*Warning: This piece contains spoilers for episode one of What If…?*
After Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino) creates the multiverse by killing He Who Remains (Jonathan Majors) at the end of Loki, a rift in the sacred timeline has established itself, and new variants will soon be introduced in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There’s speculation that previous iterations of Spider-Man, played by Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire, will show up in Spider-Man: No Way Home, but who knows what Marvel has in store for us. And while we wait for this highly-anticipated film, the MCU’s latest series, What If…? acts as an exploration through different alternate timelines of the multiverse, where one moment (or action) could drastically change everything.
At least, this is what our guide, The Watcher (Jeffrey Wright), explains during the first episode’s opening credits. The Watcher observes all that transpires in the multiverse but cannot and will not interfere. Instead, he shows the audience what’s going on in the different alternate timelines of the MCU. And while the series has an interesting premise in giving a fresh and different twist to already established stories in the MCU canon, it doesn’t look like it will have major ramifications for the future of the series. So instead, audiences will likely be treated to weekly Saturday (but actually Wednesday) morning cartoon episodic adventures, venturing into familiar territory (but with a twist).
In the case of its pilot episode, What If…Captain Carter Were The First Avenger? , the show re-hashes the basic plot of Captain America: The First Avenger, with a few minor twists. The first and most important one is the introduction of Hayley Atwell as Captain Carter. After Steve Rogers (Josh Keaton, who replaces Chris Evans and does a rather seamless job replicating Evans’ vocal tone) is shot by the same HYDRA spy who tried to sabotage the program in the original film and cannot be the world’s first super-soldier anymore, Peggy Carter decides to take up the mantle and be injected with the super-soldier serum. She, of course, faces lots of misogyny from the SSR, as its head, John Flynn (Bradley Whitford, who reprises his role from the Agent Carter one-shot, the biggest MCU deep cut of the show so far), believes women aren’t ready for fieldwork.
Peggy, of course, proves him wrong by taking down Nazis, as she captures Dr. Armin Zola (Toby Jones) and the Tesseract while aiding Steve Rogers to free Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) and the Howling Commandos. However, instead of donning the traditional costume embodying the American flag, Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) crafts Peggy a suit with the British flag as she fights for the common good and brings down HYDRA and the Red Skull (Ross Marquand). On the other hand, Steve Rogers gets a HYDRA Stomper suit that feels highly reminiscent of Tony Stark’s Mark 1 but way more advanced due to the Tesseract’s technology. It’s an interesting way to re-hash Captain America: The First Avenger but doesn’t feel particularly urgent, as we know the film’s traditional story beats, which the episode follows without giving too many fresh spins.
The only spin that felt particularly enjoyable or fresh was the surprising death of Red Skull from what looks like the tentacles of Shuma Gorath. After all, the Tesseract opens a portal between multiple dimensions, so, if we want to push the concept further, What If..the tentacle-like creature in the HYDRA logo is Shuma Gorath in this dimension? Feels a little far-fetched, sure, but nothing is impossible. Red Skull was one of the most menacing antagonists of the entire MCU, and to see him crushed like that without understanding the power he was about to hold is quite funny and makes for the best use of humor so far in the series. Of course, an animated series might equal more playfulness for some. Still, director Bryan Andrews and writer A.C. Bradley keep the same tone found in MCU movies, with sparse moments of humor amidst the episode’s large scale.
By far, the most impressive element of the show has to be its animation, which lends itself extremely well to the episode’s vintage 1940s setting. The action sequences are highly energetic and vibrant due to the show’s sleek and polished cel animation. The trailers made the animation feel particularly cheap and unimpressive, but it’s actually surprising to see just how good it looks in the finished product. What If…? feels like one of the scarce MCU projects with life infused in the action sequences, instead of CGI-heavy climaxes that feel similar to its previous CGI-heavy climax. That’s probably because the series creators have to found a way to make the action feel exciting with animation, and it’s done brilliantly. It shares the aesthetics of a Brad Bird animated production while maintaining a well-earned TV-14 rating.
However, What If…? doesn’t feel like it will hold out any importance for the wider MCU. You can’t skip shows like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (as evidently demonstrated in Black Widow‘s post-credit scene), nor Loki, which sets up the next big Avengers-level threat, but What If…? feels like an add-on instead of anything remotely important. Still, bringing back most of its voice cast for animated series feels quite welcomed, with Hayley Atwell and Sebastian Stan being major standouts here. On the other hand, bringing Stanley Tucci for two lines feels a bit of a disappointment, as a new spin on Captain Carter could’ve given Abraham Erskine a bigger role. Who knows? Maybe he’ll show up in other episodes with another twist! If What If…? will deliver weekly spins on the MCU, instead of pretending it’ll tie in with other titles of the series, it might be an enjoyable watch, but it’s too early to tell in what direction the show will manifest. Let’s see what happens next week.
The first episode of What If…? is now streaming on Disney+