Review: ‘What If…?’ is a worthy watch for Marvel fans
At the heart of Marvel’s “What If…?” is, unsurprisingly, the question: “what if?” The series, which is the first animated entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is based on a popular comic book series of the same name. “What If...?” opts for a similar anthology format, with semi-standalone plots in each episode that eventually converge toward one storyline in the finale. Unlike the comic series, which has the expansive Marvel Comics’s canon at its disposal, the show opts for a smaller scope with only characters that have already appeared in the MCU. These creative guardrails on “What If...?” are the central problem of the show’s first season, which has flashes of immense storytelling potential amidst a more inconsistent affair.
When I first heard about “What If...?,” I was excited for the wealth of creativity the general format of the show afforded. As an animated show, the writers could explore a wide variety of universes and stories that budgets would otherwise constrain. Since it was set in alternate realities, there also weren’t the same consequences that killing off a character or trying an out-there story would carry in a Marvel movie. Certain episodes gave us glimpses of the high ceiling this show could reach in future seasons, but I was still left with the feeling that the writers were playing it too safe.
The basic concept of “What If...?” is to take some set of events in the movie, put a twist on it, and see how things would’ve played out differently. This led to incredibly fun episodes like “What If... Zombies?!,” where superheroes and citizens alike became zombies, inspired by the popular limited series “Marvel Zombies.” When “What If...?” strayed further from the established MCU, it was at its best, but it still had episodes that were frustratingly close to what we’d already seen.
The pilot episode, "What If... Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?," explores what would happen if Peggy Carter received the super-soldier serum rather than Steve Rogers. The rest of the episode follows events that are almost identical to the plot of the 2011 “Captain America: The First Avenger,” iterating on this movie little beyond the gender reversal. Captain Carter is an interesting character that I’m glad will be revisited in future seasons, but her introduction was uninspired.
This pilot episode was an early clue to another issue that would hold largely consistent throughout the first season of “What If...?” While Carter’s turn as the super-soldier made for a fairly fun episode, it lacked staying power because of its emotional emptiness. Operating on the back of a story that has already been told, all the emotional beats were far too predictable. It’s a common difficulty in superhero origin movies to cover the exposition needed to introduce a new world and set of characters while also creating emotional resonance. This is why the most well regarded MCU movies tend to be either standalone sequels or entries in the Avengers franchise. Using already existing characters serves as somewhat of a cheat to circumvent this roadblock, but with episodes that ran under 30 minutes it was difficult to give the characters time to develop. For instance, when Erik Killmonger (inarguably a top 3 MCU villain) was put in a drastically different story from “Black Panther,” the episode did little to add to his character.
These flaws aren’t overwhelming, though. “What If...?” often struggled when it tried to tell more emotional stories, but it was still a fun and low-commitment watch that should improve in future seasons. Somewhat counterintuitively, the best episodes of “What If...?” were those that focused on style over substance, like with the zombies or episode about Thor throwing a world-ending rager.
The true standout of this season, however, is the episode which is able to marry both depth and enjoyment: "What If... T'Challa Became a Star-Lord?” “What If...?” is home to Chadwick Boseman’s final performances in the MCU, and his central episode brings an infectious joy while offering valuable insight into its characters. A spin-off series from this episode was planned before Boseman’s tragic death, and it’s evident why.
As a first season, “What If…?” runs into the same issues which plague many of the MCU’s “first” movies. There just isn’t enough time to get to know these characters given the ambitious stories and limited time, and, consequently, the episodes succeed when they’re trying to be fun but fall flat when they aim for a more serious tone. Nonetheless, “What If…?” is worth a watch for Marvel fans, and the hints of excellence in this season bode well for the future.
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