’s girlfriend Christine (Rachel McAdams) dies in his terrible car crash, which becomes his impetus to learning the Mystic Arts instead of losing the use of his hands to perform complex surgery. He wants to use the Eye of Agamotto to reverse time and try to save her, but this becomes a twisted Twilight Zone-style story, with Strange unable to succeed in his mission because Christine’s death is an “absolute point” according to the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). But after taking it upon himself to risk reality itself by obtaining knowledge and power that could make it possible, Strange gets into all sorts of bother.
The great thing about this episode is how it could easily have formed part of a genuine pitch for Doctor Strange 2, even if some of the foundational elements weren’t part of Doctor Strange (2016) and the car crash would have to happen after Strange learned magic. But this tale really gets to the heart of Strange’s character as someone obsessive, stubborn, and a danger to himself and others if left unchecked. It reminded me of a Rick & Morty episode, in how things started off relatively low-key, then got progressively crazier after the halfway point. By the end, we have a ‘Strange Supreme’ in opposition to our goateed hero, and everything ends on a tragic note. Cumberbatch also delivered an audio performance that felt less restricted by the medium, perhaps due to his training and experience with British radio plays.
After a defeated Hulk is thrown back to Earth at the beginning of Avengers: Infinity War, the imminent arrival of Thanos is overshadowed by an unexpected zombie apocalypse. Unfortunately, key members of The Avengers have fallen victim to the outbreak, meaning Bruce Banner is forced to seek answers and help from Peter Parker (Hudson Thames), Bucky, Okoye (Danai Gurira), Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), and… um, Ant-Man’s convict friend Kurt (David Dastmalchian). It later becomes clear that a trip to the quantum realm was to blame for the virus, but reversing the damage requires getting out of New York City to find a survivor camp that allegedly holds a cure.
What If…? has enjoyed the veneer of thought-provoking adventures, for the most part, but “What If… Zombies?!” is little more than a crazy premise that allows for an enjoyable mash-up of Marvel and The Walking Dead (amusing that Danai Gurira is an actress with a foot in both camps, too). There’s merit to having an adventure where it’s mostly the non-superheroes who get to save the day—with assistance from Spidey and Bucky, of course—but there’s little time to explore anything here beyond the visual pleasure of seeing ‘Zombie Iron Man’ and ‘Zombie Captain America’. Much like the premiere, this story primarily exists for the set-pieces and is even more superficial. There are times when What If…? can feel like we’re seeing expensive storyboards for a movie idea they abandoned in favour of something else, and that’s never been more apparent than with this undead frivolity.
One might be forgiven for expecting a story where Eric “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) supplants Rhodey (Don Cheadle) as War Machine, but things go in a markedly different direction with this particular timeline. After reprising the opening of Iron Man (2008) with Tony Stark (Mick Wingert) attacked in Afghanistan, rather than be taken prisoner and thrown into a cave, necessitating his escape using “a box of scraps”, it’s Killmonger who saves the playboy billionaire and the birth of Iron Man is aborted.
Here, Killmonger manipulates Stark into building combat drones using vibranium and then uses them to attack Wakanda to reclaim his birthright. It’s less an alternative origin for Iron Man, and more a variation on Black Panther (2018). But can we crown Killmonger as the best MCU villain in terms of intelligence and forward-thinking now? Everyone else goes with dastardly plans that often require the aid of magical thingamabobs, but Killmonger gains people’s trust before he stabs them in the back… and, unlike Loki, he’s always a few steps ahead of everyone.
This mid-season episode isn’t as good as it could have been, mainly because it boils down to seeing Killmonger go after the throne of Wakanda a different way. Michael B. Jordan does decent voice work after a shaky start, as does Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa (with funereal scenes that are undoubtedly more emotional because he himself has passed away), and I even enjoyed the Robert Downey Jr. impersonation asked of vocalist Mick Wingert. There’s also a welcome return for Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), whose Afrikaans accent is always a delight. It’s another tale that sets up a sequel, which so many episodes do that it’s either intentional or a sign this half-hour format just enough to bring things to satisfying conclusions.
As premises go, the uninspiring title of this one didn’t bode well. The story recasts Thor (Chris Hemsworth) as a selfish, irresponsible partygoer without the influence of his tormenting half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), but it’s unclear why that particular change occurred just because Thor was raised alone. I assume it’s because he’s now after a closer bond with friends, so socialising has become a greater priority for him without a family companion over the centuries? Regardless, this is the most unashamedly comedic and cartoonish of the What If…? episodes, although exactly how funny you find it will be down to personal taste.
Hemsworth is on good form with an amusing performance that harkens back to Thor’s more boneheaded personality in Thor (2011), but it’s hard to buy into the premise that the God of Thunder’s partying could destroy the world, so SHIELD is forced to page “party-pooper” Captain Marvel (Alexandra Daniels) for assistance in ridding them of the drunken Asgardian and his intergalactic buddies. There’s an entertaining fight between the two super-powered characters (where aerial shots of the planet reveal countries have their names emblazoned across them, which makes no sense), and if you accept this episode as an unashamedly silly outing that isn’t as worried about leaning into its animated style… it’s enjoyable enough. But it’s also forgettable and stupid, doubles down on making Captain Marvel a figure of hate (with Thor even treating her as some toxic fans do online), resolved everything in an implausible way.
