Marvel's latest show gives an alternative look at the MCU, and what could have been.
If you stop to think about it, the idea behind Marvel's newest animated addition to the MCU, What If...?, is a tantalizing one. Sure, it's pretty consequence-free, and doesn't necessarily push the universe forward in any meaningful way, but what it does offer is an interesting glance at how the individual stories of our now legendary heroes could've unfolded, if only certain events had been slightly different. Additionally, the very nature of that idea is in and of itself playful, and even kickstarts your own imagination.
Good central premise then? Check. But what about the show? First up, a bit of housekeeping. What If...? will consist of 10 episodes, and each is considered a standalone tale, asking you that central question, and delivering an alternative take on how events within the MCU could've unfolded. It's all chaperoned by an entirely new character, the fateful Watcher voiced by Jeffrey Wright. The Watchers themselves are fascinating intergalactic beings, and hopefully this introduction will result in a broader exposure within other parts of the MCU, but for now he follows us throughout these alternative universes.
So what kinds of deviations can we expect? We've watched the first three episodes of the initial 10 episode run, and already here they range from the less significant to the downright bizarre, meaning that Marvel, and creator A.C. Bradley has enjoyed circumventing expectations, and is attempting to surprise at every turn.
So, without delving too much into spoiler territory here, the very first episode asks a very simple question; "what if it was actually Peggy Carter, that was injected with Dr. Irskin's super serum, and ultimately became Captain America?" Again, it's a simple substitution with minor alterations as a result, but incredibly tantalizing to witness, seeing how this one central change veers and re-joins the path of the story we already know.
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It is rather safe though, so how about if all the Avengers were assassinated even before they could accept the Avengers Initiative invitation, plunging Earth into chaos? See there's one episode with that too, there's even one where Thanos is a good guy. Yup.
It's incredibly entertaining in its own right to witness the results of the writers basically being given the keys to the kingdom, and then asked to redecorate however they see fit. Particularly if you know how these stories are "meant" to go, seeing each small deviation, and how they all snowball from the same central narrative point, is, if anything, a love letter to fans, who've stuck with the MCU for this long.
It's not all roses though. Take the first episode; it has to retell almost the entirety of Captain America: The First Avenger, from the injection of the serum, to its conclusion - in 30 minutes. That leaves little time to dwell on anything but the essentials, and while the first three episodes do hit strong emotional notes, it all can't help but feel a bit rushed. It's high-intensity, all the time, and the quieter moments are almost always immediately interrupted, as we have to hurry on to the next sequence.
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The series would've certainly benefited from a slightly longer run-time, particularly when there's so many events, exchanges, action sequences and world-building to do in that limited time span. Think about it: the entire point of the show is to tear down what you know, and rebuild something new with some of the same building blocks. That requires attention from the viewer, but some parts of the clever narrative tapestry is marred by uneven pacing.
When that's said, at its core What If...? is well built. Most of the MCU stars, from Samuel L. Jackson to the late Chadwick Boseman (Wakanda forever...), from Jeremy Renner to Karen Gillian, they all return to voice their respective roles, and to great effect. Sure, there are some omissions, like Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans not returning, but seeing as their respective runs within the MCU seem truly finished, it was no real surprise, and most of the talented voice cast does an excellent job of anchoring the story.
It's well animated too, straddling a line between comically over-choreographed and weighted realism. Sure, the choice of animation over live-action is mainly to save money on a riskier creative venture, but it pans out pretty well, and with most of the original musical scores from various MCU projects intact, there's all the building blocks present for something satisfying.
And that's what What... If? is, it's satisfying. It's creatively exciting, competently put together, and apart of a runtime that's a tad short for the events to unfold naturally, it leads us down tantalizing narrative alleyways, and forces us to ask "what if?"