Marvel’s strategy of planning a year’s worth of TV series to link up the end of its massive Infinity War saga to the new Multiverse plot lines would probably have been a successful one even if we weren’t all stuck at home more than before. As the finale of Loki left the threat of warring parallel universes a very real possibility, What If…? takes the opportunity to explore how things might have turned out in a side alley set of dimensions.
As the first in-house animation from Marvel Studios, there has surely been no better opportunity for the ‘comic books come to life’ mantra than What If…? A sense of continuity is upheld by the series using the same actors as the live-action material to voice their drawn counterparts including, touchingly, the last performance from Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa before his untimely death in 2020 aged just 43.
Given free rein to strike out into the unknown should lives have taken different turns, What If…? certainly plays things safe to start with. Opening story ‘What If…Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?’ essentially squeezes the plot of the first Captain America movie and switches out Steve Rogers for Peggy Carter as the recipient of the super-serum. What follows deviates so minimally from the original movie that the question left on your tongue might be, ‘What If…They Hadn’t Bothered?’
Thankfully things get more interesting afterwards although still leaning hard on established Marvel plots. Even if the sequences in the murder mystery infused ‘What If…the World Lost Its Mightiest Heroes’ are lifted mostly from the first few Phase One movies (Thor, Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, etc.), the framing of the story allows for a much more playful tone. After all, if you are going to use a side-dimension to gleefully kneecap the burgeoning Avengers in one story then the knock-on effects need room to have fun.
Tellingly the stories that stand out are those that take more than a side-step from the source. ‘What If…T’Challa Became a Star-Lord’ is a delightful mash-up we didn’t know we needed, where swapping out the conceited and childish Peter Quill for the selflessly calm and composed T’Challa has far reaching effects, beyond simply being wonderful to hear the warm tones of Boseman again. Where Peggy Carter essentially re-trod Steve Rogers’ shoes (except with some low level, ‘A WOMAN?’ sexism), the way things take a totally different fork in the road with T’Challa in space is a joy.
Similarly, the much darker themed, ‘What If…Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?’ commits to a character exploration should good choices had been replaced by bad ones. If Strange’s motivations for seeking out the mystical arts had been to obsessively control the uncontrollable, rather an initially selfish desire to regain his own skill, how would this potentially multiverse warping wizard have faired? Indeed, such a plotline leaves open many questions, considering the prominence of the multiverse in Marvel’s upcoming content.
Binding all of these plots together is The Watcher (Jeffrey Wright), who acts as an omnipotent overseer. His moralistic narration will be familiar to anyone used to anthological stand alone story series (such as The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits), and indeed as the series progresses his presence becomes notable. The rich timbre of Wright’s voice suits this character well, and provides a needed unifying factor.
If you haven’t followed the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far then What If…? will likely lack any stand-alone narratives to pull you in. Arguably the preceding shows (WandaVision, Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki) had hooks to draw in the uninitiated thanks to some stellar performances. What If…? relies on twisting long established lore that will be difficult to appreciate if you haven’t done your homework. But for those who’ve had the notepad out, when the writers decide to snatch the pen out from under your nose and gouge a heavy line that bleeds through to other pages What If…? is the most fun.
Words by Mike Record