Plot: “What If…?” flips the script on the MCU, reimagining famous events from the films in unexpected ways. Marvel Studios’ first animated series focuses on different heroes from the MCU, featuring a voice cast that includes a host of stars who reprise their roles.
Review: Comic books and animation have a long history together but Marvel Studios’ first foray into non-live action took over a decade to come to fruition. After three wildly different original series on Disney+, I was still skeptical about whether What If…? could hold its own within the MCU. Thanks to a large number of actors returning to reprise variations on characters they have portrayed on the big screen, What if…? is far better than I was anticipating and manages to squeeze a feature film caliber story into a condensed thirty-minute episode. Thanks to attention to detail in recreating iconic moments from the movies, these episodes are chock full of easter eggs and moments that will have die-hard and new fans pondering that title question.
Having watched the first three episodes of What If…?, I am fully invested in what this format can do for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Without revealing any spoilers from the episodes I saw, I can tell you that two of the three episodes are heavily featured in the trailers for the series. First was the Peggy Carter story that sees her take the super-soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers. In the half-hour episode, multiple scenes from Captain America: The First Avenger are recreated with slight alterations. Having Hayley Atwell, Dominic Cooper, Neal McDonough, and Sebastian Stan reprise their roles from the film added some additional gravitas to the story. While Chris Evans did not return as Steve Rogers, the replacement actor did a nice job taking his place. It was also nice to see that they fit a lot in but did not tie it up with a nice bow at the end, leaving the door open for additional stories to continue in this alternate universe.
The second episode ponders what T’Challa would have been like had he become Starlord instead of Peter Quill. This was an intriguing episode not only in that it was Chadwick Boseman’s final performance (which he had a lot of fun with) but that it changes numerous characters from Guardians of the Galaxy and Black Panther but also has major twists tied to Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame. Again, no spoilers, but the fact that Karen Gillan, Carrie Coon, Michael Rooker, and even bit players like Ophelia Lovibond and Seth Green return to larger roles is amazing to behold. I cannot reveal the characters that show up here without ruining this episode, but two significant MCU villains get to shine in ways I never thought would exist within an official MCU production.
The third episode, which is heavily tied to the original Avengers as well as The Incredible Hulk and Thor, imagines what if Nick Fury’s squad was assembled very differently. The return of Clark Gregg and Samuel L. Jackson along with Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Jaimie Alexander, and Mark Ruffalo makes this a standout even if Robert Downey Jr and Scarlett Johansson did not come back. This episode also took a hero and made them a villain while returning Loki to his more megalomaniacal self. Throughout this entire episode, little callbacks to the various first three Phases of the MCU are used to great effect, accenting the movies we all know inside and out by giving us a new twist to the proceedings.
I should also include mention of Jeffrey Wright’s trademark vocal stylings that open and close each chapter of the series. Uatu The Watcher never directly partakes in the stories, but his visage is literally present in every tale. Wright delivers narration that reminded me of Rod Serling’s voice-over during The Twilight Zone. It is comforting but also has eerie omniscience that tells you this is a character within the MCU and not just generic exposition. It also becomes apparent that series creator A.C. Bradley and director Bryan Andrews approached this project with reverence. The animation initially felt underwhelming to me, but it is accentuated by the actors who give this their all. Chadwick Boseman and Samuel L. Jackson are highlights of the cast in their passionate performances that are better than we often get in comic book animation.
What If…? features animation but is not designed for a different audience than the feature films. This is a mature series full of violence and humor like its live-action counterparts while telling tales that equal what MCU feature films have given us. The open-ended nature of these episodes hints at future seasons continuing these stories rather than giving us brand new tales each season. I would love to see these stories continue and explore every corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As new heroes join the fray, this is a more cost-effective manner to tell us of what could have been. After getting used to the animation, I was fully on board this ride that shuffles what we know about the MCU while still maintaining the integrity and quality of their shared mythology. Definitely fun viewing and another win for Marvel Studios.
Marvel Studios’ What If? premieres August 11th on Disney+.