What If…? Premieres on Disney Plus August 11, 2021
The interconnectivity of the stories of iconic heroes and villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe tie together for one grand saga that spans over twenty-three films in a decade. While that all takes place within one universe, the events of the “Loki” season finale explores the various timelines that branched out. And Marvel Studios animated anthology “What If…?” examines how one choice, one decision, one missed direction impact one specific universe to create new takes on some very familiar stories.
Based on the anthology Marvel Comic line of the same name, “What If…?” explores how the Marvel Universe might have unfolded if key moments in its history had not occurred as they did in mainstream continuity. But rather than adapt those specific stories, “What If…” explores the various branching timelines of that multiverse in which significant moments from the Marvel Cinematic Universe films occur differently. And The Watcher (Jeffrey Wright) acts as our guide through these vast new realities that ask the titular question.
In the three episodes that critics got to watch, “What If…?” takes a look at how choices, being at the wrong place, and acts of revenge can change the course of destiny for some heroes. For instance, what happens if Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) took the Super Soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers? Another question to ponder is what happens if T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman’s final performance as the character) became Star-Lord instead of King of Wakanda? And a third asks what would happen if Nick Fury’s plan to assemble a team goes disastrously awry? These stories are definite possibilities with the new timelines, and all are visualized through stylized animation. The beautifully rendered animation recreates familiar scenes with a slight twist because it fits the hypothetical questions that “What If…?” asks.
And the one to guide us on this journey is The Watcher (Jeffrey Wright), an all-powerful celestial being who observes the multiverse as it branches out. The Watcher narrates these stories providing much of the exposition while still staying a safe distance from the action to not interfere with the events that occur. As powerful as he is, do not expect the Watcher to sit back and do nothing as the MCU branches out into chaos.
But these episodes aren’t just shallow visualizations of hypothetical questions or cheap attempts to tell a familiar story with a slight twist by having characters switching places. They self-contained stories with an emotional-charged depth. Seeing them without that signature weaponry and in new settings gives fans a chance to see how they operate differently from their live-action MCU counterparts. Of course, seeing Captain Carter hurling the shield with the Union Jack insignia will be a delight, and seeing T’Challa earn respect as Star-Lord is a hilarious contrast to the reception that Peter Quill’s Star-Lord got in the “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
These changes only serve to heighten the enjoyment of the original story. It’s more than a hero fighting to save queen and country or an adventurous young boy traveling the galaxy and protecting it from crime lords. And these changes deepen our heroes’ characterization and add complexity to their lore. For Captain Carter, she’s always been a fighter, and since she got the Super Soldier serum, the outside matches the inside. The way people view her also has changed as she no longer has to scream to be heard or be seen in the same room. She finally got the respect that she deserves. Though there may be a few slight changes to the story we know, she is still very much the Peggy Carter of the MCU, just stronger and faster, and wields the shield. More importantly, her relationship with Steve remains unchanged, as the two await their chance to step onto the dance floor.
But not all of these “What If…?” origins stories are the same for our heroes. They may all have the same genre-bending twists that we see in any MCU film, but the overall themes have changed to fit the episode’s narrative. For T’Challa, it’s a matter of finding a family and fulfilling dreams of becoming an explorer, whether it’s on earth or in the stars. For him, his change in destiny wasn’t so much being at the right place at the right time, but Yondu’s (Michael Rooker) crew being at the wrong place at the wrong time – due to some confusion on Kraglin’s part because all kids look alike. So instead of picking up a young Peter Quill, Yondu welcomes the wide-eyed T’Challa to the Ravengers. Again, there may be a slight change in this story, but the father and son relationship that we saw in the live-action “Guardians of the Galaxy” films between Quill and Yondu, remains the same.
These changes go beyond switching places for having different roles for many characters in “What If…?” In his episode, we see T’Challa turning the Ravengers from intergalactic scrappers into the team of space-age Robin hoods and his Merry Men who believe that no treasure is worth as much as the good that could be done with it.
Despite T’Challa’s achievements as Star-Lord, he is unsure where he belongs in the grand scheme of things. But Yondu is there to give him some heart to heart by telling him that if he has learned anything from watching him, it’s that on any planet, among many people, there ain’t no place in the galaxy where he doesn’t belong. But he will have to follow his heart to find the answer to his questions.
The third episode puts a twist on Phase One’s recruitment of possible superhero candidates to become the Avengers, specifically Iron Man, Thor, and Hulk. It flips the script on those films by injecting unpredictable elements that force our surviving heroes like Nick Fury to make deals he wouldn’t typically make. In addition, this particular episode makes some bold changes that will drastically alter the Avengers roster in “What If…?” But the tragedy behind all of it makes it the darkest of the three. And how that affects that particular branch or “What If…?” as a whole remains to be seen.
But Captain Carter or T’Challa as Star-Lord aren’t the only characters going through changes. For some. the lead hero now becomes the supportive sidekick. For instance, Steve Rogers may still be that same sickly kid who hates the bully, but he gets some heavy metal muscle by piloting the Hydra Stomper, a giant indestructible metal mech built by Howard Stark. Then there is Nebula. She is still the daughter of Thanos, but instead of being an assassin seeking revenge on he father for all the atrocities he’s committed on her, she is a femme fatale working closely with T’Challa. And Korath the Pursuer is a silly contrast to his live-action counterpart as he idolizes Star-Lord.
It is fascinating to see how much of the dynamic between these characters can change due to one alteration. Though it provides a new way to look at our favorite characters, their spirit doesn’t change that much. It only deviates from the original to fit with their unique story that’s on screen.
Using animation as a medium to tell these stories in new ways is great for “What If…?” as it takes out the costly production of recreating expensive set pieces. Again, the anthology provides new ways to look at beloved stories, so we will see new twists on familiar scenes. Of course, telling what those specific scenes are from the episodes we watched would be spoiling it all, but MCU fans will immediately recognize those moments that are slightly altered.
While it is fun to see the actors reprise their roles as new heroes, it does come with a few downsides. First, the voice work is clunky at times as most of the actors enunciate as if they are reading off the pages of the script. And because of that, it lacks a certain cadence that other great animated series have. Secondly, the chemistry is off. Often, it feels like the characters are never in the same room even though they are. Finally, not all of the actors are returning to voice their respective heroes. We have associated voices like Robert Downey Jr. with Iron Man or Scarlett Johansson with Black Widow for a long time. So hearing someone else’s voice come out of those characters is more of a distraction than it is a determent to “What If…?”
Many of us have pondered that age-old question of “What If…?” in the MCU. So it is great to see how Marvel Studios jumped at the chance to tell those stories and allow fans not only to ponder those questions but see them answered in a stylized way that’s entertaining and also fun to look at. The animation provides an exciting new twist on how we see these characters and how their stories are told, and its editing is an homage to the comic books that inspired the new anthology series. And despite the minor flaws in the voice work, “What If…?” is an boldly animated new way to explore the multiverses that exist within the MCU.
Read our coverage from the What If? Press Conference.