What If…? Episodes 1-3 Review: A Mix of Iffy and Marvelous

What If…? Episodes 1-3 Review: A Mix of Iffy and Marvelous

Marvel’s What If…? could almost be called Fan Service: The Series. Not that the Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn’t cater to what fans want, but this does so even more than that. Want more of Peggy Carter and Howard Stark? Done. Mark Ruffalo inserted into scenes from the Edward Norton Incredible Hulk? Why not. Hell, this show even manages to bring Chadwick Boseman back one last time. Not to mention Yondu, for whom the task is considerably easier.

But it is also absolutely an anthology show. While producers have cagily hinted at a more significant place in the MCU, for now, at least, there is no connection between episodes save the Watcher’s (Jeffrey Wright’s) classic Star Trek-like introduction. Though all three leave things open for possible continuations of their individual stories. So how are What If…? episodes 1-3?

The highlight so far is the second episode, which imagines T’Challa (Boseman. never betraying a trace of his illness in a lively vocal performance) becoming Star-Lord instead of the Black Panther. Just having more Boseman might make it inherently a winner, but it’s also the best story. A worthy addition to the Guardians of the Galaxy sub-franchise, it sends the new Star-Lord on a heist with the Ravagers. Because this Star-Lord acts selflessly rather than selfishly, his reputation is much improved. And his heroic deeds are galactic in scale. Which leads to a few surprises among his crew.

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Full of witty twists and turns, it also boasts some of the better turns to voice acting from key MCU cast members, including Karen Gillan, Josh Brolin, and even an unexpected Benicio Del Toro. It deserves to be considered alongside the movies, which isn’t quite the case with the other two.

Episode one, which sees Peggy Carter take the super soldier serum and Steve Rogers pilot a giant mech, never goes far beyond its premise, but maybe it doesn’t need to. Feeling more like a typical animated series, it’s mainly just Nazi-smashing good versus evil. And it brings back Dominic Cooper’s Howard Stark to interact with Captain Carter (Hayley Atwell), for fans of their short-lived show together.

Producers have already suggested Captain Carter will return, but it’s not clear there’s a compelling need for that. Especially compared to the way the T’Challa episode leaves us hanging.

If anyone thinks Boseman can’t be replaced, they may be spiritually correct, but probably not literally. Episode 3 demonstrates that impersonators can work, as Lake Bell does an excellent Scarlett Johansson in a Black Widow-centric alternate take on the Avengers’ origin. Clark Gregg also returns as Agent Coulson, playing him pointedly weirder than ever before. And yes, that means weirder even than alien Coulson and robot Coulson from the Agents of SHIELD TV series.

This episode is framed as a murder mystery, and stays intriguing until the final reveal, which doesn’t feel quite right somehow. But it does allow Mark Ruffalo the chance to do a couple of Edward Norton Hulk scenes. Perhaps Marvel will eventually explain that two Banner variants switched places. And the two War Machines as well.

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The animation style feels similar to recent DC offerings, where it looks like a combination of rotoscoping and caricature. It’s a touch distracting at first, but less so in the Guardians episode where almost all the characters are aliens anyway. If anything, it resembles the sort of comics where the characters look slightly stylized but the coloring appears painted. With the added depth that cel shading and rotoscoping can bring. If there’s a disconnect, it’s that this is presented as almost the same universe as the live-action movies.

Speaking of…knowledge of the MCU movies feels like a prerequisite. Though each episode shows the point in the MCU at which the given timeline diverges, it expects a near-instant flash of recognition from the viewer regarding the key scenes in question. That won’t likely be an issue for most, but this isn’t the show for newcomers. Conversely, however, it doesn’t — yet — add anything essential or must-see to the existing prime timeline.

So unlike almost every other entry in the MCU canon, it’s not crucial appointment TV. In that aspect it’s more like the original plan for Ant-Man, back when Kevin Feige envisioned a second-tier for filmmakers to try things out. Rather than having everything fuel the Avengers. Hey, maybe Edgar Wright’s Scott Lang can finally get a shot, in animation!

Grades:

Episode 1: 2.5/5

2: 5/5

3: 3/5

If any of the given premises happens to be your personal wish fulfillment, add an extra half-star where applicable.

What If…? premieres on Wednesday, August 11 on Disney+.

Recommended Reading: What If? Classic: The Complete Collection Vol. 1

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