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What If…? (1.1-1.3) Review

August 10, 2021 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
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What If…? (1.1-1.3) Review  

“There are worlds within worlds…worlds which exist side by side with your own. And, in each of them, men and women must make choices — Choices will affect their own destinies, and perhaps that of the universe. I know…for I am The Watcher!”

– Uatu the Watcher, from Marvel Comics’ What If? Vol. 1 Issue 1, by Roy Thomas and Jim Craig

Author’s Note: This is a spoiler-free review for What If…? based on screeners for the first three episodes provided by Disney+.

Marvel’s new exclusive Disney+ series, What If…?, marks the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first foray into episodic TV animation. While there have been prior big and small-screen Marvel animated adaptations, none have been connected to the MCU. Although past Marvel animated shows such as Avengers Assemble and Guardians of the Galaxy might have taken many cues and inspiration from the MCU films, they were never direct continuations or spinoffs. What If…? changes all of that.

The new animated series is directly inspired by the comic book anthology series of the same name, whereby Uatu the Watcher would guide readers through the Marvel Universe and view alternative realities and scenarios where significant choice was changed, showcasing an alternative history of events. The What If…? animated series is completely faithful to the original scenario of the comics. It marks the official MCU debut of Uatu the Watcher, voiced here by Jeffrey Wright, as he narrates alternate realities and splintered universes of the MCU, where a single choice ripples into a completely new timeline and events. Rather than a character going back in time and stealing an Infinity Stone, what seems to be an innocuous or harmless decision, in actuality, has ramifications that completely alter events both big and small.

Much like the original comic volume and one-shots, What If…? is an anthology series. Each episode is a standalone story with Uatu serving as the audience’s sole through line. The main difference is that the new animated series utilizes all the past movies of the MCU as the show’s starting points. Uatu sets the stage for a major historical or paradigm shift in the MCU’s history, but a different choice is made or there’s a mistake. This creates new branching or splintered realities that, while somewhat familiar, are still completely different from the past MCU adventures.

This means Agent Peggy Carter might become the Super Soldier who protected freedom from the forces of Hydra during World War II. Or T’Challa, destined to one day become King of Wakanda and the Black Panther, instead becomes the Star-Lord — a role once expected for Peter Quill. So, what if Agent Carter became Captain Carter? What if the Black Panther became Star-Lord? What If…? is pure Marvel Comics storytelling distilled through the familiar lens of the MCU.

What I did enjoy the most about this series is seeing some minor past characters show up again in different storylines and events. Characters who haven’t been depicted in many MCU stories for a while return and are voiced by their original actors. In fact, many of the original actors who portrayed the characters in their original live-action iterations return to voice their animated counterparts. It’s actually surprising just how many actually do show up to reprise their roles. Even for a theatrical animated film franchise that gets an animated TV spinoff, it’s rare for the original voice actors to reprise their roles in the TV version.

Of the first three episodes available for the review, the first two are incredibly solid. The third was a bit of a misfire. Overall, I was fine with the animation style. It’s a mix of CG and a type of cel-shaded animation. Thankfully, it doesn’t have that choppy, janky movement for the physical movement and character models that this type of animation sometimes exhibits. However, at times the physical movement appears to move too fast. The show’s visual style is interesting in that it appears to be a mix of modern Marvel superhero comics and the visual aesthetic of the MCU.

Episode 1

It’s no secret that Agent Carter gains the abilities of the Super Soldier serum originally meant for Steve Rogers, effectively making her Captain Carter; and that’s where the episode begins in this alternate universe retelling. It’s always great to hear Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter again, and the premiere episode is an exceptional story where Peggy gets to take center stage in the fight against Hydra.

Chris Evans does not make a return as Steve Rogers, but Josh Keaton does a decent job as a substitute sound-alike for “Skinny Steve.” The alternative retellings of past MCU films are interesting. Certain events parallel each other in slightly similar, yet still different ways, and that’s best exemplified by in Episode 1. It’s reminiscent of the Greek pantheon and mythology with different versions of Greek myths with the same characters. Sometimes the stories are similar, but they are told with different variations, with certain characters playing roles that reversed, flipped or are slightly askew from each other.

In terms of other familiar actors making their return here, Dominic Cooper is back as Howard Stark, and another character who was in one of the Marvel One-Shot films returns as well.

Episode 2

What if T’Challa of Wakanda became the Star-Lord? Buckle up as this is likely the big one that everyone will be talking about. Fans get one last performance of the excellent Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa in a completely new role and setting. Instead of the Black Panther, a slight twist of fate rebrands him as the altruistic, intergalactic hero known as Star-Lord.

This will likely be everyone’s favorite episode of the series that will have audiences buzzing. Not only is it one more chance to witness Boseman’s greatness as T’Challa, but he gets to have great moments and interactions with some other fan-favorite characters. The most delightful performance is a certain Mad Titan, with the return of his original actor to portray his MCU character.

In light of Boseman’s tragic passing last year, this episode inadvertently became a tribute and homage to his greatness. The second episode not just a celebration of T’Challa, but Chadwick Boseman as well.

Episode 3

Unfortunately, Episode 3 is the weakest installment from the group of the first three episodes. The storyline diverts and breaks from the format previously established by the first two episodes. That’s not really a bad thing. The premise is solid and surrounds a mystery regarding the Avengers, but it misfires in its execution.

Episode 3 relies on turning points and events regarding certain characters that the audience has no knowledge of, that come off a bit like a cheat. Secondly, while the MCU has been built on a somewhat light, jokey style and tone, some of the jokes hit incredibly flat. Even the delivery of the sublime Clark Gregg as Phil Coulson is unable to improve the poor quality of some of these jokes.

Lastly, the storyline operates on the audience’s history and respect for certain characters. However, as shown here, specific characters have yet to build that history and reputation that they had in the existing MCU. Would-be heroes are treated as icons they have yet to become. Their legends have not been firmly established.

Marvel Studios’ What If…? debuts on Disney+ Wednesday, August 11.

The final score: review Very Good
The 411
Overall, based on these three episodes, Marvel's What If...? is off to a good start. The first two episodes are exactly what the setup of this show would deliver on and provide some fun, yet bittersweet, variations for existing stories of the MCU. Series director Bryan Andrews and writer AC Bradley have succeeded in faithfully adapting the classic What If comic stories and distilling that format into the MCU. Plus, it's hard not to get giddy about Uatu finally being introduced into the proper MCU, fulfilling one of his most iconic roles from the comics and Jeffrey Wright bringing Uatu's most memorable lines to life.