Marvel's What If...? Season 1
★★★★ | In an alternate universe, DC could actually be good!
(MARVEL’S WHAT IF…? premieres on Disney+ August 11th)
Marvel’s What If…? is the safest thing to pitch and the easiest to get wrong. A ten-episode animated series about the multiverse – torn apart by Loki – where anything can happen. Its limitless possibility is hampered only by the unlimited opportunity for failure.
With just three episodes screened for critics, Marvel puts any fears of mismanagement to rest. What If…? is the result of a decade of storytelling. Grand in scope; intimate in detail. It riffs on familiar legacies with thrilling results.
The series kicks off with a bang. In the best episode of the season, Peggy Carter takes the role of Captain America (or, more accurately, Captain Carter) when Steve Rogers is wounded in a Nazi attack. With stellar voice work from a returning Hayley Atwell, it’s a perfect reminder that her show, Agent Carter, deserved much better.
The second episode takes us to the far reaches of the galaxy. There, instead of Peter Quill, it is T’Challa who Yondu and his Ravagers abduct. Years later, Star-Lord is a beacon of justice and compassion across the galaxy; a kind of intergalactic Robin Hood. Featuring the last performance from the incomparable Chadwick Boseman, it is the most touching and bittersweet episode of the bunch. Even at its funniest, there’s a tinge of sadness. This really is farewell.
In the third episode, Nick Fury faces an insurmountable foe targeting Avengers candidates. As the elusive serial killer murders potential Avengers, Fury sees his elaborate plans crumble. The tightly paced storyline is fun and exemplifies the potential of the What If can become. But it suffers from the brisk, barely half-hour length. If anything, this one could do with more room to breathe.
Gorgeously animated, What If…? is Marvel at its loosest. With the burden of long-term plotting on the shoulders of the upcoming Phase 4 films, the direct-to-Disney+ -series can concentrate on having fun. As a result, the episodes fly by, with immaculately constructed action proving a solid learning template for future big-screen directors. If Marvel is using their animated division to scout out new talent, they’ve already hit a jackpot.
Nowhere is this as evident as in the first two episodes. Both feature some of the most inventive and fun action set pieces in all of Marveldom. Captain Carter takes on an entire armored car platoon in the heart of Berlin; A climactic fight in a floating prison leads into the labyrinthian depths of Knowhere. Riddled with easter eggs and visual gags, they’re exquisitely crafted from start to finish.
All this fun does come at a cost. While breezy, most episodes feel truncated as well. Just as the story settles in for a good adventure, the whole thing comes to a close. It’s not that the pacing is bad, but Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is so immense that a mere thirty minutes can’t contain it. Especially when it’s breaking down everything we’ve known.
Like Loki, What If…? overcomes this hurdle through sheer charm. Even rushed moments earn their place. Each new tease of potential futures feels tantalizing. Yes, most of it is heavy on the fanservice, but after sticking with the intricate plotting for this long I’d argue it’s well deserved.
With a second season already a certainty, What If…? promises fans hours of pure Marvel bliss. At its best, it allows us, Watchers ourselves, to question how different our favorite heroes and villains could be. If only some things had gone another way.