Two weeks ago, I reviewed Star Wars: Visions, and praised it as a well-crafted deconstruction of the Star Wars mythos that examined the franchise’s narrative component parts and reconstructed them into a set of fascinating stories. This week I’m reviewing What If…?, which similarly aims to deconstruct another popular franchise (the most popular in the world, in fact), through the lens of a ‘what would happen if…’ gimmick. This twists the MCU’s various characters and plotlines into a combination of stories that span several different genres and tones. That use of the word ‘gimmick’ should clue you into my opinion of the show more than the cursory comparison to the excellent Visions, but, it suffices to say, What If…? fails to do anything that’s nearly as interesting as its premise might suggest, and is only barely saved from being a hard-skip by a solid final three episodes.
Some context is important: What If…? is an animated anthology television series based on the Marvel Comics comic book series of the same name, both of which explore how major characters and plotlines might be different if certain key aspects of the universe’s history were different. Each episode of the series (and each episode of the comic) begins with a being known only as ‘The Watcher’ introducing the audience to an important event that has occurred in the MCU, and then pointing to a twist in that event’s concept that has irrevocably changed how that story occurred. Changes range from small, like ‘what if Peggy Carter had taken the super soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers?’ to more large-scale changes like ‘what if the MCU experienced a zombie plague?’ While pretty much all of the show’s stories are interesting at least on a conceptual level, the actual execution of each episode leaves a lot to be desired.
As I implied earlier, most of What If…? is, at best, unremarkable, and, at worst, some of the most dull television I’ve watched in a while. The sixth episode of the series, “What If… Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark?,” is particularly noteworthy for being incredibly boring, despite starring such a notorious villain and showing some real promise in its concept. This episode actually illustrates a lot of what is wrong with most of the episodes: the whole season is rife with amateurish animation, mediocre dialogue, subpar voice acting, poorly paced plots, and inconsistent character decisions that make fan-favorite characters feel incredibly foreign to an audience that is likely already infatuated with them. Episode two, “What If… T’Challa Became a Star-Lord?” contains a lot of these problems but on a less severe scale, as does the following episode, “What If… the World Lost Its Mightiest Heroes?”
If there’s a single episode that is really hard to watch, though, it’s the pilot episode: “What If… Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?”. Somehow, What If…? manages to turn a fascinating and exciting concept into a poorly constructed retelling of Captain America: The First Avenger that strips any fun one might have with the premise as a result of how poorly the episode was written. Peggy Carter, a character whose story has been an integral part of the MCU’s lore (though the canonicity and importance of some of her adventures may be called into question) since she first appeared in 2011, is written here as an unoriginal, uninteresting, incredibly stock paragon-archetype that sees no character development in the only episode dedicated solely to her. The episode’s quality isn’t helped by the fact that its pacing is just awful; the dialogue in particular feels incredibly rushed, which makes the plot feel both contrived and haphazard, and that’s a pretty big problem since the episode is trying to fit an entire two-hour movie into 35 minutes. “Captain Carter” isn’t the worst episode of the series; that honor probably belongs to “Killmonger,” but I’d argue that it’s definitely the most disappointing considering just how much could have been done with the concept if it had been given enough room to breathe.
The series’ only saving grace is the fact that its final three episodes are, for the most part, actually ‘good’ without any qualifications. Episode seven, “What If… Thor Were an Only Child?” is a cute, self-contained adventure that harkens back to pretty much every comedy that’s been created in the wake of Animal House, in which Thor throws a giant party across Earth and is forced to deal with the consequences. It’s nothing too special outside of the concept and a few good jokes that only work in a superhero setting, but it’s at least worth a single watch. Episode eight, “What If… Ultron Won?” kicks things up a notch by starting with a really interesting concept that it then delivers upon consistently and without too many hiccups. Spoilers, but the interplay between the plot of the episode and the Watcher’s viewing of (and eventual interaction with) said events makes the whole thing a lot more interesting than pretty much anything else in the show, especially considering the implications it has for the future of the MCU. The season finale of Loki set up the multiverse concept that fans have been speculating about since the announcement of Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, which itself is likely to tie into the multiverse plot of Spider-Man: No Way Home. Superhero comics in general are brimming with multiverse plotlines, and thus far it seems like the MCU is veering into that territory for most of its Phase 4. Though it’s not necessarily clear how things will connect moving forward, it is interesting to see how What If…? establishes the rules for its multiverse concept.
Regarding the actual quality of the final two episodes, the animation sees a significant upgrade; Marvel definitely put all of their money in these last two episodes based on just how much better everyone moves and the significant improvement in the facial animations for each character.
The continued improvement of the animation combined with a plot that has actual stakes and proper pacing, makes these last two episodes a decent ending to a relatively lackluster show.
More than anything, I’m simply disappointed with What If…? It’s a show with a lot of potential; a lot of the episode concepts are really fun and there’s an obvious effort being put into things like character designs, explorations of unique stories, etc., but the whole thing just falls apart due to significant lapses of the fundamental rules of storytelling. Any story needs a build up and release of tension on both a macro-scale and a micro-scale, but most of the events that occur within the episodes of What If…? feel unimportant and uninteresting. It’s really too bad; I was curious about the show when it was announced and excited after hearing some of the episode concepts, but excellent ideas do not a good show make.
And don’t even get me started on episode five. Blegh, zombies.
What If…? is currently available for streaming on Disney+.
Featured Image Courtesy of Marvel Studios.