TV REVIEW: What If – Episodes 1-2
With Loki’s recent destruction of the so-called Sacred Timeline, the table is set for the MCU to enter truly unchartered waters. All bets are off on where Phase Four could take us; deceased characters could come back in alternate forms, multiple versions of the same characters could fight side by side, the possibilities are truly infinite for the creative forces behind the most successful franchise of all time. What better way to introduce its adoring fanbase to the very concept of the multi-verse than a light-hearted animated series that serves as a proof-of-concept for the adventure that awaits to answer the wildly open-ended question of What If…?
Across the series’ nine episodes, Jeffrey Wright’s omniscient narrator The Watcher is our guide through the recently opened multi-verse, presenting us with alternate takes on the familiar. What if Peggy was in the super soldier machine instead of Steve? What if Yondu abducted T’Challa instead of Peter Quill? What If is very much a victory lap for the MCU up to now, a fun journey through memory lane for its most ardent fans. Satisfying, certainly, but after its opening two episodes, you can’t help but feel What If could take its central concept much, much further.
The pilot, which tracks Peggy Carter’s journey through The First Avenger if she were the super soldier with little Steve Rogers as her sidekick, feels like something of a free hit for the series. It’s a speedy journey through the events of Steve Rogers’ initial debut with a few adjustments to account for the butterfly wing that flapped differently on that fateful day. It’s a fun episode that revisits and even recreates The First Avenger’s most famous moments, from the train heist sequence to the hero shot of Captain Carter bursting through a door, her Union Jack emblazoned vibranium shield in one hand and WW2 pistol firing from the other. Even when it goes more on the extreme end with a finale that all but confirms the existence of Cthulhu in the multi-verse, it does all feel comfortingly familiar and an episode that doesn’t want to upset the natural order all too much.
This isn’t to say the episode doesn’t have its fun wrinkles on the expected. Peggy Carter is an instantly more appropriate and effective super soldier than Steve was when he first started. It’s easy to assume her history of training and experience made her more comfortable with the high-octane nature of her role for the allied forces. She’s a far more adept fighter than Steve was, exemplified in a thoroughly entertaining action sequence in which Peggy confronts a convoy single-handedly and is having as much fun as one can when punching Nazis square in the face. Steve meanwhile is a far cry from the natural leader he becomes across his journey through the MCU and provides more backstory to the Steve we didn’t get to see much of before he became Captain America. He’s Peggy’s confidant and comforting shoulder to lean on, never too far from a word of encouragement that speaks to the leader he is no longer destined to become.
What If’s second episode, in which T’Challa is abducted from just outside the Wakanda forcefield, feels much more aligned with what this series could be if it commits to its idea more confidently. The reasoning for T’Challa’s abduction is flimsy at best (the Ravagers grabbed the first child they found, as if no other child would be outside alone at the same time as Peter was back in 1988), but where this small change takes the narrative is far more interesting.
Having been raised to one day be King of Wakanda, T’Challa brings the necessary qualities to make Star-Lord the legendary outlaw he so desires to be. He’s diplomatic enough to convince Thanos his genocidal tendences are actually bad (Good Guy Thanos is a very fun addition to the episode) and charismatic enough to convince anyone and everyone to join his cause for good. This new iteration of Star-Lord fits remarkably well with a very Guardians of the Galaxy appropriate plot, in which a femme fatale version of Nebula plans a heist with T’Challa’s help. Where this episode succeeds more than the first is in giving us a new story to be invested in, the familiarity of the episode comes in the different versions of familiar characters rather than the familiar plot beats. It’s tremendous fun, full of cameos and references that further allude to the massive number of changes to the universe are made purely from T’Challa’s involvement at source, and a very entertaining episode in its own right.
The first episode doesn’t fare as well in the voice acting department. With several returning MCU cast members and some new voices for old favourites, there are numerous examples where being a good actor on screen doesn’t always transfer to recording booth. Hayley Atwell performs admirably though can’t convert her charm quite as well as she can on screen, though she fares much better when she’s conversing with the very experienced Josh Keaton, a voice actor known for playing multiple Marvel characters in his career, who steps in for Chris Evans as the voice for this version of Steve Rogers. Sebastian Stan and Dominic Cooper stick out as somewhat uncomfortable performances here, with wooden line delivery and all-too-stunted reactions to their major moments.
Chadwick Boseman, meanwhile, in his final performance before his tragic death, genuinely excels as this alternate take on T’Challa. His charisma comes across effortlessly in his exchanges with Djimon Hounsou, Karen Gillan, and Josh Brolin who all reprise their roles and fall naturally into place. Star-Lord T’Challa feels more free-wheeling than King T’Challa and he allows that laid-back attitude to come to the fore. Boseman was terrific in his every appearance as Black Panther, but his Star-Lord feels free from the shackles of being the face and voice of a nation and is simply able to be himself. Boseman’s Star-Lord is slated to appear in multiple episodes of What If as something of a cohesive tissue through the series, and more of this performance will be a pleasure to see.
In fact, several of the second episode’s cast transfer brilliantly to vocal performances. Michael Rooker’s Yondu, for instance, is arguably a better performance than his appearances in the Guardians of the Galaxy films. Rooker sells the relationship between Yondu and this new Star-Lord just as well as he does with Peter Quill in only 30 minutes here, compared to the two films of leg work he’s had in the MCU. Brolin’s Thanos feels far more relaxed now he isn’t out to cleanse the universe, and a line delivery in the climactic battle (“I’m not crazy…I’m mad.”) lands brilliantly. Everything about the second episode just feels better; it’s more exciting, more engaging, more entertaining.
Visually, though, is where What If truly shines. The cel-shading animation style looks beautiful, working both with the character designs and the environments. While the second episode is far more visually adventurous due to its space setting, the first episode has equally gorgeous visuals to feast your eyes upon. A giant mech suit appearing through smoke or a fight scene back lit by headlights are as impressive – as any of the MCU’s hero shots. A neon, multicoloured wander through The Collector’s massive emporium of stolen goods is gorgeous, too, perfectly complimenting the smooth character animations. Captain Carter and T’Challa’s fight scenes are fabulously choreographed and shot in a way the MCU has lacked at times, with smooth, lengthy shots to allow the fighting to take centre stage.
What If may have started slowly with Captain Carter, but it appears to have found its feet with Star-Lord T’Challa. With seven more episodes of this anthology series ahead of us, you have to hope the remainder of the series ramps up the possibilities and provides some more wild, truly out-there iterations of our favourite characters. Dozens of characters and actors will return at some point in the series, and if the remaining episodes can match the quality and entertainment of its second episode, Marvel’s What If…? could become something special.