It’s no big surprise that the MCU saw no exposure in 2020 due to complications from the COVID-19 pandemic, but Marvel Studios in 2021 has been absolutely stacked with content that fans have been long waiting for. As we enter August, we are on our fourth Disney+ original series and fifth release from Marvel this year thus far, What If…?. And with these milestones noted, it’s also worth saying that it’s the studio’s first ever venture into animated content. Although the series answers its one question in many ways, the pivotal question from fans still remains: is What If…? going to be a venture that’s worth the watch?
Luckily, we can answer that for you. After having been able to watch the first three episodes of the series’ first season, we can gladly say that it’s an entry that’s more than welcome into the MCU canon (emphasis on canon).
Kicking off the show is Captain Carter, and the premise is as simple as it sounds. A small twist of fate rewrites Captain America: The First Avenger to make Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter the world’s very first super soldier instead of Steve Rogers. The premise is very much reminiscent of the more simple side of the question the show’s title poses, but it makes for some rather interesting changes that could only be done in the more canonically unhinged world conceptualized by director Brian Andrews and head writer AC Bradley, and brought to life through the work of incredibly talented animators.
Another thing changed by Peggy taking the serum actually proves rather interesting and more complex. Steve Rogers, who’s voiced by Josh Keaton in this new setting, is not sidelined by his lack of super soldier serum. In fact, it leads to him becoming Iron Man decades before Tony Stark is ever born. This first Iron Man is actually created by Tony’s father, Howard, and is also more accurately dubbed the HYDRA Stomper (for reasons that should be obvious).
Although this episode fits the half-hour runtime pretty well and proves to be a very entertaining start for the series, you can’t help but feel like it could’ve done better with just at least 5-10 more minutes to further establish this universe and the characters that reside within it.
Following on from a rather entertaining and strong beginning, the second episode brings possibly one of the more anticipated twists on the MCU, as it features the beginning of Chadwick Boseman’s final performance as T’Challa. The What If..? scenario here is that Yondu and the Ravagers mistakenly take prince T’Challa from Wakanda instead of Peter Quill from the hospital in Missouri. What might seem to be a rather simple change, the episode introduces how this one simple twist leads to some larger and more intriguing consequences compared to the first. Due to the nature of T’Challa’s view towards the greater universe, his role as Star-Lord ends up having far more significant ripples within the universe.
Much of the info surrounding the changes in this episode is rather spoiler-y, so that can be refrained from going in-depth about. But one thing we will say is that T’Challa is a much more legendary outlaw in the galaxy than Peter Quill initially was in Guardians of the Galaxy. That, along with everything else (which includes an alternate version of Nebula and other surprise characters), makes for a nearly perfect 30 minute tale that will definitely tug on the heartstrings of all audiences.
The third episode is the most complex of the bunch, as it isn’t really a simple change that sends ripples down the timeline. It’s a very direct retelling of Nick Fury assembling the Avengers throughout Thor, Iron Man 2, and The Incredible Hulk (yes, The Incredible Hulk too), also known by diehard MCU fans as Fury’s Big Week. The episode is elevated by some of the best voice performances in What If..? from Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury and Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson, not to mention Tom Hiddleston who is once again back as Loki, providing a performance as good as what we saw in his own series.
What makes this entry different feels more in line with altering multiple scenarios in one world rather than just one decision or mistake. Though we won’t spoil the specifics, this episode is surprisingly even nearer to perfection than the T’Challa Star-Lord one preceding it, which is certainly saying something. This one example allows the team behind What If..? to fully explore all layers of the titular concept to great effect, and truly shows the great potential that this series can have going forward for its remaining 6 episodes.
Now, Jeffrey Wright is the definite star of the show, as he perfectly embodies the enigmatic qualities of the pacifist observer/narrator that is The Watcher. Yet the other shining star is the animation itself. Marvel’s animation team uses a hybrid 2-D and 3-D style that has proved rough in other Disney projects, but elevates the experience here. The higher production cost on the visuals is very obvious in the quality of this animation, especially since each episode looks slightly different to suit the style of each unique story. If not for the presence of Uatu, you could almost say that each chapter works as its own project and doesn’t look to be apart of one whole series.
As a whole, What If…? is shaping up to be a stellar and ambitious instalment in the MCU’s new multiverse saga. The direction and writing are top notch and the voice performances from new and returning actors are just as strong as they are in any previous project they’ve starred in (if not better). But the true standout is the work from the animators, who all come together to make multiple uniquely stylish and vibrant worlds that could only be done in this under appreciated and underestimated medium.