As Marvel Studios delves further into stories involving the Multiverse, a wild array of alternate realities brought to bear recently in Loki, fans are awash in endless possibilities for their characters. While we know some of this will be seen and felt in upcoming movies, the potential might be best realized in What If…?, an animated series with a sole mandate to explore the boundless realms where characters we know and love are drastically altered by a single quirk of fate. In the first three episodes made available to press, What If…? recontextualizes the MCU in new and exciting ways, while highlighting that these characters are heroes for more than their powers.
While an anthology series that, for now at least, contains standalone episodes, most of them are connected loosely by Uatu the Watcher (Jeffrey Wright). The supreme cosmic being looms over the proceedings, always to watch but never interfere. In the comics he often breaks this vow, but for now he’s merely an observer of events unfolding differently than how we are accustomed.
The general pattern is that each episode alters a specific MCU origin story. In the first, we see the humble beginnings of Steve Rogers (voiced by Josh Keaton, virtually indistinguishable from Chris Evans) aka Captain America. He’s still the scrawny kid looking to be a WWII hero against the Nazis, but a sinister plot disrupts his dose of the Super Soldier serum. Instead, it falls to his best friend and love interest Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), who gains his super strength, reflexes, fighting skill, and overwhelming sense of patriotism, albeit for Britain. All of this happens at the disgust of a chauvinist military brass who continue to dismiss her just for being female. However, she overcomes the odds thanks to the help of Steve, Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) and the rest of the Howling Commandos. The story doesn’t deviate too much from Captain America: The First Avenger, however, with Captain Carter facing the forces of Red Skull, including Erskine (Stanley Tucci) and Arnim Zola (Toby Jones).
Perhaps they could’ve done more to make Peggy’s moment to shine feel a bit more unique, but it’s still good to see her get her due. The ultra-realistic animation style works in making her feel larger-than-life, especially in a sequence where she takes down an entire Hydra fleet with just her shield. And look, I’ll take anything that gets Atwell back involved in the MCU on a regular basis. If rumors are true about Captain Carter’s future, that might very well happen.
The second episode is sure to bring tears to a lot of eyes, as it features the voice of Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa. As this is the last time we’ll get to hear Boseman as T’Challa, there’s a somber tone to the otherwise upbeat story that surely was not in the plan. Again, this one changes a familiar origin story. The opening scene from Guardians of the Galaxy is redone, but this time Star-Lord’s met on the abandoned planet by Korath the Pursuer (Djimon Hounsou) who isn’t asking “Who??”. Korath knows exactly who this person is because it’s T’Challa, young prince of Wakanda who was abducted as a boy by the Ravagers. That’s right, they stole the wrong kid and left Peter Quill alone. In the years since, T’Challa has still become a hero of the Robin Hood variety, joined by familiar faces such as Yondu (Michael Rooker), Kraglin (Sean Gunn), and a chipper-but-still-genocidal Thanos (Josh Brolin). When a chance to help the entire universe pops up, it puts them at odds against The Collector (Benicio Del Toro), while a drastically different version of Nebula (Karen Gillan) operates from the shadows.
To be fair, the first two episodes are good but not great. They’re fun and pose some interesting ideas about the factors that shape Marvel heroes. However, it’s the third episode that truly maximizes what this show could be, while setting up something potentially incredible down the road. Marvel has this habit of sending out just enough episodes to bait you with one incredible cliffhanger, and they’ve done it again. In this episode, the tone changes greatly. Gone are the upbeat adventure stories, replaced by something violent and ominous. Samuel L. Jackson returns as Nick Fury, who is putting together the Avengers Initiative. However, all of his potential candidates are murdered one-by-one before they can answer the call. Tony Stark, Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Lake Bell), Party Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), all make appearances that are dark takes on their recruitment, but it’s the arrival of Loki (Tom Hiddleston) that really flips things as it forces us to imagine a world where the Avengers don’t exist. It doesn’t go as planned, either, as unusual partnerships are formed, unexpected villains emerge, and the world ends up vastly changed and not in a good way.
If What If…? is a backdoor way to get you more pumped for the live-action movies, it worked, it did! I really want to see all of these hybrid characters on the big screen, especially Captain Carter who just looks incredible and has all of the grit and power that we loved about Peggy in her short-lived series. This early on, it’s impossible to judge the entire season. Head writer A.C. Bradley and director Bryan Andrews need to do more to change up the formula so the remaining six episodes explore pivotal events rather than origins. But what they’ve done so far is an incredibly exciting appetizer that could become a full meal if its impact is felt on the entire MCU.
What If…? debuts August 11th on Disney+.