Features and Columns · TV

‘What If…?’ Allows Peggy Carter to be the Hero We Always Knew She Was

Marvel Studios may never properly acknowledge the ‘Agent Carter’ series, but ‘What If…?’ comes the closest to realizing Peggy as more than Captain America’s girlfriend.
What If Episode 1 Explained
Marvel Studios
By  · Published on August 11th, 2021

Marvel Explained is our ongoing series where we delve into the latest Marvel shows, movies, trailers, and news stories to divine the franchise’s future. This entry explores What If…? Episode 1 and how Captain Carter may be a new Avenger within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yes, prepare for SPOILERS.

A split decision separates you from your better self and your worst self. The choice to swerve right instead of left got you to where you are today. But in another reality, you went left, and that version of you is rich and famous and absent of regret. The only thing getting you through your daily life drudgery is the knowledge of the multiverse. That another you is thriving, and yet another you is suffering far worse.

Marvel’s latest Disney+ series celebrates the stories they could have told but chose not to or didn’t have the brain to foresee at the time (check out my review). In What If…? Episode 1 (“Captain Carter”), the animated adventure travels back to the franchise‘s early days, when skinny Steve Rogers refused 4-F rejection and forced his way under Dr. Erskine’s needle. Except this time around, rather than observing from the gallery, Peggy Carter remained in the room with all the mad science. And she sprung into action when the Hydra assassin detonated an explosive.

The small choice to stay ignites a chain reaction, leading to Dr. Erskine and Colonel Phillips’ demise and Steve Rogers getting gutshot. Unable to jump inside Erskine’s Super Soldier machine, Rogers dribbles fluids on the floor as he watches Peggy take his place. Captain America is no more; Captain Carter to the rescue.

Marvel’s Multiverse Brushes Against the ABC Shows

Observing What If…? Episode 1 alongside us is Uatu, The Watcher (voiced by Jeffrey Wright). He explains these cracked mirror versions of our favorite characters using the same language we learned during our time with Loki. In every choice, infinite possibilities reside. The timeline you live on exists because of a certain decision you made. Endless versions of you exist on endless branches, living the consequences of their cataclysmic selections.

The multiverse presents tremendous storytelling potential, letting Marvel Studios writers explore past narratives, and correct, or enhance missed opportunities. Nothing can take your Captain America away. His stories had purpose, but What If…? gives Marvel a chance to uplift certain supporting characters who maybe deserved better.

Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter was a definite highlight from Captain America: The First Avenger. Her impact on Steve is essential for selling the emotional relief achieved during Avengers: Endgame‘s climax. But we also sensed that Peggy had more to offer than being the badass former flame to Captain America, and that helped produce her own Agent Carter television series.

Those ABC Marvel shows are tricky to position next to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While they were happy to reference the movies, the movies rarely referenced them. However, Agent Carter is one of the few ABC realities to get a nod cinematically when James D’Arcy’s Jarvis appears in Endgame as Howard Stark’s driver. That cameo acts as an acknowledgment of how incredibly dynamic Atwell’s Peggy Carter was in The First Avenger, and it was a clue that we would be getting more of Peggy in the MCU’s Phase Four operations.

Captain Carter’s Comic Book Origins

Since Atwell’s time with the character, Peggy has also reclaimed a larger space within the comic book universe. In fact, the initial spin on Captain Carter appeared in Exiles Volume 3, Issue 3 in 2018. As explored in that storyline, her Steve Rogers was assassinated before he was given the Super Soldier serum, demanding Peggy to undergo the treatment. The Exiles Peggy Carter became Captain America, a mantle she somewhat disliked (being British and all), but eventually accepted as a proud resident of New York City.

For a short window, Exiles became a place where MCU ideas could be fleshed out. Joining Peggy’s Captain America were other multiverse castaways like Valkyrie (a spitting image for Tessa Thompson), Iron Lad (a Kang of another name), and Wolvie (a 2D cartoon version of the X-Men‘s Wolverine). Existing apart from Marvel’s main comic book continuity, Exiles was free to wreck the place and have fun throwing up on the wall whatever nutso idea popped into the writer’s head.

What If…? is a similar playground, stemming from Loki‘s madcap variations. Did you see how much online conversation was preoccupied with Alligator Loki and Richard E. Grant’s Classic Loki? What If…? hangs a whole series on that delirium while also guiding the MCU audience from the shallow end to the deep end of the alternate realities swimming pool where Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and SpiderMan: No Way Home could threaten to drown the uninitiated.

What If…? Episode 1’s Captain Carter offers a different kind of energy than Captain America. He was a solemn soldier who carried his sacrifice-obsessed family on his shoulders at all times. Captain Carter is not bogged down by such solemn duty. On the field, she busts Nazi and Hydra goons through a bellowing laugh. Her mission is a joyous one, an opportunity she’s hungered for since she joined the service and discovered a male wall blockading her from contribution. With the Super Soldier serum in her veins, all barricades crumble before her. And watching them tumble sparks uncontrollable, giddy laughter.

More Peggy Carter to Come

So, while some might be mad that not one frame from Agent Carter appeared in the character’s Legends Disney+ debrief, we must appreciate how Peggy has reworked her way back into MCU significance. What If…? Episode 1 reveals how Captain Carter achieves victory on fast forward when compared to her Captain America counterpart. On her first mission, she nabs The Tesseract (a.k.a. the Space Stone). This forces Red Skull (Ross Marquand) to plunge deeper into Hydra’s supernatural science, unleashing a Cthulhu-like monstrosity.

What If…?‘s first three episodes might not suggest a larger arc, but trailers and Episode 1’s climax present a different story. As our Captain America threw himself into the ice, Captain Carter pushes herself into the Red Skull’s void, disappearing into the Space Stone’s portal and reappearing where Loki originally did in 2012’s The Avengers. Now she’s a woman-out-of-time and the perfect hero Nick Fury needs for his superhero initiative.

It’s a safe bet that we’ll see Captain Carter lead a different set of Avengers against a different impossible threat later on down the season. The question beyond What If…? is whether or not these multiversal heroes will find their way to our previously established MCU characters? Will this cartoon have a more lasting influence than those rarely acknowledged ABC Marvel shows?

What If…? Episode 1 is now streaming on Disney+.

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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)