The penultimate episode finally continues one of the cliffhangers, as we’re introduced to a universe where Ultron (Ross Marquand) succeeded in stealing Vision’s body, wielded the Mind Stone, then defeated the Avengers before causing a nuclear holocaust. Rather improbably, only Black Widow and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) are still fighting the good fight against Ultron and his drone army, in a story that gives mixed success Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) the scope and weight that would later be deployed in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame (2019). Marvel has a tendency to rehabilitate earlier films that were seen as disappointments by giving them fresh context, or revealing they contained vital ingredients that came to fruition many years later. This episode certainly turned Ultron into a more credible Thanos-swatting supervillain, and “What If… Ultron Won?” goes big on spectacle and stakes.
In fact, I’m slightly worried this cartoon series is exploring the multiverse so vigorously ahead of what Marvel is doing in the live-action movies. They’re telling stories that would likely cost $300M+ with real actors, and I’m starting to wonder how anything in the MCU’s Phase Four can compete with some of the things being done here. In terms of plot, this is about as straightforward as What If…? has been all season, with a firm emphasis on action, destruction, and genuinely rousing fights. The Watcher finally takes a more proactive role in things, too, which we’ve been waiting to see happen for weeks, and the little guy certainly doesn’t disappoint.
The conclusion of the ‘Infinity Ultron’ story brings back characters to help The Watcher and ‘Dr Strange Supreme’ defeat the multiverse-destroying robot: Captain Carter, Killmonger Black Panther, ‘Party Thor’, T’Challa Star-Lord, and Gamorra (Cynthia McWilliams)—whose solo episode was cut due to COVID-19 production delays but will form part of season 2. The finale delivered much the same as episode 8: more excellent super-action and a sense of grandeur one could imagine seeing in live-action form.
The ‘Guardians of the Multiverse’ aren’t the best picks to defeat an entity like Ultron, to be honest, and it’s a shame The Watcher again takes a backseat once he’s recruited everyone Magnificent Seven-style to fight this supervillain. But it’s another visually impressive adventure with plenty to enjoy, even if it’s understandable to say you prefer the What If…? stories that are more character-based and tell stories that change decisions we’ve seen go the other way in the MCU. This is nevertheless an exciting mashup of Age of Ultron and Endgame, portraying enormous events in a compelling, imaginative way. Nothing more or less, but it’s undeniably enjoyable.
Overall, What If…? can be considered a big success with room for improvement. A lot boils down to what you want from an anthology series, but it’s concerning that Marvel’s chance to create something untangled from the MCU instead got sidetracked by serialisation towards the end. It’s also unwelcoming to newcomers because everything rests on knowledge of existing characters and famous events (otherwise twisting them into new shapes offers no pleasure), but that’s forgivable because I don’t know why any MCU virgins would choose to start here.
And while it was wonderful and unexpected to see What If…? deliver truly enormous spectacle, unencumbered by budgetary concerns that constrict even $250M Hollywood blockbusters, part of me is perplexed by Marvel seemingly diving into a multiversal conflict storyline the films presumably can’t touch now. Or at least not in the same way. I don’t see how you can raise the stakes higher than a supervillain trying to destroy every universe imaginable, but I guess that’s for the screenwriters of the next saga-ending Avengers movie to worry about!
USA | 2021 | 9 EPISODES | 2.20:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
writers: A.C Bradley & Matthew Chauncey.
director: Bryan Andrews.
voices: Jeffrey Wright, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Dominic Cooper, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Bradley Whitford, Ross Marquand, Darrell Hammond, Josh Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson, Jeremy Renner, Neal McDonough, Michael Rooker, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro, Kurt Russell, Ophelia Lovibond, Carrie Coon, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John Kani, Sean Gunn, Chris Sullivan, Seth Green, Danai Gurira, Fred Tatasciore, Brian T. Delaney, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Hiddleston, Clark Gregg, Jaimie Alexander, Frank Grillo, Lake Bell, Mick Wingert, Michael Douglas, Stephanie Panisello, Mike McGill, Alexandra Daniels, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Ike Amadi, Leslie Bibb, Paul Bettany, Evangeline Lilly, Paul Rudd, Jon Favreau, Emily VanCamp, David Dastmalchian, Hudson Thomas, Michael B. Jordan, Angela Bassett, Andy Serkis, Don Cheadle, Kiff VandenHeuvel, Beth Hoyt, Ozioma Akagha, Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Kat Dennings, Jeff Goldblum, Cobie Smulders, Taika Waititi, Rachel House, Josette Eales, David Chen, Max Mittelman & Clancy Brown.