What If...? review: Marvel at its middling worst; even a Chadwick Boseman tribute can't save it
What If...? review: Marvel's placeholder animation series is too slight to be taken seriously. Even a Chadwick Boseman tribute isn't enough to save it.
What If…? opens up a world of possibility for Marvel, which it explores with enthusiasm, but also, in an act of hubris, with one hand tied smirkingly behind its back. This isn’t the genre-busting alternate take on popular material that it could have been, but merely a cosmetic remix — more Tony Kakkar, less Chemical Brothers, I suppose.
Three episodes (of nine) were provided for preview, and since What If...? is essentially an anthology, this is a review of those three episodes only. Surprisingly, though, there is very little separating the first these episodes in terms of quality. The animation-style is uniform; the writing, by head scribe AC Bradley, and the general tone, is consistently light. What If…? is a cartoon, but it’s aimed neither at adults nor at children. And it certainly can’t be enjoyed by somebody who isn’t confidently familiar with the intricacies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Watch the What If...? trailer here:
For instance, episode two reimagines the plot of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies with T’Challa as Star-Lord instead of Peter Quill. It's dedicated to the late Chadwick Boseman, for whom it serves as a warm tribute. They’ve even recreated his iconic swaggering gait. But the best thing about it a running gag featuring none other than (a reformed) Thanos. A third-act resolution in this episode is described as ‘classic Star-Lord’ by one character, but to anybody who’s seen Race 2, it’s actually classic Abbas Mustan. If you know, you know.
Episode one, however, is more straightforward. It imagines a world in which Peggy Carter volunteered to be injected with the super soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers, who appears as his original puny self here. Although unlike Peggy, who’s voiced by a returning Hayley Atwell, Captain Rogers isn’t voiced by Chris Evans.
Nor is Black Widow voiced by Scarlett Johansson in episode three. It would’ve been morbidly funny if she had, considering recent events. This is the episode that presents the biggest ‘what if’ of the first three: "What if each of the six original Avengers died And Then There Were None-style, before they could do any avenging?" Like episode one, which retroactively presents the MCU as being more woke, episode three goes to great lengths to be more welcoming of The Incredible Hulk, a film that has been getting the step-motherly treatment for close to a decade-and-a-half now.
It’s all good fun, but some of those silent shorts that precede Disney features have more emotional heft than anything that you see in What If…?
No comic book reimagining, for example, can be as blisteringly brilliant as Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son, which asked the question, “What if Superman had been raised in the Soviet Union instead of a Kansas farm?” Or, more recently, the Peter B Parker version of Spider-Man from Into the Spider-Verse, compared hilariously by prod Phil Lord and Christopher Miller to The Karate Kid’s Mr Miyagi, ‘if Mr Miyagi doesn't know anything’. What sets stories such as this apart from the third of What If…? that Disney has chosen to preview is that the inciting incidents in them had ripple effects — politically, culturally, morally. They reshaped the future of their respective worlds.
What If…? simply applies a new coat of paint on it. The cynical takeaway would be that it is simply a four-and-a-half hour trailer for the MCU’s multiverse phase. The show not only teases the directions in which the future of franchise could be headed, but it also explains some of the mechanics — not that understanding how the engine works is something that we need to know, really. At this point, fans are willing to taste whatever Kevin Feige and friends put on their plate.
Which, in a way, should encourage the studio to be bolder at taking risks. Marvel has a captive audience that isn’t going anywhere — they didn’t even complain much about Black Widow, a movie so bad that charging $30 for it warrants CBI intervention. But What If…? isn’t bad enough to inspire an incensed reaction; it just… is.
And that’s the problem. While the production, as expected, is above reproach — the series has Dreamworks circa 1998-style visuals — there is a sameness that makes it appear as if the characters lack individuality. Even their sense of humour is sort of similar, which seems at constant odds with Jeffrey Wright’s solemn, Rod Serling-esque opening narration. Perhaps the second season can address the biggest question of them all: “What if What If…? was better?”