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Marvel’s new animated anthology features one story per episode exploring how one change or decision can lead to a very different outcome than the MCU timeline we’ve come to know.
Jeffrey Wright (Westworld) serves as narrator for each episode, featuring some big names reprising their MCU roles, including Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton, Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Tom Hiddleston as Loki, Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster, Paul Rudd as Scott Lang, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, and the late Chadwick Boseman in his final performance as T’Challa, aka Black Panther.
As the name implies, What If…? opens the door to all sorts of fascinating storytelling possibilities, and this series takes full advantage of the hypothetical premise. From the first episode—which gives us a super-soldier-serum-powered Peggy Carter—it’s clear that the writers set out to give fans some alternate realities they’ve been longing to see. And some things they never knew they wanted, but will certainly be excited about. It’s also timely, considering we currently are in the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe (intentionally so, Marvel doesn’t do things by accident), with the multiverse now wide open after the events of the Loki finale.
What If…? doesn’t really look like anything we’ve seen in the MCU before. There are obvious comic influences in the animation, but its fluid, stylized aesthetic has more in common with classic mid-20th century illustration and fine art than it does with its humble origins. The decision to animate the series was a savvy one that allows it to go places and create scenarios that would be expensive and complicated to shoot otherwise. Limited only by their imaginations, the creative team takes on some interesting ideas here. What if Killmonger had saved Tony Stark in the first Iron Man movie? What if the Ravagers had picked up T’Challa from Earth instead of Peter Quill? What if the characters were zombies? It’s a like a collection of fanfiction writers’ alternate-universe fantasies come to life (that’s a compliment as far as I’m concerned).
With all the strangeness of these new worlds, it’s nice to have many of the actors back from the live-action universe reprising their roles. Their voices lend a comforting familiarity to the action, though at times they don’t seem quite as committed to their roles as they are in live action. Notably, some of the franchise’s most recognizable heroes have been recast, including Chris Evans (Steve Rogers), Robert Downey, Jr. (Tony Stark), and Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff). The replacements can be a little distracting at first, but their performances are good enough that once the story gets going you hardly notice. As the series narrator—who calls himself The Watcher (a figure comic-book fans should recognize)—Jeffrey Wright perfectly sets the tone for each episode.
It all adds up to a fascinating series, but not one that’s super accessible outside of Marvel’s die-hard fan base. There are references and deep cuts throughout each episode (the concept itself originated in the comics) that tie directly back to the film and TV properties. If you know, you know. Viewers with a more casual relationship to the MCU should still find the story entertaining and easy to follow on the surface, but may not get as much out of it on every level. If you’re in this boat and want a quick catch-up before digging into What If…? I highly recommend watching the relevant Marvel Studios Legends shorts, also available on Disney+.
What If…? is a creative and innovative departure for Marvel that should tide fans over while we wait for the next Phase 4 project, Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings on Sept. 3.
Your friends who are also Marvel fans. You know, the ones who dissected every episode of WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Loki with you. Time to get the band back together.
This is actually not the first time Marvel has gone down the What If…? path on screen. In Season 4 of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. the team entered a virtual reality in which a few small changes led to a vastly different world controlled by Hydra. The first episode of that arc was titled, naturally, “What If…”