What’s new, everyone? Having developed over a decade, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) grew just the teensiest bit bigger after Season 1 of the Disney+ Loki series culminated in the Sacred Timeline branching off into a multiverse. This led directly into the next Disney+ MCU show: Marvel’s What If…?, the animated anthology series that premiered on August 11 and is based on the comic book series of the same name. Each of the nine weekly episodes explores an alternate version of events in the MCU movies, including Peggy Carter taking Dr. Erskine’s Super Serum in place of Steve Rogers and becoming the world’s first Super Soldier, master sorcerer Dr. Stephen Strange/Doctor Strange letting grief and arrogance consume him while on a desperate mission to prevent the preordained loss of a loved one, and a ragtag band of superheroes rising up against a zombie apocalypse. Meanwhile, a cosmic and Megamind-headed being known as Uatu The Watcher (Jeffrey Wright, Westworld, The Batman), fittingly enough, watches over all of the multiversal offshoots and maintains a vow to never interfere with any of the resulting outcomes—all of which, by the way, are canonized in the MCU.
Helmed by executive producer and head writer A.C. Bradley (Trollhunters: Tales of Arcadia, 3Below: Tales of Arcadia) and director Bryan Andrews (Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Samurai Jack), What If…? is a piece of content that should be satisfying and accessible for most viewers on some level, although the ones who’ve consumed little of the MCU may struggle with the episodes that rely more heavily on Easter eggs and knowledge of the franchise’s plot beats. The self-contained episodes delve into varying tones and plots, and depending on your personal taste, it’s likely that some of them will enthrall you. It’s equally probable that others will fall flat for you. However, those ones are quickly paced enough that once I was done with them, I was left thinking that they just weren’t my cup of tea, but they were fast enough to avoid being a drag and let me move on to the next episode in hopes of a better time there.
For me, the show peaks whenever it diverges from the flash and familiarity of the franchise’s formula in order to pursue paths that are wilder, darker, or generally more out-of-the-box than what we’ve seen from the majority of the MCU. For example, one of those peaks is “What If…T’Challa Became a Star-Lord?”, the second episode in the series and my personal favorite out of all of them. This cameo-laden entry is an irresistible romp from the first minute as it shows just how phenomenal T’Challa is at being Star-Lord in Peter Quill’s stead, reveals the positive ripple effect he’s had on other old faces, wrenches my heart with a vocal performance from Chadwick Boseman that he was able to record before passing away in August 2020 (there had originally been plans for a What If…? spin-off focusing on this version of T’Challa, but obviously, nobody can replace the king), and sneaks in some sly nods for the Marvel buffs in the audience.
As for the dips in the show, they tend to manifest in the episodes that paint by the numbers in comparison. The series premiere, “What If…Captain Carter Were The First Avenger?”, is one such instance. It’s entertaining enough, but it doesn’t really accomplish much aside from following the big plot points in Captain America: The First Avenger in a condensed fashion that made it feel like the pacing had been amped up a few degrees too much. Granted, I suppose it does make sense to kick off the show with a rather conventional installment that slowly eases viewers into things ahead of further episodes that give their own relatively creative takes on the affairs of the MCU.
Another primary drawback of the show is its pacing, which has a habit of feeling rushed. I realize it has to contend with compressing its varied stories into a half-hour timeframe and it has no choice but to sacrifice logic on multiple occasions in order to keep the plot speeding along, but that doesn’t stop it from bothering me.
I’ve been fond of cel-shading for a while now, so I was thrilled to see that it would be used in What If…? It serves best in the action sequences, which unfold with a smooth and swift flow that keeps you rapt on the BOOMs and KA-POWs. The mouth animation is where the cel-shading struggles, though it doesn’t bug me nearly as much as I would’ve thought.
When it comes to the score by composer Laura Karpman (HBO’s Lovecraft Country), I find it to be on the same bar as the mediocre and MCU-esque scores that comprise most of the franchise’s musical inventory. The exception is the startlingly poignant soundtrack that complements the tragedy of the fourth episode, “What If…Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?”, which I’ve streamed multiple times on Spotify.
