Rice University’s Student Newspaper — Since 1916

Monday, August 15, 2022 — Houston, TX

Review: ‘What If…?’ is a worthy watch for Marvel fans

what-if-courtesy-disney-plus
Photo courtesy Disney Plus

By Will Cover     10/13/21 1:28am

Review: ★★★

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. 



More from The Rice Thresher

A&E 4/19/22 11:35pm
Summer Book Recommendations

With summer right around the corner, many students’ brains will finally have space for things other than organic chemistry or the latest coding problem that needs to be solved. Take this time to read for enjoyment again. The following are a series of summer recommendations perfect for time on a plane, by the pool or just on your couch. All incorporate travel in one way or another, and each has its own adventure that will leave you yearning for more. 

A&E 4/19/22 11:32pm
Review:‘The Northman’ sees Robert Eggers take his work to a larger stage

Robert Eggers is a filmmaker whose work has been defined by its small scale and intensive focus on characters. His prior films, “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse,” both feature a small cast and embrace environmental horror as terrifying events slowly pull the main ensemble apart. His reputation for his smaller scale and focus is partly why “The Northman” was so interesting upon its announcement — “The Northman” blows up Egger’s storytelling onto a massive scale. The locations, number of characters, and time period all dwarf his prior films. For the most part, Eggers steps up to the plate, succeeding in his ambition. “The Northman” will be available to watch in theaters April 22. 


Comments

Please note All comments are eligible for publication by The Rice Thresher.