Marvel’s What If…? (Review): Squandered its Potential

Marvel throws off its shackles of continuity for a series of unlimited possibilities. Read on for my thoughts about Marvel’s What If…?

Marvel‘s What If…? takes advantage of the multiverse concept (first introduced in Loki) to push the MCU’s storytelling boundaries. The opening titles introduce us to a character named Uatu (voiced by Jeffrey Wright), AKA “The Watcher”. This Watcher is an alien who appears to exist between realities. He observes all that ever was and all that ever will be. Yet he maintains a strict oath of non-interference. Uatu narrates the series as he shares stories about Marvel universes similar to the one we know, but different. These differences may range from “basically the movie plots” to “WAY more devastating than the movies.”

Unfortunately, Marvel’s What If…? didn’t live up to the potential of its enticingly open-ended question. Episode 1 features the premise: What if Captain Carter Were The First Avenger? In other words, what if Peggy Carter got the Super Soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers? That’s an interesting concept on paper. But in practice it plays out as a 30 minute version of The First Avenger. It’s not an exact remake by any means; it’s just not as distinct as it could have been. I’m on record as saying The First Avenger is my favourite Marvel movie and, though I enjoyed the callbacks, the episode was underwhelming.

What If's Captain Carter episode and Steve reveal was a Marvel priority -  Polygon
Remember this scene in TFA?

Ep. 1 wasn’t a great start, but not every episode adheres so strictly to Marvel’s films. Approximately 5/9 are inspired from their stories. And only 2 of those 5 took an interesting spin on the source material (Episodes 4 and 8 if you’re interested). The rest either didn’t deviate enough from their movie-plots (like Captain Carter), or were decent but unexceptional. Of the four completely original stories, I very much enjoyed Episodes 2 and 7 but disliked Episodes 5 and 9.

This is going to sound stupid but bear with me: Marvel’s What If…? had too much humour. I’m not one of those people who needs my power-fantasy stories super dark and gritty all the time. But I’d like if characters didn’t try to be funny in every circumstance either. I know too much drama without levity is often depressing and unpleasant. But too much humour also undercuts the weight a story might otherwise have. Marvel’s What If…? maintained a light tone which worked well for some episodes (Ep. 7). Others would have been better if characters took their situations more seriously.

Like, Episode 5’s Earth ends up decimated! It’s a zombie apocalypse where beloved characters must kill their friends, leave allies for dead, and witness the end of their world– yet they can’t help but quip! Maybe you could argue with me that humans must keep a sense of humour in the face of tragedy or go insane. I’d agree with you, except the episode doesn’t present the scenario in that way. I just saw a bunch of people dying and the survivors joking around amongst themselves. It made them look like sociopaths…

Marvel's What If Episode 5 Trailer Teases Zombie Outbreak
Not something I want to joke about…

Still, other episodes –notably the Doctor Strange one– boldly tell tragic stories with stakes and few winks to the audience. And that Doctor Strange story is, dare I say, one of the best self-contained plots in the MCU. It set the benchmark by which I’m judging everything else. Like, “You can do that, so why are the rest so mediocre?”

The season finale was also a letdown. It was my least favourite episode by a wide margin… All my gripes stemmed from their decision to tie season 1’s plots together out of nowhere. Marvel’s What If…? all but pitched itself as an anthology series, and that was its main appeal to me. Did I expect they might return to some of the worlds later in the MCU? Sure. But going back to every world weakened one of the show’s best aspects.

Perhaps my favourite thing about What If…? is that each story we’re seeing from the multiverse is (supposed to be) a one-and-done adventure. The writers are allowed to go bonkers with the story, then we leave each world with the consequences of what we’ve seen. I loved how every episode ended on cliffhangers for better or for worse! We had to use our imaginations to guess what might happen next. But THEN the finale resolves all those beautiful cliffhangers and ruins the fun. It was a real “Party Pooper”, to quote Episode 7…

And, if that wasn’t bad enough, the plot of Episode 9 barely made sense. There’s no way the group of people we met in this show should have stood a chance against the big-bad. I’m generally forgiving of these things, but the leap in logic was too far even for me…

There’s obviously a lot about this show which bugged me, but Marvel’s What If…? had its charms as well:

I was glad Marvel’s film actors reprised their roles for What If…? (not everyone, but most of them). Hearing familiar vices gave the series sense of continuity with the greater MCU. It also helped episodes feel more “legitimate”. Like, an immature frat-boy Thor is easier to buy when he’s voiced by Chris Hemsworth as opposed to anyone else. There’s a fine line between accepting these characters as variations on the familiar and watching new characters in all but name.

Tomorrow's Episode of Marvel's "What If...?" Will Introduce T'Challa  Star-Lord
Fundamentally T’Challa, but also very much NOT Black Panther.

Two good examples of characters who felt new to me are Black Widow and Captain Marvel. Lake Bell’s Widow isn’t that different to Scarlett Johansson but she wasn’t the exact character I’ve grown familiar with either. Her performance was well done, don’t get me wrong! But I use her to illustrate that, whenever these characters weren’t voiced by their movie-actors, something seemed off– especially when they interacted with other Avengers.

Feeling “off” doesn’t necessarily mean feeling worse though. Alexandra Daniels’ Captain Marvel actually resonated with me in a way I didn’t expect! I’m not well-versed on the character, but I’ve never been a fan of the comic-book version or the MCU variation. Daniels made me like Captain Marvel though. Carol Danvers came across as more heroic and less arrogant than Brie Larson’s portrayal in the movies. I’m not trying to over-hype Daniels or anything. Her performance was a pleasant surprise is all.

For those wondering: Marvel’s What If…? is a great send-off for Chadwick Boseman, whose appearances as T’Challa are the last in his impressive filmography. It’s a strange feeling hearing his voice in something new… So if you’re a fan of Boseman, I’d recommend the series– if only to support him once more.

Jeffrey Wright was a fantastic choice to voice Uatu! His aloof performance enticed me to learn more about the character; yet he maintained command of What If…? with each appearance. Every time his voice emanates from the screen, you listen. His calm demeanor was so well-crafted that it took me off guard whenever The Watcher became flustered, or showed emotion.

The action sequences of What If…? were gorgeously rendered. They were chaotic, yet easy to follow. Almost every scene of combat flowed nicely and kept me engaged. I was quite impressed with some sequences! Some of them were so good they made me wonder why Marvel’s movies aren’t as impressive. All in all– great direction there!

And, as much as I complained about the plots, they all entertained me. I never found the show boring, even at its most frustrating. Each episode was a fun-enough half-hour of my week. Here’s hoping for a season 2 which lives up to the show’s potential…

The MCU has many better offerings than What If…?, but it’s alright If You’re Bored.

What’s a cool “What If” story you’d like to see next season? What did you think of Marvel’s What If…? Please share your thoughts in the comments (no spoilers please). If you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know. Also be sure to Like this article on Facebook and share if you enjoyed!

Till next time,

Joe Morin

REVIEW METRIC: Don’t bother; If you’re bored; Worth a watch; Pretty darn good; Must see; Watch it A.S.A.P.

By Joseph Morin

Joe's passion for film and entertainment began at 7 years old when his younger brother demanded to watch Duel of the Fates every day for weeks (on DVD). Joe admired the sequence so much, he decided to dedicate his life to film-making and storytelling. He has a degree in Cinema and Media Studies from York University. Joe loves DC superheroes (especially Superman), the first six Star Wars movies, and arguing about media with anyone who will listen.

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