*Warning: This piece contains spoilers for episode three of What If…?*
Have you ever asked yourself the question: What if every Avenger died? You may have jokingly spoiled that every single Avenger dies in Infinity War to annoy your friends who haven’t seen it, but the possibility of every Avenger dying seemed like an implausibility in the sacred timeline of the MCU…that is, until The Watcher (Jeffrey Wright) finally revealed to all of us that, in another timeline, variations of the Avengers were killed one-by-one before Loki (Tom Hiddleston) came to Earth and they assembled to battle. During Fury’s Big Week, where three events happened in a matter of days: Iron Man (Mick Wingert)’s recruitment, The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) finally revealing himself to the world, and Thor (Chris Hemsworth)’s arrival on Earth to reclaim Mjolnir, a mysterious killer frames S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff (Lake Bell) and Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) for murdering Tony Stark, Thor, and Bruce Banner, whilst targeting members of Fury’s team. Who (or what) could it possibly be? Fury’s Big Week then becomes a Whodunit mystery, and the villain reveal may completely shock you.
This episode represents everything What If…? should be, with one tiny shift changing literally everything you know about the MCU and its sacred timeline. The change, in this week’s episode, is Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) being an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. instead of becoming the Wasp, and replacing Natasha as a leader of a mission outside Odessa, Ukraine (this was mentioned by Romanoff, in passing, in The Winter Soldier: “Somebody shot out my tires near Odessa”). This results in the death of Hope, who was killed by none other than Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Hope’s death led to Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) vowing to destroy everything Nick Fury holds dear, as he becomes the Yellowjacket instead of Darren Cross. So, yeah, the one who figured out how to kill a God and a Hulk is none other than Hank Pym–and you can probably figure it out since the killer is imperceptible.
How does Clint’s arrow fire at Thor, when he isn’t touching it, or how on earth did Hulk EXPLODE after a bullet penetrated his body? There’s only one answer to all of this…a person so small you can’t even see it! And the reveal is quite fun and showcases how What If…? can be completely zany and unpredictable throughout its weekly stories. It is worrisome not to have a weekly narrative throughline built through the weekly stories, except for The Watcher closely paying attention to the events without interfering, as episodes could lack consistency from one week to the next. The first episode wasn’t that memorable but had beautiful animation, the second episode had terrific writing, but shoddy animation, and this week is a mixed bag of interesting ideas peppered with changes that don’t really work with lifeless animation. There doesn’t seem to be much cohesion from one episode to the next, and this could pose a problem in the larger scheme of its place in the MCU, especially when executive producer Brad Winderbaum revealed not long ago that they are planning the show to be an “annual release”, akin to cyclical Saturday Morning Cartoons:
“We’ll see what happens. Obviously, I don’t want to predict the future with this new world we live in, but our intention is to make it an annual release.”
We’re beginning to see more of The Watcher, inside the episode, as opposed to introducing the change and leaving until the end, which begins to wonder if he will, at some point, interfere in the story and not let it play out. The Watchers have done it in comics, so it’s only a matter of time before something will inevitably happen and he’ll do something to prevent it from happening, or change its story further. This could spice up the series, and make Utau the central character of its narrative, instead of having episodic content for MCU fans to watch to tame their excitement before No Way Home releases in theatres. An episodic show is fine, but there needs to be some justification to understand how this will impact the different timelines of the MCU. What If…? could’ve been the perfect show to explain how the multiverse works, through The Watcher’s teachings, but now it only feels like a novelty show starring many returning Marvel actors. The best part of the episode is seeing Clark Gregg return in a Marvel Studios production as Agent Coulson, which will make Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. fans giddy with joy. Even if the events of the show seem inconsequential, the mere fact of Coulson being an integral part of the episode is amazing in and of itself, and Gregg is the best vocal performer here, alongside Jackson & Hiddleston, who has a fun variation of Loki. We’ve seen lots of Loki variants in his TV series, but it obviously doesn’t seem to be over, and Hiddleston brings the best form of humor in the episode by far.
However, bringing original actors to reprise their live-action roles doesn’t necessarily equate to quality voicework. As much as Michael Douglas did a great job in the Ant-Man films, his villainous turn as Hank Pym is quite frankly underwhelming. His caricatural, almost psychotic tone doesn’t match the seriousness of the character he played in the Ant-Man movies and feels terribly silly in the process. The audience should be frightened to see a usually calm character like Hank Pym in such a distressed state, but the end result just feels unengaging and throws audiences completely off in the process. The fight between Loki disguised as Fury and Pym isn’t also that memorable, with the episode’s only fun action sequence being the part where the Hulk suddenly blows up a couple of minutes after he says “I can’t die.”
The inconsequential events of What If…? leaves very little to be desired when it comes to the grand scheme of the MCU. When every title sets up the next title (and the next), it may feel like a breath of fresh air for some who want Marvel to slow down on their worldbuilding, but the show’s lack of urgency prevents it from being anything other than a novelty. It’s clear that some episodes will be better than others, but What If…? may just be the most forgettable thing Marvel Studios will do. The concept is there, and the ideas are interesting enough to hold our attention, but there needs to be more, and fast, for the show to have some momentum again. If the next few episodes are zanier than this week’s and truly unleash the show’s potential of a true Multiverse of Madness, then we may be in for a treat, but the jury is still out on that one.
The third episode of What If…? is now streaming on Disney+