Hot on the heels of WandaVision, Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Loki, Marvel and Disney+ have returned with their latest collaboration, Marvel’s What If? Where the franchise’s first three shows had all been live-action, What If marks the first animated Marvel/Disney+ series, though certainly not Marvel’s first. Though not part of the MCU, Marvel has previously enjoyed success with beloved animated superhero shows including Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and The Spectacular Spider-Man – setting a high bar for this new addition to Marvel’s already sizable expanded universe. Despite some issues with pacing and a relatively mixed bag of one-off concepts, there’s more than enough charm, imagination, and pulse-pounding excitement to make What If? a worthy addition to Disney+’s Marvel repertoire.
What If? Is an animated anthology series that follows a mysterious figure named “The Watcher” (Jeffrey Wright) observes alternate realities in which key moments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe take a different turn. The first three episodes (as their respective titles imply) ask ‘what if’ Peggy Carter was injected with the super serum instead of Steve Rogers (“Captain Carter”), ‘what if’ T’Challa was abducted by Yondu (“T’Challa as Starlord”) and ‘what if’ Loki successfully made it to earth (“Loki on Earth”).
Without question the most significant piece of ammo What If? has in its arsenal is an all-star lineup for its voice cast: with a few exceptions (including Chris Evans as Captain America and Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man), nearly all major stars from the MCU reprise their roles from the live-action films, including the late Chadwick Boseman, whose What If? episode “T’Challa as Starlord” is his final outing as the iconic king of Wakanda. While the voice cast is certainly impressive, though, and will certainly be a draw for many, What If? is a series that (by design) is more interested in exploring new story beats and narrative possibilities as opposed to diving deep into individual character arcs.
Though episode two is an exception in that it including a heaping spoonful of both character work and outlandish plot developments, What If’s central conceit means that while the Marvel A-listers may be present, they’re not all that necessary, nor do they have a ton of wiggle room to shine in the roles that made many of them stars. While it’s good to see Hayley Atwell return as Peggy Carter, it isn’t entirely necessary: whether due to inexperience in voice acting or just weak writing, the presence of one of the franchise’s original actors doesn’t make or break the story – as evidenced by Steve Rogers working exactly as well as he does in the films, despite being played by an entirely different actor.
So, with franchise-long character arcs erased by virtue of the show’s premise, the burden falls to the strength of What If?’s individual episode concepts – and how the writers expand on them past the initial logline – to truly propel the series forward: and for the most part, the format works incredibly well, albeit with a few weak spots. The most significant hurdle the series faces is pacing: because each episode only has 30-45 minutes to play through the entire (altered) plot of a two-and-a-half hour film, the structure of each episode feels like a speedrun through whatever marvel movie it’s based on, skipping over certain plot points entirely and only slowing down to highlight a change from the original.
The result gives each episode a thinly-strung plot, (again, just diet versions of the films they’re based on) but what they lack in cohesiveness, they more than make up for in originality and sheer joy. What If? works as a concept because it engages the audience’s sense of wonder: the joy of imagining alternate scenarios that moviegoers so rarely get to see realized on the big screen. While the strange pseudo-rehashings of Marvel films are frustrating, What If? is still able to swing for the fences with outlandish concepts, and explore whatever ridiculous concepts it wants to without the burden of setting up future sequels and tying into the larger franchise.
This newfound freedom is put to better use in some episodes than others – “Captain Carter” follows Captain America: The First Avenger nearly beat for beat, merely swapping Peggy Carter with Steve Rogers, and thus switching the general underdog/’skinny kid from Brooklyn’ struggle Steve faced to a narrative more centered around feminism and misogyny in the WW2-era American military. The episode’s more grounded, down-to-earth tone and premise also lends well to showcasing What If?’s 3D animation – stylized to look like 2D – that highlights the creatively-choreographed fight scenes and makes creative use of lighting to create moody, eye-catching tableaus. But while it’s fun to see Peggy beefed up and knocking Nazi skulls, and “Captain Carter” serves as a solid introduction to the show’s premise, it pales in comparison to the spectacle and outlandishness of “T’Challa as Starlord,” without a doubt the series’ strongest episode.
Where “Captain Carter” and “Loki on Earth” struggle to find emotional resonance beyond surface-level trappings, “T’Challa as Starlord” builds on the original thematic ideas explored in Black Panther– namely T’Challa’s internal dilemma of wanting to help others and share his resources with the world, while also having a duty to keep his home safe from the outside world. Abducted and no longer beholden to the pressures of the throne, we get to see T’Challa traveling the universe with a rag-tag group of reformed baddies (including a certain wrinkly purple titan) acting as a galactic Robin Hood – certainly a silly premise, but also one that feels incredibly true to the core of the character, and an odd interlude that works as a pseudo spiritual successor to the original Black Panther film.
Rounding out the trio is “Loki On Earth” which (without spoiling the actual premise of the episode) is without a doubt the most drastic departure from the original narrative of the films, and the riskiest change that What If? explores. Unfortunately, though, when confined to a single <45 minute episode, “Loki On Earth” spends too much time jumping from plot point to plot point, and not enough time letting audiences resonate with the repercussions of what we’ve just witnessed. It also struggles in terms of the final ‘reveal’ at the end of the episode – though it’s structured as a mystery, the payoff is weak, and the actual “Loki on Earth” element feels shoehorned in as an afterthought as opposed to the central tenant the episode is built around.
Even with episode three falling short of its predecessors, the beauty of What If?’s premise is that audiences can (hypothetically) hop from episode to episode – checking out concepts that interest them without having to stick around for entire episodes dedicated to characters they may not like. With a (literal) infinite universe of far-flung ideas to draw from, an all-star voice cast, and gorgeous animation that maintains the cinematic scope of the films, What If? is an exciting, unorthodox (albeit rough) exercise in ingenuity for the MCU.
What If? premieres exclusively on Disney+ August 11 with new episodes airing weekly.