What If…? is exactly what it promises to be, namely an anthology series set metaphorically within the Marvel Cinematic Universe which tells short stories that play around with established cinematic lore. While strikingly animated and generally compelling, each of the three sampled episodes end on a note that feels like a reassuring reversion to established status quo. There are nine episodes in total for the first season, and I’m hopeful that the next six don’t just take alternate routes to a familiar/expected destination.
The first of three episodes sent to critics, and the one airing tomorrow on Disney+, asks “What if circumstances caused Margaret “Peggy” Carter (voiced by Hayley Atwell) to end up receiving the super soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers? The answer ends up being not dissimilar to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, namely “totally the same story, but this time with a girl.” Yes, it’s fun seeing “Captain Carter” (Why not Captain Britain?”) do the superhero thing and deal with her expectedly chauvinistic superiors, but it’s still a lukewarm (and painfully overwritten) variation on the first (and still best) Captain America movie.
Moreover, Steve Rogers himself gets a co-starring role to play and the means to become a conventional hero right alongside his super-powered pal. The “how” of that is somewhat clever, and their relationship highlights the notion that Peggy fell for Steve Rogers and not Captain America. However, the extent to which Steve gets to play too feels condescending and patronizing, and it can’t help feeling like an olive branch to, uh, more insecure viewers. We’ve seen Carter be an action hero while rebuffing institutional sexism in the Agent Carter television show, so the episode becomes more redundant than inspired.
The good news is that the next two episodes are much better. The second is a riff on Guardians of the Galaxy, with the distinction being that it was T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman, in his final acting role) who was plucked into space as a child instead of Peter Quill. It’s a thrill to hear Boseman’s distinctive T’Challa vocals one more time, and the episode does the most in terms of really playing with its “butterfly effect” hook. No spoilers, but swapping T’Challa (still a rogue, but now a Robin Hood-ish do-gooder) for Quill leads to some stunning galaxy-spanning ramifications, most of them positive.
Swapping Quill for T’Challa doesn’t just offer an audio/visual facelift, but entirely new paths and choices for a whole host of MCU characters. It helps that, unlike some of the returning MCU actors (it’s a mix of vets and voice actors), Boseman really gets the whole “voice over is a different kind of acting” mentality. Moreover, the hook allows the show to do what it promised, which is to let Marvel characters who otherwise wouldn’t exist anywhere near each other to hang out and talk shop. The episode is a thrilling heist comedy, even if it too ends on a relative reversion to status quo.
The third episode probably goes the furthest with the elevator pitch, presenting a murder mystery that threatens to destroy Nick Fury’s Avengers Initiative before it even begins. We get to see a number of big Phase One moments (as well as a reminder that Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk and Thor all took place within a week of each other), but with unexpectedly disastrous consequences. And while it doesn’t go for laughs, the episode doesn’t ignore the ghoulish macabre pleasure of seeing these franchise-defining moments end quite poorly. The solution makes sense, even if the episode heads toward an expected status quo while ending just before it potentially goes way off-script.
The first three episodes of What If…? deliver on the core elevator pitch, with each episode of this (seemingly) disconnected series working on differential quality levels. The first episode is frankly a wash, while the second one goes uber-positive while the third goes quite grim. Again, all three episodes seem hamstrung by the need to provide familiar or comforting resolutions, as if to assure fans that things won’t go that far off the expected path. The next six episodes (including at least one involving zombies) could offer less soothing storytelling, and I will happily watch and find out. But thus far, What If…? needs to expand its horizons.