I started watching Marvel’s What If…? not really knowing what to expect, but hoping that new, innovative storylines might emerge and that some of the characters introduced might even be introduced later into the live-action MCU. After all, seeing Peggy Carter as Captain Carter is my dream! Ultimately, however, the episodes of the first season prove uneven in quality, and the point of the series only becomes clear in the final two episodes. While I would still be excited to see some of these characters on the big screen, I cannot say that the show What If…? particularly impresses.
The episodes bounce around through different concepts, moving from pure, fan “What if?” daydreaming, to humor, to tragedy, to just plain silliness. Initially, I found myself baffled. I wanted a connecting thread, some reason that I started a show that first answers the question, “What if Peggy Carter took the super soldier serum instead?” but then moves on to seemingly random questions such as, “What if the Avengers fought zombies?” or, “What if Thor had a giant party on Earth?” The question, “What if?” gives room for the creators to do literally anything with the material and all they could come up with is Thor having a party?? I was hoping for more intriguing storylines! The ones that gave us characters like Spider-Gwen. The ones that truly change the story and open up more possibilities for what the characters can be and become and do.
Still, some of the episodes are stronger than others. “What if Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?” creates a real sense of pathos, as viewers watch him try to change the past and bring his lover back to life. And “What If Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark?” raises some interesting ethical questions, as the show goes to dark places, even if it was not my favorite episode (but, then, I have never been very attached to the Iron Man films). The strong moments of the show were enough to keep me watching–as was the hope that the final episode might ultimately tie into the larger MCU. Really, it was that fear, that I might need to know what happens, that kept me watching more than anything else.
Because, really, the premise of What If…? is a little strange– but not because we are asking the question, “What if?” Rather, it is strange because each episode essentially tries to boil down one of the Marvel films into about 25 minutes. So the first episode, takes a 2-hour film, Captain America: The First Avenger, and boils the storyline down to about an eighth of its original run time. That’s not a lot of time. Not to develop characters or relationships. It is just enough time to say, “Hey, look, Peggy Carter is Captain Carter now instead of Steve Rogers becoming Captain America! Isn’t that neat?” and then end the episode. And so on for each succeeding episode. I wanted to feel a real connection to the characters, but any feeling viewers have for them will have to come from prior knowledge of them from the previous films.
Because of the time constraints, some of the sillier episodes actually work better than the ones that rely more on their film counterparts. For instance, Thor throwing a party works as a conceit because that is all that is happening. The episode is not trying to have Thor save the world and not even trying to make Thor a better person who will be worthy to rule. Besides having Thor meet Jane and fall in love, not many parallels exist with the first Thor movie. On the other hand, “What If Ultron Won?” proves a little uneven because it basically has to start with the end of its film counterpart. A voiceover gives all the relevant background information about Ultron and his rise so the episode can jump into Natasha and Clint trying to do something about it. But there is something uncomfortable about having an entire film of tragedy and suffering dismissed into a few sentences of summary so we can get on with the “what if” changes already.
I also found throughout the series that I was a little bothered by how the “What if?” moments were presented. The series is narrated by the Watcher, who observes the multiverse, sworn never to interfere. He likes to drop “deep” statements about how one decision can change everything and one small moment create a whole new world. Sure, maybe in some cases. But a lot of the decisions made are actually ongoing ones. In “What if Killmonger Had Rescued Tony Stark?” for instance, Killmonger rescuing Stark is not the single cause of everything that happens. Tony responds to that moment in a certain way, and then wakes up every day after and makes the same bad choices. And the people around him wake up every day and enable him (hello, Pepper, another silent observer of bad ethics). In the same way, Doctor Strange in “What If Doctor Strange Had Lost His Heart Instead of Hands?” wakes up every day and also makes bad choices, despite the repeated efforts of other people to warn and/or stop him. Reducing characters to one moment in time obscures the fact that they all have agency–and continue to do so. The Watcher would make it seem as if the characters are bound by one bad choice, when, in fact, they are not–as some of them later actually prove.
What If…? proves an interesting thought experiment, but the series is not particularly gripping or memorable. If the series is not going to tie into the greater MCU, thereby compelling me to watch it just for the sake of clarity, I do not think I will continue to keep up with future seasons.