Episodes viewed: 3 of 9
Like Thanos, it was inevitable. Just as Star Wars eventually spun off several canonical animated series, the Marvel Cinematic Universe now follows. In true MCU style, What If… — directed by Bryan Andrews, alumnus of Genndy Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars series, and storyboard artist on multiple Marvel movies — takes a lesser-known comic book property (the What If series, which began in 1977 with ‘What If Spider-Man Joined The Fantastic Four?’) and brings it to wider mainstream attention.
Essentially, it’s the screen equivalent of a remix album — drawing on 13 years of Infinity Saga storytelling, and imagining major narrative-altering twists in episodes that play out as interpolations, reworkings, and samplings of well-known hits. Some of the twists are more straightforward (Episode 1 asks, ‘What if Agent Peggy Carter got the super-soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers?’), while others are less succinct (Episode 3 riffs on several Phase One movies at once, set prior to the assembling of the Avengers), but all offer the chance to run with plotlines that would never play out in the live-action films or Disney+ shows. As an official Kevin Feige-sanctioned Marvel Studios production with a home on Disney+, it boasts stylish animation and a voice cast roster that most animated superhero cartoons would die for — with several Marvel cast members (but notably not all of them) reprising their roles. Tom Hiddleston and Samuel L. Jackson are instantly recognisable as Loki and Nick Fury, respectively, but you won’t mistake Lake Bell’s Black Widow or Mick Wingert’s Tony Stark for the real thing.
In its animated form, the MCU skews slightly younger than the cinematic offerings — What If…? is lighter and sprightlier, with more of a Saturday-morning serial feel. If the cel-shaded visual style is an acquired taste — character models are rendered with blocky colours and thick black outlines — the worlds of Marvel are recreated with beautiful pastel palettes and bathed in cinematic lighting. The action is slick and kinetic too — a standout sequence in Episode 1 has Peggy, aka Captain Carter, taking out Hydra goons in an extended oner. It feels less ‘grown-up’ than most MCU fare (with tone and dialogue to match), but the animated presentation feels even more connected to Marvel’s comic-book roots than the movies.
While each episode revolves around one central change, the resulting ripple effects in every instalment feel well-considered.
The scripts are pacy, whizzing through concentrated re-runs of movie highlights with unexpected pay-offs. It’s this sense of surprise that will be most satisfying to fans — and, since some familiarity with the existing stories is assumed, being a fan is a prerequisite here. While each episode revolves around one central change, the resulting ripple effects in every instalment feel well-considered. Since Peggy (Hayley Atwell) becomes Captain Carter, that means markedly different fates for Steve Rogers (Josh Keaton) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). And a world in which Yondu (Michael Rooker) pilfered T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman, whose presence here feels like an absolute gift) from Earth instead of Peter Quill results in significant shifts in the cosmic power structure, delivering laughs while staying true to the Wakandan warrior’s diplomatic prowess. To say any more would spoil the fun — and the fun, really, is the whole point.
It’s also the one thing holding What If…? back. By its very nature, the alternate-universe storytelling makes it hard to care too much about the outcome of each episode. Profundity was never the point here — the series is designed as a playful, imaginative flight of fancy, a bar which it meets but never transcends. Jeffrey Wright’s The Watcher gives a nice Rod Serling-style introduction to each episode, but going by the opening episodes, his arrival adds little to the overall Marvel lore. And if you’re not already a Marvel die-hard, this is anything but an entry-way — those without an MCU PhD will find What If…? more of a WTF.
Not that the series is entirely inconsequential — while its entire raison d’être is to explore alt-universe stories, the recent cracking open of the Multiverse thanks to a certain other Marvel show on Disney+ means that all of this can be considered, in the infinite possibilities of Multiversal storytelling, somewhat canonical. If the MCU does continue to follow the Star Wars playbook, it’s easy to pinpoint who should get the Ahsoka treatment and receive their own live-action spin-off: we’ll take more Captain Carter, please.