*Warning: This piece contains spoilers for episode two of What If…?*
After a rather middling pilot episode, What If…? finally seems to kick into gear. Since there’s no “Previously on…” at the beginning of this episode, it’s clear that the show will likely be a weekly episodic adventure through the multiverse, without many ramifications on the wider MCU (jury’s still out on that one…let’s come back to that one in seven weeks!) which seems to take great inspiration from The Twilight Zone meets Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The Watcher (Jeffrey Wright) presents this week’s story exactly like Hitchcock in the aforementioned series, reflecting on the episode’s central element (in this case, space), before he presents to us the story of how T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) became Star-Lord, after being kidnapped by The Ravagers.
As explained by The Watcher, the small shift changes everything, with Thanos (Josh Brolin) being talked out of decimating half of the universe by T’Challa, and Taneleer Tivan/The Collector (Benicio Del Toro)now being the ruler of the galaxy. In this mission, T’Challa and The Ravagers, comprised of Yondu (Michael Rooker), Taserface (Chris Sullivan), Kraglin (Sean Gunn), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Korath (Djimon Hounsou), and Thanos (yes…Thanos is a good guy now) need to retrieve a MacGuffin named the Embers of Genesis from The Collector. This means that the Guardians of the Galaxy never form, with Peter Quill (Brian T. Delaney) working as a Dairy Queen janitor, whilst Ego (Kurt Russell) is still looking out for him.
What If…? marks Chadwick Boseman’s final on-screen performance before he passed away in August of last year. According to producer Brad Winderbaum, we should expect to see Chadwick in three more episodes, though it’s still unclear if he will be playing the same iteration of the character, or we’ll see him at least once as the Black Panther. As Star-Lord, Boseman’s vocal performance is terrific, bringing a great amount of emotional depth to the character and making the audience feel for him during one highly emotional moment where he learns that Yondu lied to him about his father (John Kani) dying. When he visits The Collector, he stumbles upon a Wakandan ship, to which he learns that King T’Chaka has been looking for him since his disappearance. It’s an emotional scene beautifully directed (cues of Ludwig Göransson’s iconic Black Panther score are present) and greatly elevated by Boseman’s voicework. In fact, Boseman is, by far, the best part of the series, as most voice-over works feel phoned in by the show’s A-list cast. Boseman deeply cares about T’Challa and pours his heart and soul into the character, which makes his entire appearance feel heart-wrenching, in hindsight, as he likely knew he didn’t have long to live and wanted to give it all he got before it’s too late.
Djimon Hounsou and Josh Brolin’s spins on Korath and Thanos are also great and bring some legitimately funny comedy to the mix, with Korath calling The Mad Titan “Captain Genocide,” as he still believes his plan of wiping out half of the universe’s population would’ve been effective, even if everybody else thinks it’s genocide. It makes for terrific banter and sympathizes with Thanos to a point where the audience might even relate to him. Some have related to his genocidal plan in the Infinity Saga, but good guy Thanos is now an integral part of The Ravagers, with Brolin softening his vocal tone just a bit for the character to feel more sympathetic than menacing. It’s a sharp contrast to Infinity War and Endgame, but a welcomed one nonetheless.
Instead of re-hashing the plot of Guardians of the Galaxy, as last week’s episode essentially told the plot of the first Captain America, but with Peggy Carter, we get a wholly original story with fresh twists and turns that keep the audience engaged until the very end. It’s a shame that Del Toro’s villainous turn as The Collector feels more caricatural and cartoonish than anything else. Now you may think this is a bit hypocritical, as What If..? is a literal cartoon. Still, even if phoned in, every voice actor maintains a sense of continuity from their live-action performances to their animated ones. At least, until Benicio Del Toro came in. It desperately lacks the subtlety or mystery that The Collector had in live-action and brought a more boisterous character to the mix. In this variation, he murdered not only Malekith and Hela but also Thor and Captain America. It would’ve been believable if he actually was as menacing as Thanos, but that moment is never found. Instead, we get a fairly standard fistfight that doesn’t feel as stylized and visually vibrant as last week’s episode.
In fact, it seems that the episode took some visual downgrade from last week. While the Captain Carter episode felt highly reminiscent of Brad Bird’s work in The Iron Giant, T’Challa Star Lord’s feels rather flat and unengaging, which is a shame considering the vocal talents of this week. The fight scenes aren’t as epic as the show thinks they are, and the “large-scale” moments of wonder don’t feel as impactful. Thankfully, a great leading performance from Chadwick Boseman and terrific writing save the episode from being an uneventful entry in the Multiverse. What if…? doesn’t seem interested in setting the stage for the next big MCU event, which feels welcomed, as we’re likely going to get one fun story a week to keep us looking forward to the next MCU movie. If the animation style improves itself for next week, and the voice acting feels less phoned in from its supporting cast, then we might have a great show upon our hands. Time will tell if subsequent episodes will improve.