For a number of reasons, Marvel’s What If…? could turn out to be a milestone in the history of the shared cinematic universe later on down the line. Not only is it the franchise’s first animated series, and there’s plenty more to come given that a second season is already in development and talk of an entire animation studio devoted to Disney Plus content is gathering pace, but thanks to the events of Loki what transpires in the show is technically canon.
It’s no coincidence that Jeffrey Wright’s narration mentions the multiverse so often, when What If…? arrives less than two months after Tom Hiddleston’s time traveling adventure kicked the doors of the MCU wide open to the notion of alternate realities and fractured timelines. Maybe one day some of these storylines will be paid off in live-action, but based on the first three episodes that were made available for review, it’s not any of them.
The comic book run of the same name has been a firm fan favorite among readers for over 40 years, and the MCU’s What If…? sticks relatively close to the playbook. In fact, at times it’s a little too close, particularly in the first episode, which basically rehashes the majority of Captain America: The First Avenger with the obvious difference of having Peggy Carter be the recipient of the super soldier serum at the expense of an injured, and non-Chris Evans, Steve Rogers.
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As always, it’s a delight to have Hayley Atwell back in the Marvel sandbox, and the actress delivers the best vocal performance of the ensemble by quite some distance. The animation pops, the action scenes are exciting and the score is pumped full of old fashioned swelling themes to give it the feel of an old Saturday morning serial, but it still feels as though something’s missing. Whether it’s the 30-minute running time requiring plot beats to be rushed through breathlessly, Episode 1 is the safest by far that barely scratches the surface of a premise with infinite possibilities, but it’s still fun to imagine a world where Howard Stark puts Steve in a suit of armor so he can fight alongside the superpowered love of his life.
Episode 2, which features the late Chadwick Boseman as a version of T’Challa scurried away from Wakanda by the Ravagers and into the arms of Yondu, is comfortably the best of the first three. Of course, it’s bittersweet to hear Boseman’s voice knowing that he’s no longer with us, but he offers the perfect blend of the stoic heroism he brought to Black Panther with a dash of Chris Pratt’s roguish charm to turn his Star-Lord into a warm, funny and scene-stealing instant favorite.
Diving too far into specifics would be leaning far into spoiler territory, but let’s just say that Episode 2 is both the most entertaining, unexpected and surprising one of the trio we’ve seen. It riffs on Guardians of the Galaxy to a certain extent, but then spins off and tells its own story. If you ever wanted to see Karen Gillan’s Nebula as a femme fatale with long blond hair, then best prepare yourself. Special mention without a doubt should go to the only other voice actor who can challenge Boseman as MVP, and incredibly it’s Djimon Honsou’s Korath the Pursuer, a one-note henchman in James Gunn’s Guardians that pivots completely into a giddy fanboy who can’t contain his enthusiasm for the adventure he finds himself on.
In terms of the storytelling, Episode 3 is certainly the most ambitious, and drops several bombshells along the way that most audiences will never see coming. Essentially the Avengers Initiative in microcosm, the narrative weaves itself between Iron Man 2, Thor and The Incredible Hulk, all of which were established to have unfolded at roughly the same time, before a string of unfortunate and unforeseen events continually derail Nick Fury’s plans to unite Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, and the reveal of the episode’s big bad is a shocker to say the least.
Part of what makes Marvel’s What If…? so fun is that it bets heavily on the fact that you’ve seen most, if not all, of the movies that are being dissected, referenced, refitted and reinvented. It’s a smart call, because chances are that 99% of the folks who check out the show on Disney Plus will have seen every feature length installment at least once. As a result, it packs Easter Eggs on top of Easter Eggs, with dialogue exchanges and visual cues nodding to big hits from Phases One, Two and Three, and that familiarity with the previous material definitely enhances the experience.
On the other hand, the relatively brief running times don’t allow things a chance to breathe when there’s so much to get through, and the fact the first three episodes don’t seem to be connected at all gives What If…? the feeling of an anthology series as opposed to an intertwined set of stories that will eventually culminate in some sort of earth-shattering revelation.
Of course, there’s still another six episodes left to go, but The Watcher really lives up to his name by offering little more than exposition, and while executive producer Brad Winderbaum hinted that Captain Carter was the closest thing Marvel’s What If…? has to a lead, we haven’t seen any inkling of it just yet. As it stands, it’s a bright, vivid and often dazzling blast of fun that’s set to go down a storm with longtime fans of the MCU.