Marvel's What If...? Series Review: Imaginative storytelling that lives up to Marvel's exalted standards
Marvel's latest animated series isn't perfect, but nevertheless pushes creative limits to tell intriguing stories
Comic book stories are known for pushing the limits of creativity, with stories that extend beyond our universe, into even multiple realities. Who dies in an alleyway at Gotham on a fateful night can decide who becomes Batman (or Joker) in DC, and who gets bitten by a radioactive spider decides what happens to Peter Parker and his uncle Ben Parker.
Marvel's latest animated limited series What If...? is an exploration into the multiple realities that exist in the MCU. Each of the nine episodes starts with the idea of what might have happened, had characters done things differently. For the sake of explaining these realities and the narratives that branch out, the makers bring in one of Marvel's all-powerful cosmic beings called Watcher, who possesses the ability to transcend through time and space to witness stories across the multiverse. The Watcher, however, isn't allowed to interact or intervene with the storylines.
Creator: AC Bradley
Cast: Jeffrey Wright, Chadwick Boseman, Samuel L Jackson, Mick Wingert
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar
From the onset, What If...? is clear about what the series is about. Barring one or two episodes, there are no shallow explorations here. For example, the first episode shows what would happen if Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) had been injected with the superhero serum instead of Steve Rogers, and we notice that she has to face condescending, sexist comments, even after taking up the shield. Similarly, the episode also shows HYDRA Stomper, a suit that Howard Stark builds, akin to Tony's Mark 1 armour. It's fascinating to think how a small change in the graph of these events can advance a pivotal event that created the MCU as we know of it. The stories are all fresh, with layers of plotlines constructed within these possibilities.
Each of the episodes is also different in tone, in keeping with how small changes can cause effects that can end worlds and universes. This is best shown in the Doctor Strange episode which is a dark, emotional rollercoaster into the character's psyche. Dr Strange struggles with grief and the initial portions that show how he is stuck in the time-loop created by an absolute point in time, are emotionally overwhelming and hard to watch. On the flip side, we also get to see a cheerful Thanos, a powerful Collector wearing Hela's crown, and a spoilt, carefree Thor who invades Earth to throw world-ending parties. Even episodes in which the writing and innovation aren't up to scratch, present a world unto itself with the look and feel.
There are weak episodes too, like the one in which the Avengers get killed by a serial killer or the one in which a virus from the quantum realm causes a zombie apocalypse. In the former, the writers have chosen an ambitious idea, but we seldom feel the immediacy and threat of Avengers being killed. Due to a few underwhelming turn of events, heartwarming ideas like Loki avenging the death of his brother end up as a lost cause. Though the zombie episode shows potential, the lack of depth lets it down. The offbeat Thor story brings in much-needed levity with some hilarious jokes, but a silly Thor throwing parties and fighting Captain Marvel for 30 minutes doesn't create as good an impact, as it might have done on paper. In episode 7, Killmonger rescues Tony Stark in Afghanistan and ends up plotting against Stark and his friends. The idea is convincing, but the episode shows an invincible Killmonger and it is hard to buy that he can outsmart someone like Tony during the events of Iron Man 1.
All is not lost though. The final two episodes of the series are riveting and make you forgive the duds. In episode 8, the evil AI Ultron wins over the mind stone and comes to life in Vision's body. Out of the blue, an infinity gauntlet-wielding Thanos appears to end the universe, and Ultron instantly chops him down with his laser, as if the mad man means nothing. Is this possible? Why didn't the five infinity stones protect Thanos? If it is possible, is Ultron's will more powerful than Vision's? The episode gives no time to think about this with its engaging writing. Ultron takes over the infinity stones, and in an unexpected turn of events, Ultron begins to threaten The Watcher himself, the all-powerful being who shows us these events. A power-hungry Ultron threatens the multiverse and Watcher, who has seen all possibilities that have happened and can happen, is rattled. The shocking end shows signs of an all-out spectacle for a finale, and we do get it. Watcher becomes a cosmic Nick Fury of sorts to recruit a team from the multiverse to fight Ultron. All the realities come together, to tie it all up.
Writing a series like What If...? isn't an easy feat. If re-writing a well-known character arc isn't enough, the writers are also tasked with encapsulating it within 30 minutes to give a satisfying story, and it is all done quite well in the series. The convincing animation also makes it a seamless experience. The second episode is easily one of the most colourful ones, with beautiful animation. The measured performances are also a big boon to this series. That this is one of Boseman's final works is sure to make a fan well-up. His voice-acting gives a fresh shade to the fashionable T'Challa, and it does make the series very memorable. What if..? may not be a perfect series, but it does add to the anticipation of what Marvel might have in store for the future. The show has the potential to make a big impact on the future of MCU, and if you are already waiting for a second season, remember that this excitement is how some of the best films of MCU left you with. And that's usually a sign of a work done well.