Growing up, I’m not sure the idea behind any comic-book series excited me more than Marvel’s What If…? Each issue used the titular question to examine a version of Marvel history that went very differently, like, “What if… Spider-Man Had Never Become a Crimefighter?” or, conversely, “What If… Doctor Doom Had Become A Hero?” The mere possibility of these radical deviations from the stories I knew was so thrilling, I barely even noticed how hit-and-miss the What If…? comic itself could be. While some issues were well-received enough to eventually lead to ongoing series (including Jane Foster becoming Thor decades later, or Peter Parker and MJ having a daughter who becomes the superhero Spider-Girl), more often the goal seemed to be to make clear that the original stories were vastly preferable to these alternate versions. Yes, it was tragic when Phoenix from Uncanny X-Men had to die, but in the What If…? version where she didn’t sacrifice herself, eventually the entire universe was destroyed. Or, in a triptych of stories about Amazing Spider-Man supporting characters who were bitten by the radioactive spider instead of Peter, two of the three concluded with these other Spider-Men dying in action. Even What If…? issues that didn’t end with massive carnage tended to be downers: Spidey stops the Green Goblin from killing his girlfriend Gwen Stacy, but this triggers a chain of events that turns Peter into a fugitive, unable to be around Gwen or any of his loved ones. The series seemed to be implicitly telling its readers to quit asking for things to be different, because we didn’t appreciate how good we had it with how things went in the first place.
Now What If…? has become the latest entry in Disney+‘s ever-expanding library of shows featuring characters and performers from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with early episodes including voice performances from Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Hulk, Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, and, for the last time, the late Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa. This What If…? is animated, which only increases the possibilities at the creative team’s disposal, since there are ideas that can be executed in cartoon form that even an MCU-budgeted live-action show or movie might find it difficult to present.
But if this new What If…? isn’t as aggressively in favor of the status quo as the comics could be, the three episodes given to critics suggest it’s uneven in the way almost any anthology series is. It’s fun simply because the level of quality control at Marvel is pretty high these days (give or take that Falcon and the Winter Soldier finale), and because some of the ideas are either inherently appealing or are used to cleverly tweak what we know from the films. But not every installment lives up to the title’s seemingly limitless potential.
The series — with each episode introduced, as the comics issues were, by the all-seeing cosmic being the Watcher (voiced by Jeffrey Wright) — begins with a story where a seemingly minor decision by Peggy Carter during the events of Captain America: The First Avenger results in her, and not Steve Rogers(*), receiving Dr. Erskine’s serum and being transformed into an impossibly tall and muscular supersoldier. As was the case on ABC’s Agent Carter — which was arguably the best Marvel TV show prior to Kevin Feige taking over — Peggy’s obvious abilities are dismissed at first due to the even more overt sexism of the Forties. Pretty soon, though, she’s in a variation of Steve’s iconic costume — this one with a Union Jack motif for U.K. native Peggy, rather than the Stars and Stripes — and kicking Hydra butt up and down the European theater of operations in World War II.
(*) Far more often than not, the show is able to get the MCU stars to reprise their roles, but a few big fish elude them, including Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., and Scarlett Johansson, and are replaced by veteran voice actors like Josh Keaton (as Steve Rogers) and Lake Bell (as Black Widow). There’s also the semi-amusing spectacle of Ruffalo playing Banner in an episode set circa the Ed Norton Incredible Hulk film.
The premiere is an anomaly for What If…? as a whole, in that swapping Peggy and Steve’s roles doesn’t really change that much from the original story. The episode’s plot largely tracks with that of The First Avenger, albeit with some improvements along the margins, particularly for Bucky Barnes. But it works despite the familiarity, because Peggy is such an appealing character — a lovestruck Steve, admiring her new physique, notes that her outside now better matches her already formidable and heroic inside — and because the animators really go to town on the action sequences. Captain Carter is a much more impressive fighter than Captain America, thanks to all the moves that are easier to draw than they were for Chris Evans, his stunt double, and even a lot of CGI to pull off.
Still, the second episode takes greater advantage of the What If…? premise. This one posits that when Yondu and the Ravagers came to Earth to abduct young Peter Quill at the start of Guardians of the Galaxy, they took a wrong turn at Wakanda and instead wound up with Prince T’Challa. A couple of early scenes recreate familiar Guardians moments with this new Star-Lord, but in short order we wind up with an entirely new story: an interstellar caper involving T’Challa, Yondu, Nebula, and even Thanos. We already know from Avengers: Endgame that heist stories fit well into the tone of the MCU, and this is a well-executed example of the genre that takes particular advantage of Boseman’s underrated facility with light comedy(*). But it also works well because a lot of thought was obviously put into how the cosmic corners of the MCU would be altered if the wise, noble, and persuasive T’Challa were there instead of the immature Quill. The impact T’Challa has on Thanos is a particular delight.
(*) It’s a skill he wasn’t called upon often to display in his far too short career, but the Black Jeopardy sketch from SNL where he played T’Challa made clear that he knew how to wring laughs out of his most iconic role without selling out the character in the process.
The third episode is a murder mystery tying together events from Iron Man 2, Thor, and The Incredible Hulk. Serious Marvel nerds already know that those movies are meant to take place at roughly the same time, thanks to a tie-in comic, called Fury’s Big Week, that showed Nick Fury and Phil Coulson racing from one crisis to the next. This one’s less exciting than the earlier episodes, both because it’s spinning out of a trio of lesser MCU movies, and because the premise is a lot fuzzier than “What if Peggy got the supersoldier formula?” or “What if T’Challa was Star-Lord?” Even so, the scale is impressive, and time spent with Samuel L. Jackson as Fury never feels wasted.
The Fury installment is also the most in line with the old comics, in presenting a world that’s much less preferable to how the stories went the first time around. It will be interesting to see whether What If…? as a whole lands more on the side of happy or dark endings. There’s already been talk of spinning some of these episodes off into their own series, a la Spider-Girl. A Captain Carter show seems an obvious candidate, whether animated or live-action. (Atwell would just have to bulk up, and maybe stand on apple boxes for most of her scenes, to match the character’s supersized appearance, but it seems doable in either format.) A T’Challa-in-space show would be wonderful, too, if only Boseman were still here to star in it.
In that way, Disney+‘s insatiable demand for as much MCU content as Feige and company can provide may wind up serving this new What If…? very well. The comic book wasn’t designed with spin-offs in mind, even if some of the ideas it introduced later filtered into the main continuity. It could afford to be conservative, since its stories weren’t meant to last more than one issue, two at the most. If the plan is to use the TV version of What If…? to beta-test future Marvel shows, though, then the biggest and most audacious changes are in its best interest.
What If…? premieres August 11th on Disney+, with episodes releasing weekly. I’ve seen the first three.