Managing your expectations is the name of the game with What If…?, Marvel’s first proper MCU animated venture. It’s an official part of the Phase Four slate, and a second season has already been confirmed. The producers estimate that about 85% of the original live-action actors returned to voice their animated counterparts. And the premise, which explores alternate realities based on slight differences in the events we’re familiar with, would seem to tie directly into the Multiverse that was just unleashed in the finale of Loki. The show has all the earmarks of being important, in the way that the MCU has trained us to expect easter eggs in every shadow and canon connections in every corner. So you will probably either be frustrated or relieved to discover that What If…? is a fairly self-contained, low-stakes trifle of a show, a fun diversion, and little else — which I guess actually makes it unique in the MCU landscape.
Let me put it another way: What If…? does for the MCU exactly what its long-running comic book counterpart did for Marvel Comics. It’s an escape, an island in the midst of a vast ever-evolving continuity, where wild swings can be swung without consequence. The point of What If…? is precisely that it doesn’t matter. It’s a thought experiment, and you can dip in for only the issues (or in this case, the episodes) that interest you and then ignore the rest. As for the Multiverse, it’s better to consider What If…? as training wheels to help you get used to the concept of these alternate realities, rather than a catalog of the specific worlds or timelines that might be added to the MCU. Even if I would like nothing more than a big damn Marvel Zombies movie, dammit.
The exception to that is perhaps the introduction of The Watcher (voiced by Jeffrey Wright), the mysterious all-seeing narrator who is tasked with observing these alternate worlds and then relating them to us. The character is important enough in the comics that I could see him making an appearance in the live-action MCU eventually, but that is by no means a necessity. For that matter, I suppose technically it’s possible that any one of these alternate worlds could theoretically pop up — perhaps Doctor Strange will accidentally wander through the version of World War 2 where Peggy Carter became a Super Soldier instead of Steve Rogers — but I kinda doubt it, which is a shame because holy crap, do I want more Captain Carter punching Nazis in the nutsack!
Right, so: The premiere episode is called “What If … Captain Carter Were The First Avenger?” and it follows exactly that premise. Peggy Carter makes one small decision differently than she did in the main MCU — to stay in the room where Steve is undergoing the Super Soldier procedure rather than viewing the experiment from the control booth — and in doing so, a whole different sequence of events unravels. Hydra spies attack the experiment, Steve is shot before he can enter the machine, and rather than let the opportunity go to waste, Peggy takes his place. The military isn’t thrilled with their new beefcake Lady Soldier because duh, misogyny, but Peggy is an absolute natural at being a superhero. Some events are familiar, like Captain Carter rescuing Bucky’s platoon or Peggy and Steve falling in love, while others are a pleasant surprise, like Howard Stark building a proto-Iron Man suit out of the Tesseract for skinny Steve to wear or Bucky never becoming the Winter Soldier. In the end, Peggy sacrifices herself (and misses her dance date with Steve) to push a giant tentacle monster back through the portal it came from, and 70 years later Nick Fury opens the same portal and brings her back. Similar, but different.
I can’t fault the concept, though the execution is at times a little iffy. It’s great having Hayley Atwell back doing literally anything as Peggy Carter, that’s a given — but it’s weird having anyone other than Chris Evans play Steve. He’s the only big omission from the first episode, which managed to bring back everyone else, including Samuel L. Jackson and Stanley Tucci, to read their whopping two lines of dialogue apiece. Future episodes will likely have a similar mix, where whoever does make a return (Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa in next week’s episode, in his final performance!) will be as notable as who doesn’t (Dave Bautista wasn’t asked, apparently, and it appears heavy hitters like Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson are missing as well). The animation, farmed out to smaller studios in France and Australia, comes off a little webtoony for my taste, though the stellar action sequences redeem it somewhat. Mostly you might be left wondering what Disney — a studio founded in animation — was doing that kept their in-house staff too busy to lend a hand. I couldn’t help but think of DC’s Harley Quinn series, which had a great voice-cast made up of actors who notably aren’t in the live-action side of the DCEU, and also a wonderfully unique animation style as well. It’s fully conceived and whole in a way that What If…? isn’t yet, perhaps because it’s too indebted to the cinematic universe from which it hails. For a concept that is supposed to be self-contained, it sure doesn’t feel that way.
Even saying that, though, is giving more thought to the enterprise than it’s worth, so I’ll just fall back on: What If…? is fun, and slight, and refreshing. You can watch it and, for once, not worry about where it’s all going or how it’s gonna lead to the next Marvel movie. Sometimes a cartoon is just a cartoon, and if that cartoon happens to feature the Marvel Zombies universe? Well, who am I to complain!
Header Image Source: Marvel Studios/ Disney+