One of the greatest strengths and defining features of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is—through dozens of movies and now TV series—how interconnected it is. For some, these connections are daunting, while for others the shared nature is what makes spending time in the world so engaging. With the early canon of the MCU about to enter its 10th year, the days of Phase 1 feel like an old hat. They’re not disposable by any means, but they’re so well-established that it may be easy to take them for granted.
What If…?, the newest Marvel Studios/Disney+ series, is designed to make you remember those early days—but with a twist: The biggest MCU events we all know and love are remixed and re-imagined with brand new moments emerging out of them. What if, instead of Steve Rogers becoming Captain America, Peggy Carter received the super-soldier serum? What if Peter Quill wasn’t picked up by the Ravagers, but a young T’Challa? What if the Avengers never formed? What if the Avengers became zombies?!
The animated series, directed by Bryan Andrews (Star Wars: Clone Wars, Samurai Jack) with head writer A.C. Bradley (Arrow), is inspired by the 1970s comic of the same name. The one-off tales were narrated by a cosmic being known as Uatu the Watcher, who could never intervene in these events, only observe them occurring. The series allowed comic book creators tremendous amounts of freedom to reinterpret established canon while still leveraging decades of comic book history. Old dog, new tricks—so to speak.
The MCU version of What If…? initially looked to chart similar ground as its comic inspiration, albeit with the cinematic canon instead. Yet the conclusion of Lokiadds a wrinkle in time to the established MCU, as the introduction of the multiverse establishes these would-be-tall-tales as canon. What once looked like a skippable entry into the Disney+ series of shows is now a must-watch for the possibility of some of these tales spilling over into the MCU proper. With the upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, there’s a likely possibility we’ll see a handful of new multiversal characters appear on the big screen.
The inherently episodic approach to the series makes the quality What If…? variable from installment to installment. Of the three episodes that were sent over, I enjoyed the second, T’Challa-focused episode the best. It’s an inspired approach, putting T’Challa—and subsequently Chadwick Boseman’s—regal goodness on full display as it merges Guardians of the Galaxy with elements of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ ‘Intergalactic Empire of Wakanda’ comic book storyline. The events are better left experienced, but the ways in which T’Challa has reshaped the galaxy in his image are inspiring, hilarious and deeply entertaining—anchored by a moving and fantastic performance from Boseman. The Captain Carter episode wherein Peggy (Hayley Atwell) gets superpowers is a fun spin on the well-established Captain America origins and a logical extension of a fan-favorite character. Out of all the tales (thus far at least), it seems most likely that Captain Carter will be one of the few What If…? characters we can count on seeing in Multiverse of Madness. The third, SHIELD-heavy episode doesn’t quite come together in the same satisfying way that Captain Carter and the T’Challa parts did, despite a compelling Samuel L. Jackson performance.
The episodic structure of What If…? may not be the only polarization part of the series, as I imagine the animation style may take a bit of adjustment. The show leverages a technique called triscope, a rotoscoped style (famously used in A Scanner Darkly) of animation that allows animators to use CGI painting over existing footage. The result blends the two mediums together, with newly created sequences. It’s a little jarring in places, but once you settle into the animation, the show feels rich and vivid in a way that some MCU movies aren’t. It’s a very painterly style that manages to create really visually striking moments. These moments are bolstered by a voice cast that includes pretty much every single Marvel actor reprising their role, including the aforementioned Atwell, Boseman, and Jackson along with actors like Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Carrie Coon, Josh Brolin, Jaimie Alexander, Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, Dominic Cooper, Benicio del Toro, Karen Gillan, Kurt Russell, Michael Rooker, Jeremy Renner, Clark Gregg, Chris Hemsworth, and countless others. While Scarlett Johansson, Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., and Dave Bautista don’t reprise their characters, the replacement voice actors do a fantastic job at conveying the tone and style of the original. Jeffrey Wright is also superlative as Uatu, channeling his best Rod Serling impression as the guide to each episode.
More than any other Disney+ Marvel series thus far, What If…? is for the diehard fans who know the history of these movies inside and out. There will be plenty to chew on as they look to see how those individual episodes will zag where they otherwise zigged. Casual fans who aren’t as invested in MCU lore may find the series to be less essential than WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, or Loki. Instead of looking to the future, What If…? is a celebration of Marvel’s past. It’d be easy for the series to feel self-congratulatory in that regard, but What If…? manages to find new and exciting spins on old, classic tales—even if they don’t always land as effectively as their promise may suggest.