If you’re like me, you checked into What If…? early on to see if — or how — it was going to pay off the big multiversal hullabaloo from the Loki finale. Then maybe you stuck around for a few more episodes, mostly to see if the show was really going to just be isolated, self-contained, little episodic thought experiments, and maybe you continued to stick around because those thought experiments were fun for what they were. It’s just that the show started to move down your priority list. It lost its urgency. Also, let’s be honest — it got REAL DARK. Episodes 3-6 traded the “Anything is possible in a multiverse!” premise for “Only the worst possible outcomes here in THIS multiverse!” and suddenly the quaint little Marvel cartoon turned into your weekly kick-in-the-pants (something I chronicled over on Podjiba). But if you continued to stick with it, through the zombies and the Bad Doctor Strange and that one world where Hank Pym slaughtered the Avengers for reasons that became apparent far too late, you eventually discovered that all of it, the whole season, was… not so disconnected after all. Or rather, it just took a while for someone to make it connect — which is why the season finale was called “What If… The Watcher Broke His Oath?”
Yup, in the end, The Watcher (Jeffrey Wright) stepped out of the shadows and, like an overly large Nick Fury, assembled his own super-team of heroes from across realities to fight off an Ultron that had collected the Infinity Stones and was hell-bent on destroying all of the multiverse.
On the one hand, it’s easy to dismiss this finale as an obvious retread of Avengers: Endgame, as if all things Marvel must ultimately build to a team-up and the same threat. However, I think it was a clever bit of economy to utilize a narrative framework we all recognize in order to save time during what remains a half-hour cartoon. What If… had an agenda: To introduce us to the possibilities of a Marvel multiverse and, in the end, perhaps even hint at what’s to come over on the big-screen side of things. Also, I have to give them credit for the way they built to this team-up — the way they lulled us into thinking everything was disconnected, and then slowly had The Watcher become more prominent in the proceedings. The first real change in the formula was in episode 4, when Doctor Strange breaks bad and becomes so omnipotent that he actually perceives The Watcher’s narration — just as he destroys his own reality. The Watcher, of course, has taken an oath not to interfere. Then there’s the interesting thing that happens at the end of episode 7, when the fun Party Thor story lands on a sudden sour note as Infinity Ultron shows up. What looked at first like a pretty obvious throwaway doom-and-gloom cliffhanger took on a different meaning when the following episode was entirely ABOUT how Infinity Ultron came to be. It was the first time we saw something carry from one episode to the next — and then episodes 8 and 9 turned out to be a two-part finale that included elements from the previous installments.
In Episode 8 (“What If… Ultron Won?”), Ultron succeeds in transferring his consciousness into Vision’s body, Mind Stone and all, and proceeds to nuke the Earth in his bid to bring “peace” through total annihilation. When Thanos shows up to collect the Mind Stone, Ultron destroys him — and takes the rest of the Infinity Stones for himself. This new all-powerful Ultron is able to hear The Watcher, the same way evil Doctor Strange did, and comes to understand not only the nature of the multiverse but that it means his mission is far from over. Wiping out all life in one reality isn’t enough. He has to bring his “peace” to EVERY REALITY. And so Ultron sets his sights on breaking through to The Watcher’s realm, and from there the entire multiverse. The Watcher is, of course, watching all of this, and he starts getting nervous. So he debates whether to break his oath and help the only two living beings left on Ultron’s Earth, Black Widow and Hawkeye, as they look for a copy of Armin Zola’s program that could act as a virus to destroy Ultron. The good news is that they find Zola without The Watcher’s interference, but the bad news is that they’re too late for it to do any good. Ultron has already broken through to The Watcher, and the two superpowered beings start pummeling each other across all the different realities. The Watcher’s oath is all well and good, but it’s pretty hard to sit back and observe when you’re getting punched in the face.
The episode ends with The Watcher escaping to the one place he knows he can find help — the ruined universe that houses the bad Doctor Strange — and episode 9 picks up with The Watcher collecting heroes (and villains) we’ve already met before to add to their new supergroup, the “Guardians Of The Multiverse.” There’s Captain Carter, and the version of T’Challa who became Star Lord, and even Party Thor. There’s the Killmonger who became Black Panther, and there’s also a Gamora that we haven’t actually seen yet because her episode was bumped to season 2. Then there’s a big fight, an inevitable betrayal, and a pretty sweet nod to Armin Zola’s original comic character design. Zombie Scarlet Witch gets dropped in for a surprise cameo. There’s even a last-minute twist not unlike Endgame’s “one chance”, only it’s evil Doctor Strange realizing that the victory The Watcher was aiming for wasn’t quite the same one his heroes were expecting. All of that is the same ol’ Marvel playbook, really. The important part comes after The Watcher has saved the multiverse and has to return his players to their realities, because the thing is… he’s already interfered. There’s no way everything can go back to normal. So sure, Captain Carter and T’Challa and Thor can return home with no harm done. Doctor Strange is sent back to his sad broken prison of a universe and tasked with watching the microcosm that now holds Zola and Killmonger in stasis. The problem is that there’s one hero left over: Black Widow, the one from Infinity Ultron’s universe, who has lost her Hawkeye and every other being in her reality. So The Watcher breaks his oath again, and sends her to the episode 3 reality where Hank Pym killed the Avengers — and where Nick Fury is in desperate need of a new Natasha to help him fight off Loki.
The season ends with a pretty telling final narration from The Watcher: “The Multiverse — every single world, every story is my home. And I will protect it to the end.” It’s a confirmation that we’re not done with the character, sure — but we knew that since What If…? has already been picked up for a second season. I think it’s saying something else, though. I think it’s a promise that there are bigger things in store for Jeffrey Wright in the MCU, especially if a big multiversal clash with Kang the Conquerer is on the horizon. After all, we now know that The Watcher is willing to break his oath of observation if the danger is big enough… and he doesn’t always stop his meddling there. Who knows what other alternate versions of our heroes will replace ones we thought we’ve lost, thanks to him? I don’t think watching What If…? will prove necessary to understanding the next phase or more of movies, but for the fans who did? I think we just got a teaser for what may lie ahead.
One final note, for Captain Carter fans: Stick around for the mid-credit sequence after the finale, because she may be getting a very happy ending with her Hydra Stomper Steve after all!
Header Image Source: Disney+/Marvel