“Experimental” would be the best term to describe the MCU What If…? series on Disney+. Marvel Studios appears intent on approaching its various properties from as many perspectives are possible, from WandaVision’s pop culture-packed surrealism to Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s action-thriller sensibilities to Loki’s genre-bending time travel. With the premiere of What If…?, the studio’s first—and so far only—animated series, it’s time to see how far they can go.
Anyone who has ever read a comic book will recognize the premise of What If. The universe has been officially broken open, due to Loki Season 1’s finale, and the MCU now possesses an unlimited number of branching realities spanning time and space. To keep track of them all, we introduce Uatu the Watcher (Jeffery Wright), a new figure who can’t interfere or impact any of the fragmented realities but can only do what his name implies: monitor them. The tiniest alteration, such as a character standing in a different location as they see an event we’ve seen unfold in the main MCU, or enormous ones may generate these branching realities.
Each episode focuses on a different aspect of reality and has a diverse cast of characters, the majority of whom are voiced by their corresponding live-action counterparts. In fact, so many of them are voiced by A-list actors who have played them in other MCU films that hearing unfamiliar voices coming from characters like Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanoff is jarring, especially since neither Chris Evans nor Scarlett Johansson returned for the series for whatever reason. It’s also clear which of the live-action performers that signed on have voice-acting chops, because not all of them have, resulting in some wildly uneven performances between episodes.
In What If, inconsistency is the name of the game. The first three episodes were supplied by Disney for review, and the second was by far the best of the lot. The first issue deals with the much-discussed Captain Carter scenario, in which Peggy Carter takes the super-soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers, but it’s a poor start to the series. The story is hampered by clumsy vocal performances and a heavy reliance on following The First Avenger’s exact beats, save for a slew of annoyingly pointed “but you’re a girl!” asides that really drive home the fact that gender is literally the only thing that separates Peggy from Steve in this situation. Episode 3 takes a murder mystery approach to The Avengers’ origins, with a huge unexpected reveal that is intriguing but nearly too far out of the left field to have much impact. It’s undoubtedly superior to the first, but it falls short of the high points that it should have.
Meanwhile, Episode 2, which contains Chadwick Boseman’s last MCU performance as T’challa, is a show-stopper. The idea is intriguing enough on its own—that T’challa becomes Star-Lord instead of Peter Quill—but the ultimate effect is a joyous, brilliant remix of the entire cosmic sector of the MCU. It also includes some amusing allusions to the Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout attraction at Disneyland, as well as a steady stream of very self-aware puns that we won’t reveal for you. This episode exemplifies What If’s true potential and leaves you wanting more—hopefully, this will be the norm rather than the exception when the remainder of the season is published.
The animation style is the one aspect of What If that remains similar across each episode. What If’s overall style is intriguing and dynamic, and it’s something completely unique in the crowded pantheon of animated superhero series, somewhere between A Scanner Darkly-flavored rotoscoping and bold, graphic cartooning. The fact that the stylization remains consistent across the anthology series’ episodes, despite the fact that each episode varies significantly, is a clever decision that makes the entire series seem like one coherent entity—especially when the rest is so plagued with peaks and troughs.
Overall, What If is a fascinating, if slightly misguided, MCU experiment that showcases Phase 4’s willingness to take risks even when they don’t always pay off. It won’t elicit the same level of hysteria and conjecture as to its live-action predecessors, but if it’s lucky, it’ll stimulate viewers to start thinking about the titular topic in their own unique ways, which can be a lot of fun in and of itself.
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