Review: WHAT IF ... ?, The Merry Marvel Machine Strikes Again
Sandwiched between the recently concluded Loki mini-series that streamed on Disney+, as a result introducing the concept of the multiverse into the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe), and the next entry in Marvel’s never-ending, multi-phase, big-screen superhero saga, Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Marvel’s What If …?, arrives on Disney+ as something of a palette cleanser, a standalone, half-hour anthology animated series meant to feed the attention spans of Marvel’s fanbase with the now obligatory one-offs, spin-offs, and, of course, fan service.
And where there’s an animated series aimed at younger audiences and their parents, there’s a toy line already making its way aboard trans-Pacific shipping containers to U.S. shores and stores. (Hasbro already has series-related 1/12-scale action figures for preorder; 1/6-scale action figures have also popped up at international cons.)
Before, though, we give in to our cynicism, What If …? should be judged or evaluated, if not on its own (impossible given its relationship to other Marvel properties), then at least on where it falls on the continuum of the Marvel-Entertainment Complex. Disney+ offered the first three of nine episodes, beginning with a meta-riff on Captain America: The First Avenger: Peggy Carter (voiced by Hayley Atwell), not Steve Rogers, gets the one and only dose of the super-soldier serum. Rogers remains the scrawny, undersized Brooklyn kid eager to fight the Nazis and Hydra, while Peggy, overcoming the sexist, misogynist biases of her time, becomes Captain Carter, leading the Allies against Red Skull and Hydra.
An almost beat-for-beat, gender-reversed remake of Captain America: The First Avenger, the first episode essentially swaps out Rogers' super-heroic journey for Carter’s almost identical one, but keeps Rogers around as a a proto-Iron Man armor dubbed the “Hydra Stomper,” thanks to the engineering super-genius of Howard Stark. That gives Rogers the opportunity to join Captain Carter/Britain and some familiar faces on super-secret missions behind enemy lines, though the episode, written by series creator and head writer A.C. Bradley and directed by veteran animator Bryan Andrews, smartly ensures that Carter remains the hero of her own story and Rogers a supporting, if key, character, and not the other way around.
The second, Guardians of the Galaxy-centered episode, takes more than a few more, equally welcome liberties with the Loki-christened “sacred timeline” familiar to even the most casual of Marvel’s fans. Instead of the Ravagers kidnapping and raising the Earth-born Peter Quill as a member of their mercenary crew for two-plus decades, it’s an inquisitive, preteen T’Challa, venturing outside Wakanda’s protective shield, who becomes the grown-up Star-Lord and de facto co-leader of the Ravagers.
He also manages to radically reform the Ravagers, turning them from scavengers and mercenaries and into Robin Hood-inspired do-gooders. In this new, vastly different timeline, Thanos makes an appearance, but he’s nothing like the super-villain fans learned to hate in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. His adopted daughter, Nebula, is less Star-Lord’s antagonist than occasional, femme fatale-style ally. At least in this episode, though, the green-skinned Gamora is nowhere to be found.
The third proto-Avengers-centric episode rewinds the MCU as we've come to know it more than a decade and Nick Fury’s attempts to convert the Avengers Initiative from an idea inside his head to a reality on the ground (and sky), but someone or something keeps stepping in at key points to frustrate Fury’s plans. Fury enlists Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow to investigate the who, what, what, when, and how behind the anti-Avengers Initiative. The answers they discover prove to be somewhat engaging, if slightly disappointing. More importantly, the answers potentially rewrite the entire Avengers Infinity Saga and the future of humankind.
That particular episode ends on a figurative cliffhanger, leaving the world literally hanging in the balance. The ending promises much more intrigue to come, including linking one or more episodes in the What If …? series.
Marvel's What If ...? premieres Wednesday, August 11, on Disney+. Subsequent episodes will premiere every Wednesday.