It’s amazing how much of the MCU’s talent reprised their roles in the show. Sure, you expect actors like Hayley Atwell, Samuel L. Jackson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Hemsworth, and Michael B. Jordan to come back for the meaty material that What If…? gives them. But it also brings on a broad supporting roster filled by Toby Jones, Leslie Bibb, Benedict Wong, Danai Gurira, David Dastmalchian, Colbie Smulders, Angela Bassett, Frank Grillo, Jon Favreau, Carrie Coon, Seth Green, Kurt Russell, Emily VanCamp, et al., even if they only get a couple lines. Some of them deliver particularly strong line readings, like Atwell, Djimon Hounsou, Boseman, Paul Rudd, and Kat Dennings. Then there are others whose voices translate into run-of-the-mill performances (I’m looking at you, Jeremy Renner).
Not everyone returned, though. This group includes Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Brie Larson, Dave Bautista, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Letitia Wright, Gwyneth Paltrow, James Spader, Jeff Bridges, Zoe Saldana, and William Hurt. Their replacements, such as Voltron: Legendary Defender’s Josh Keaton as Steve Rogers/Captain America and Kung Fu Panda: The Paws of Destiny’s Mick Wingert as Tony Stark/Iron Man, do an adequate job for the most part. Of course, I’d prefer the OGs, but the replacements are able to mimic their vocal patterns enough to keep me in the experience. I do want to give kudos to Lake Bell, who plays Poison Ivy on HBO Max’s Harley Quinn and cynical cat Chloe in The Secret Life of Pets, for capturing both the gravity and the comedy in her superb performance as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow.
I can understand why some of the actors wouldn’t return due to scheduling conflicts or expired contracts. But I’m perplexed as to why Bautista, for example, didn’t play Drax, considering his tweet alleging that Disney never asked him to be in What If…? One theory I’ve heard of is that Disney first approached his agent, who turned down the role on the assumption that the series was going to be some fringe cartoon rather than a major show that Disney recently confirmed as being canonical within the MCU. Maybe this and/or scheduling conflicts could have occurred with the other missing actors. In any case, I think it’s likely we’ll some or most of them, now that What If…? has established itself, reprising their roles in Season 2.
The last point I’ll make on the voice acting focuses on Jeffrey Wright, who is a surprising standout as The Watcher (incidentally, he belongs to the same species of Watchers with whom Stan Lee was seen in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2). Aside from the omniscient Watcher’s intro monologue that opens every episode, he pops in as the occasional narrator while observing all the proceedings of the various realities. Wright, however, makes it enjoyable to listen to those lines by instilling them with an air of profound contemplation. Even the way he asks “What if…?” is executed in such a deeply pensive manner, as if he’s fascinated by all the goings-on of the multiverse.
My personal episode ranking:
- Episode 2, “What If…T’Challa Became a Star-Lord?”—written by Matthew Chauncey
- Episode 4, “What If…Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?”—written by Bradley
- Episode 9, “What If…The Watcher Broke His Oath?”—written by Bradley
- Episode 6, “What If…Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark?”—written by Chauncey
- Episode 8, “What If…Ultron Won?”—written by Chauncey
- Episode 7, “What If…Thor Were An Only Child?”—written by Bradley
- Episode 1, “What If…Captain Carter Were The First Avenger?”—written by Bradley
- Episode 3, “What If…The World Lost Its Mightiest Heroes?”—written by Bradley and Chauncey
- Episode 5, “What If…Zombies?!”—written by Chauncey
Overall, the pacing problems and the episodes that felt lackluster compared to the rest of the series weigh down What If…?, but it’s an appealing augmentation of the MCU all the same. Without giving away spoilers, I especially loved the finale, which did a fantastic job at wrapping up most of the show’s plot threads and left me eager for the upcoming second season. If you enjoyed this review, be sure to tune into the 2 Cents Critic Podcast for a spoiler-filled episode on What If…?
Until next time, stay healthy and stay strong!
Windup score: 78/100