*Warning: This piece contains spoilers for episode six of What If…?*
After two excellent episodes which showcased how bonkers the potential of “one small shift” can change the entire course of the MCU, What If…? returns to platitudes with a “What If…Tony Stark never became Iron Man?” In this episode, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) saves Stark (Mick Wingert) during the attack which caused him to be kidnapped by The Ten Rings and become Iron Man, ultimately preventing The Avengers from ever assembling and Nick Fury’s initiative never seeing the light of day. And while that concept could’ve worked with a better voice cast and a more exciting story, this week’s episode feels like a step down from last week’s insane Zombie episode.
After such an episode, one would hope that What If…? continues to be as mind-blowing and fun as the writers and director’s sheer creative freedom in conceiving Marvel Zombies. But since we’re looking at isolated stories, our appreciation may vary. On top of having quite an uninteresting story, this week’s voice cast isn’t as convincing as in the previous episodes. With the actors that didn’t accept reprising their roles, Marvel Studios hired soundalikes to replicate the iconic voice of actors like Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Letitia Wright. And while the choice to re-cast Shuri in this episode is fine, since she was a child during the events of Iron Man, none of the other replacements sound like their original counterparts or bring any life to their performances. Wingert’s voice is surprisingly high-pitched and can’t match the natural charm Downey had as Tony Stark.
Of course, one understands why Downey didn’t want to reprise his role. Still, Marvel should’ve hired a better soundalike than Wingert for the part, as the voice seems unnatural and will throw off everyone who has a pre-conceived idea of what the characters sound like, as they were accustomed to having RDJ play Stark for ten years. Other voice actors sound fine, even the soundalikes, but their performances are more phoned-in than anything else. There isn’t any charm to Beth Hoyt’s vocal portrayal of Pepper Potts, which seems like the antithesis to the life Paltrow brought while playing her. Downey and Paltrow’s chemistry was so infectious that it could not be replicated unless they voiced the characters.
Even with a mediocre voice cast, it was great to see Michael B. Jordan return as Killmonger and deliver a more layered villainous plot than in the original Black Panther. Instead of going through Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), he decides to go to Tony Stark because he knows he’ll be able to build a suit of armor that will allow him to destroy whoever he wants to destroy. But he doesn’t want to destroy anything: he just wants power. Ultimate power. To be the king of Wakanda and the next Black Panther. So, in a surprising twist of events, he kills T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), and Stark [side note: Stark has died in every episode he is in, which probably now makes it an absolute point in time, that no matter the multiversal variation, he will always die] to set his plan in motion…until he ultimately kills Klaue to gain access to Wakanda. In this iteration, Killmonger doesn’t have the flame of vengeance in his eyes but always stays calm and collected even when he speaks to his sworn enemy, King T’Chaka (John Kani), to instill his trust he can take the heart-shaped-herb and become Black Panther.
That arc is the most exciting part of the episode, but we’ve already seen it before. Killmonger manipulates whoever he has to manipulate to have access to Wakanda and creates chaos in the country to access power. It was done in Black Panther. It doesn’t need to be re-hashed again, even if his path to power differs, and causes him to straight-up murder T’Challa and play on T’Chaka’s emotions to get where he wants to go. And while Jordan and Boseman share a rather emotional scene (which hits particularly harder in the context of Boseman’s death), you can’t help but sense a sentiment of déjà vu permeating the entire episode.
It’s a particular shame, especially when the show’s last two episodes were incredible. This feels like a confirmation that What If…? is a hit-or-miss show, with some mind-blowing episodes overshadowing some not-so-great ones. No idea where we’re going to go next on Wednesday, but even with some bad episodes down the line, the MCU always has a knack for surprising even the most skeptical of audience members. Let’s see.