From the very first whiff of A.C. Bradley’s ‘What If…?’, back when it was but a twinkle in the eye of fan pages and critics alike, I was eagerly anticipating the day it would finally arrive.
It was set to both the MCU’s first animated adventure (the typical non-stop CGI doesn’t count) and be the first in a long time to re-embrace the idea of the ‘standalone’. It was, in short, the breath of fresh air Marvel desperately needed after a year of so-so shows sullied by their deeply disappointing final moments, and couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.
Every episode’s titular hypothetical was unique
From the unfortunately mediocre Captain Carter pilot to Episode Seven’s purely enjoyable Party-Thor adventure, the fundamental appeal of the series, ultimately, was that anything (no matter how mad) could happen. Captain Carter’s glorified retread of ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ wasn’t an overly encouraging start, but the newfound freedom was immediately mastered thereafter with ample heists and dead Tony Starks to go around. Every episode’s titular hypothetical was unique and while the individual executions ranged from messy yet watchable (What If… Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark’) to splendidly macabre (‘What If… Zombies’) and deviously…strange (‘What If… Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands’), the potential for greatness never once wavered.
The very best episodes of the initial seven were the ones where Bradley and his series director, Bryan Andrews, could cry havoc and let slip the Watchers of War. Doctor Strange’s episode, in particular, was undoubtedly the show’s darkest hour – aesthetically, tonally, emotionally – as it explored a darker side of superheroes than had ever previously been done on screen. The visceral anger of Strange as he grapples with the death of Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) and lets his guilt consume him is a surprisingly mature visual to depict for a universe featuring Vin Diesel as a tree, and for a show that saw Seth Green reprise his role as Howard the Duck two episodes prior, yet it was rightfully championed as a stand-out moment of horror. This version of Strange would of course come back in episode nine as the de-facto leader of The Watcher’s off-brand Avengers and consequently be the most satisfying arc of the show, from lover to broken to destroyer to at peace – a redemption arc for a monster that feels earned and decidedly raw.
A major part of this appeal, of course, is in the voice-cast, with many of the actors, Cumberbatch included, reprising their roles (except Dave Bautista, who was seemingly invisible to Marvel’s email chain) and thus imbuing these otherwise disposable stories with a degree of gravitas. Chadwick Boseman, of course, is the elephant in the room here, though he too is typically outstanding. Episode two, as a whole, may very well be the show’s finest hour. Its adventurous tone and unbridled spirit, and the added wrinkle of Boseman, makes it a bittersweet triumph. He would go on to appear in three more episodes, but this was his swansong for the role, and was a distinctly marvellous one to go out on.
But to continually refer to this series as an anthology is a tad disingenuous – it may have started out that way, but alas, even the founding fathers of shared universes are not exempt from needlessly creating them. As such, episode eight, ‘What If… Ultron Won?’ – a fascinating concept on its own – is a perfectly adequate trailer for episode nine, incorporating all the traits that make the show so compelling into an incomplete story that sorely squanders its electrifying concept. Regrettably, a lot of the individual episodes do seem to undervalue their raw potential (‘What If… Zombies?’, in particular, fails to truly articulate the horror of this scenario) but to screw Ultron – the only outright villain to appear in the title of his own movie – over so badly that he could be replaced by any other cookie-cutter villain and yield the same results (‘What If… Malekith the Dark Elf Won’, coming in Season two!) is outright jarring.
The show flourishes when it’s delightfully weird and wacky, not inciting spin-offs and sequels
‘What If… the Watcher Broke His Oath’ is the endgame of this mini-saga, uniting the standout characters (plus Captain Carter) for a spectacular action-extravaganza. Though the spontaneity of this climax makes it feel distinctly out of place (The Watcher was sorely underdeveloped if the intent was to provide his origin story), I’d be remiss to deny the inherent excitement and fun of such a grandiose spectacle. Unfortunately, episode nine’s half-hearted attempt to tie everything together in a neat little bow does feel actively counter-intuitive to the show’s spirit, undermining some of its best endings: inserting the Ultron Widow, for example, into the post-credits of ‘What If… Earth Lost Its Mightiest Heroes’ outright ruins that episode’s subtly hopeful close. Yet it also simultaneously enriches the lives of Doctor Strange and Killmonger. Frankly, it’s a little conflicting.
It may be the cheap joke to end on the idea of What If… What If?… was better?, but more so than almost any Marvel project of recent memory, this has the potential to go places. The animation is polished, the voice-cast starry, the action extravagant, and the creative spark undoubtedly there. The decision to unite the storylines may have been inevitable in hindsight, but hopefully it serves as a cautionary tale going forward that the show flourishes when it’s delightfully weird and wacky, not inciting spin-offs and sequels. What If, by design, should always end at the question mark. What happens in between those ellipses are where the show’s real magic lies.