‘What If…?’ is Out of Phase with the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Despite some modestly enjoyable moments, the first episodes of the animated series skip the pleasures found within most Marvel franchise properties.
Marvel What If The Watcher

Our review of Marvel’s What If…? covers only the first three episodes, which are what was made available to press ahead of the animated series’ premiere.

The Marvel TV series What If…? stirs a curious sensation. As if someone pressed rewind on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, jumping back to the early stories of Phase One, and punted their characters down different corridors.

Steve Rogers whiffs on the Super Soldier serum, Peter Quill skips his childhood alien abduction, and Tony Stark, well, he barely makes it out of his Iron Man 2 donut. Different heroes fill their shoes, and these alternate characters’ decisions radically alter the narratives, spawning a vast multiversal web. The result is half-hour episodes that feel equally refreshing and stagnant.

Stemming from the cataclysmic events seen in the recent Marvel series Loki, the animated What If…? reveals how every choice made births a new reality. Minor deviations amount to gargantuan modifications, the butterfly effect. Observing all of it is Uatu, The Watcher (voiced by Jeffrey Wright), cursed to see without ever partaking. As viewers, we understand his hell quite well.

The first few stories trample across well-trodden Marvel plots but delight in the personality shifts. With Steve Rogers dumped on the sidelines, What If…? Episode 1 has Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) picking up the shield and proving to be a potentially superior Captain. Maybe our Avengers got the raw deal.

Meeting variant identities of popular characters has always held an allure. We wouldn’t want to attach ourselves to Star Trek‘s Mirror Universe Spock permanently, but a short dalliance with his spiffy goatee is a flirty pleasure. Examining the differences between a Peggy Carter who went right instead of left allows us to consider the many forks we’ve encountered on our journey.

Am I the best me? It’s the type of question that burns in your noggin late at night when you should be asleep, but your eyes are wide, and your brain screams your failures on repeat. What if you had taken that job at Google? What if you had applied to NYU rather than your home state school? What if you had tackled that YouTube pasta recipe for dinner versus ordering the usual pizza from your usual fast food dealer?

There is a comfort and a horror to the infinite decisions you did not make. And What If…? bumps into both emotions. Witnessing T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) drastically rework the universe as Star-Lord strengthens his character, signifying the magnificence he’d fabricate around him no matter the environment. Space is better with him in it. And, clearly, Yondu will make sons with whomever. He’s a desperate father.

While not every actor reprises their character in animated form, those who do arrive fully charged. What If…? is not their cheat day. They bring it.

In the case of T’Challa, there’s an extra buzz that occurs in your ears when you hear Boseman speak. His final vocal performance adds gravitas to the show, and you want it to be as grand as he is. But this T’Challa is not Black Panther‘s T’Challa. He does not have a recently deceased father plaguing his heart. And surrounded by Ravagers, this T’Challa cuts loose with the jokes. It’s fun but also a tad uncomfortable, a final reminder that the actor is indeed gone, and so is our T’Challa.

Marvel’s What If…? is doing its own thing, peeking at possibilities. But the question in the title causes the viewer to dismiss the premise as the inferior tale. The one deemed not ready for primetime or cinematic release. Less “what if?” and more “so what?”

The alternate realities fail to elicit something substantial. What If…? appears drastically removed from the MCU’s current post-Avengers: Endgame emotional headspace. Instead, these stories are anchored in Captain America: The First Avenger, Iron Man 2, and Guardians of the Galaxy. Been there, done that.

Our Captain America throttled the Red Skull good. Watching Captain Carter jump through the same hoops, even though they are arranged upon a significantly truncated route, triggers boredom. You’re left aching for them to catch up to where we are.

Yes, there is a delight in hearing Atwell roar from within her animated Super Soldier. She tears through Nazis with a beaming exuberance never mustered by Steve Rogers. Cracking skulls is her jam. Her action sequences are lightning quick, punctuated by childish glee. She was as eager to get on the battlefield as skinny Steve, and now that’s she here, she’s going to have a blast busting Hydra thugs.

The glee is where the animation finds its life. Mostly, the series’ look is chained to its canon. What If…? is not free to bend in as many possibilities as its plot would suggest. The characters are trapped in the designs presented by their actor’s biologies. As such, the show looks a little stiff, but there are moments, in the action, when punches are thrown and received, where the cartooning is allowed to exaggerate and pop.

As presented, What If…?‘s first three episodes reveal little interconnectivity between each other or the larger Marvel universe. These dips into variant scenarios are modestly enjoyable, but what the MCU does that other franchises can’t seem to accomplish, is thrive on continuity. If these episodes remain glued to the one-and-done model, causing little impact on the worlds and characters we actually care about, then What If…? lacks purpose.

However, based on a quick scan through the show’s trailer, we’ve not seen the last of Captain Carter or the Wakandan Star-Lord. The first three episodes don’t propose a larger arc, but that doesn’t mean one is not forthcoming. Traditionally, in the comic books, The Watcher inevitably breaks down and interferes.

Jeffrey Wright is too good a voice to waste on a distant, absent-minded narration. He’s got to make a move at some point in What If…? And for The Watcher to do that, he’s got to fall for these characters, and for that to occur, we need a lot more time with them.

Marvel’s What If…? begins streaming on Disney+ on August 11th.

Brad Gullickson: Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)