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To hear the Watcher tell it, Marvel’s What If…? is “a prism of endless possibility” — an anything-goes sandbox where the wildest hypotheticals can be realized, freed from the obligation to fit into the established Marvel Cinematic Universe canon.
The animated Disney+ series devotes each of its episodes to a different alternate-universe scenario, ranging from the straightforward (the first episode answers the question “What if Peggy Carter became the first super-soldier?”) to the zany (“What if zombies?” seems to be the core concern of an upcoming episode). In theory, this is thrilling. It’s an opportunity for Marvel fans to revisit and reconsider the stories they already hold dear — to see a favorite character in a radically different context, or to ruminate on themes only lightly glanced over by the movies, or simply to enjoy the satisfaction of seeing a lingering possibility to a logical end.
Airdate: Wednesday, Aug. 11 (Disney+)
Cast: Jeffrey Wright, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Bradley Whitford, Chadwick Boseman, Michael Rooker, Benicio del Toro, Samuel L. Jackson, Clark Gregg, Tom Hiddleston, Michael Douglas
Executive producers: Brad Winderbaum, Kevin Feige, Louis D'Esposito, Victoria Alonso, Bryan Andrews, AC Bradley
But there’s only so far even the Marvel multiverse can stretch, as is made clear by the first three episodes given to critics, and some what-ifs prove vastly more compelling than others. That Peggy Carter episode? It’s a lovely idea turned into a lukewarm Captain America: The First Avenger rehash, dusted with vague female empowerment themes. The third episode, in which Nick Fury’s campaign to recruit the Avengers is derailed by a string of deaths, has still less to offer in the way of emotional or thematic depth, and can’t even scrape together a satisfying solution to the mystery it presents.
On the other hand, the second episode — a zippy heist set in a galaxy where T’Challa, rather than Peter Quill, became Star-Lord — combines the goofiness of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies with the earnest heroism of Black Panther to delightful effect, and in the process allows Chadwick Boseman to voice a lighter, funnier version of his beloved character. It’s easily the best of the three, and the only one that comes anywhere near shedding new light on familiar territory, or imagining how dramatic the ripple effects of such a change could be.
While the stories vary in genre, theme and ambition, all enjoy a boost of gravitas from narration by Jeffrey Wright, playing the aforementioned Watcher — an omniscient being whose function here is basically to be Rod Serling in The Twilight Zone. Less fortuitously, all episodes also share an animation style that sits awkwardly between hand-drawn 2D and computer-generated 3D, resulting in several scenes that veer too close to the uncanny valley. It doesn’t help that some of the voice performances verge on robotic. Though the cast mostly consists of actors reprising their live-action roles, some apparently need to be seen in order for their charisma to come across.
But the strongest, and most disappointing, through-line turns out to be a pesky sense that the real question here isn’t “What if?” but “So what?” The pragmatic answer likely has to do with Marvel’s plans for the next few years. Between Loki, WandaVision and next year’s Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, it seems clear that alternate realities will be to the next run of MCU projects what Infinity Stones were to the last; the seemingly random queries posed by What If…? could very well prove relevant to some Avengers movie later on.
As a creative endeavor, the point of the exercise is less clear. It’s not that these concepts can’t be fun. Episode two is worth the price of admission just to hear Nebula (Karen Gillan) flirtatiously refer to T’Challa as “Cha Cha.” A viewer who’s already deeply invested in the MCU might find fleeting satisfaction in playing spot-the-reference with Nick Fury, or ooh-ing and ahh-ing at the visual of Peggy Carter finally picking up the vibranium shield for herself.
Dare to hope for more than superficial amusement, though, and What If…? tends to disappoint. Sure, it’s nice to see Peggy get the superhero treatment — but what’s fundamentally different about a universe with a Captain Carter instead of a Captain America? Why show us a world with a different roster of original Avengers if we’re not going to stay in it long enough to see what impact it had on the rest of the timeline? It’s possible future episodes will do a better job of balancing big concepts with a half-hour run time, or that the season is building to some grander design. If that’s the case, What If…? is taking its sweet time showing what it can do.
As it stands, what stands out is not the series’ ambitions or its potential, but its limitations. What If…? promises to be a space for the kinds of weird or challenging or just-plain-silly ideas the live-action properties will never touch — but then, presented with these playful hypotheticals, it can hardly muster enough curiosity to wonder what happens next. Moment to moment, it’s occasionally successful as fan service for diehards. (Again, I maintain that Peggy deserved to be a top-tier Avenger all along.) But for a series set in the infinite vastness of a multiverse, What If…? is dreaming awfully small.
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