As a young lad, there were comics I would buy on a regular basis and comics I would get on a whim or if something caught my eye. The one comic I would get on a semi-regular basis was What If. As the name implies, it presented familiar comic stories and explored the possibility of things turning out in a completely different way. Often, it would take one superhero and give them the mantle of a different hero such as the Punisher becoming Captain America. Sometimes, it would just go for something interesting or funny such as placing Conan in modern times or taking Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and other Marvel creators and turning them into the Fantastic Four. The most common thing it did, however, was taking a well-known story and turning it on its head somehow. These issues would often reference some minor part of the original story and show a butterfly effect of what could have happened if that one minor change occurred. Most issues were narrated by Uatu, a member of a powerful race of beings called the Watcher with each scenario acting as a separate universe within the Multiverse. Most issues were self-contained, although there were a few multi-part stories, miniseries, or sequels. So when Disney+ announced it was going to do an animated anthology, I was intrigued. Let’s get into it and, once again, there are spoilers ahead.
While Marvel’s live action movies and shows are generally regarded as well-done, they haven’t had as much success in animation. What If was different, however. Despite being a CGI cartoon, it was made to look like a hand-drawn 2D comic while the characters resembled the actors who played them in the MCU.
Another great thing about this show was that many of the cast members returned to do the voices for their characters. This included the late Chadwick Boseman playing the Black Panther one last time before passing away. Now, some actors such as Samuel Jackson have done animation before so they did a great job, as expected. What I was impressed by was that they managed to get people like Michael Douglas to do voice work since I’m not sure Douglas ever did animation before. Seems like something that should be “beneath” him. There was at least one episode based on Marvel Zombies which featured him, so I just think it’s funny that an Oscar award winner was directed to make zombie snarls for a comicbook cartoon. The voice work and the general look of the series was great, but what about the writing?
Hits and Misses
Remember how I said I would get What If comics on a semi-regular basis? Well, the great thing about the series was that you could usually look at the cover and see exactly what the story was since the premise was plastered right there in all caps. If I liked the concept, I’d get the issue but if not, well, there was always next month. The series was very hit or miss. So was this show.
Like the series, there were episodes that took an interesting spin on a familiar story such as the episode dealing with the Avengers being killed off before forming the team. There were also episode featuring one hero turning into another hero such as the first episode featuring Peggy Carter turning into a super soldier instead of Steve Rogers. Then there were a few goofy ones like Thor becoming a party-going frat god since he grew up without Loki and thus, never had to learn responsibility. They varied in tone and concept, which meant they varied in quality.
The aforementioned episode with the Avengers getting killed was an interesting one that tied most of the Phase One movies together and set up an intriguing murder mystery. That one was probably my favorite and I liked the reveal at the end. The Peggy Carter episode was an entertaining little superhero romp even but it was also pretty much beat-for-beat the first Captain America movie. It was okay but not great. Then there was the episode featuring T’Challa becoming Starlord which was a little too cheesy. I get it that they wanted to have a funny episode but the jokes were pretty forced and I didn’t get the feeling there were any stakes since everything went a little too easily for the heroes. Even in episodes that I really liked such as the one with Ultron taking over the world, there were some odds creative decisions like killing Thanos off in a single second so that Ultron could get the Infinity Gauntlet.
Not All Endings Are Happy
Still, there was one thing this series did that carried over from the comics: they weren’t afraid to have a downer ending. Make no mistake, the original comic, as well as this series, had some happy endings. There were also some very bittersweet endings or endings where it was up in the air what might happen next. Roughly half the stories ended on a pretty depressing note. After all, all these stories took place in alternate realities so why not have some fun? This show didn’t shy away from that. There were at least two episodes where an entire universe was destroyed. The Marvel Zombies episode was already a pretty dark and gory (for a PG-13 series) story but just when there was a ray of hope after the climax, the last second of the episode had one of the bleakest images one could imagine for an ending. It was great.
This Time It Really Is All Connected
One thing I enjoyed about the first season was that it led to a crossover event in the last two episodes. This was a very MCU thing to do and while most What If comics were single-issue stories, as I mentioned before, the odd storyline did exist.
After Ultron gained his universe’s version of the Infinity Gauntlet, he waged war on the Multiverse. This, of course, alarmed Uatu who set out to stop him. Like his comicbook counterpart, the MCU version of Uatu has a great deal of love for humanity and broke his oath (the comic version did this more than once as the guy is just one big softie). The interesting thing is that if you were to watch Uatu throughout the season, he started off mostly in silhouette with only a few lines here and there while he narrated the stories. Gradually, he became more visible and spoke a lot more to the audience and, at one point, even spoke directly to Dr. Strange. This was a great way to show that he was getting closer to caring for mortals.
Once Ultron gained an Infinity Gauntlet and started causing trouble, Uatu gathered heroes from most of the previous episodes, forming the Guardians of the Multiverse. Because of COVID, scheduling was set back and the animation studio could not complete a tenth episode which was meant to feature Gamora. Gamora still factored into the finale, so it was a bit awkward but the showrunners promised her story will appear next season, so that’s good news. At any rate, the showdown between this team and Ultron was really well done as was the Ultron vs Uatu fight (we need more cosmic battles in the MCU).
What was really interesting was the possibility of crossing over into the live action movies and shows. A prominent character from this season was an evil version of Dr. Strange who kinda destroyed his universe and had to make atonements. he was a member of Uatu’s team and played a large role in saving the Multiverse. What’s interesting is that a recent trailer for the next Dr. Strange movie include what appears to be an evil variant of Strange. Same guy? Time will tell. It should also be noted that each episode of What If contained a TVA screen to introduce the premise so maybe we’ll get a connection to the events in Loki at some point.
What If was a high quality animated show with some episodes that were better than others but was very fun. Whether or not it will connect to the wider MCU is up in the air but I’m satisfied in knowing there is at least one more season on the way. Coming up next is our final entry and my personal favorite, Hawkeye.