NOC Review: ‘What If’ Recontextualizes the MCU

I’m going to do something a bit different for this one. You see, unlike the past three MCU shows we’ve been treated to (wow, I can’t believe we live in a world where I get to say something like that that!), What If takes more of an anthology approach ala Black Mirror and Twilight Zone. And that, essentially, was the spirit of the original comic book series.

They were one-off issues that would take an established storyline or character in the Marvel Universe, change one element of the story, and in doing so, flip the script of the narrative entirely. It was honestly great fun to read, and sometimes the stories would be exciting, or funny, or scary. However, as such, I cannot evaluate where the serialized story is progressing to from the first three episodes, as I did with WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Captain America and the Winter Soldier, and Loki, because there is no serialized story.

The first three episodes of What If are all standalone stories, like issues of the comic series. So to do the show, and original series, justice I’m going to give you mini-reviews of each of the three episodes and their storylines, and average the grade out to a larger grade for the series so far. Kind of reminds you of your high school midterm, essays, and finals doesn’t it? I swear if my grades were based on Marvel though, I’d have done a crap ton better. Anyway, here we go.

Captain Carter (center) and the Howling Commandos in Marvel Studios’ WHAT IF…? exclusively on Disney+. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Episode 1

The first episode of What If focuses on a universe where Peggy Carter received the Super Soldier Serum in place of Steve Rogers, to become Captain Carter. The events are brought about by a simple decision in the very beginning — that of this version of Peggy choosing to stay downstairs in the lab during Steve’s would-be transformation rather than in the control room upstairs. In doing so, a series of events occurs causing Steve to get shot, and Peggy and Howard improvising to complete the Super Soldier transformation process, by using Peggy as the subject instead of Steve.

Episode 1 takes the events of Captain America: The First Avenger and reframes these aspects in a new way. The result is exciting and fun. The action is spectacular, and so is the animation. But most importantly, we finally see Peggy being put in the spotlight where she belongs, rather than being relegated to the sexist assistant role she received during Agent Carter. And yet, ironically enough, in some ways, some things never change, like how the men of the Strategic Scientific Reserve are still sexist asses. Even with her powers and after recovering the Tessaract from Hydra, Peggy is still treated like garbage, with jerks telling her women aren’t soldiers, and blah blah blah. Change the record you sexist douchebags!

The action in this installment positively sings. The scene where we are first introduced to Captain Carter is insanely badass. Peggy demolishes two cars, hurls a motorcycle at bad guys, and a takes out a squad of goons in such a badass way! She literally takes the tesseract back before Red Skull even gets a hold of it, showcasing how efficient and tough she is as a soldier, and more importantly, a super soldier.

But thankfully we’re not done with Steve! We finally get a predecessor to Iron Man, as Howard builds him a suit, causing him to be The Hydra Stomper! And as expected, he and Peggy still have that chemistry. It’s a testament to how their love story transcends any and all universes. But with it, so comes their tragedies. The only issue I have with this one is how silly the tragedy plays out here, versus what we got in The First Avenger. But the rest of the episode is great!

It’s just incredibly interesting how What If plays with this story keeping a lot of the core elements that we know about these characters the same, while dramatically changing others. The result in this installment is exciting enough, as an intro episode, but child’s play compared to what comes after.

Mini-Score: B+

(L-R): The Collector and T’Challa/Star-Lord in Marvel Studios’ WHAT IF…? exclusively on Disney+. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Episode 2

Episode 2 is the most special, and most emotional episode out of the three, because it represents the final performance of our beloved Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa. Boseman is as charming as ever. Voice acting could easily be something one phones in, but ever the professional, the man still gives it the same panache he gave in every live action appearance of the character, and every single role he played. It makes you just miss him. So watch out. You may get teary eyed.

That out of the way, this episode primarily focuses on reframing the first Guardians of the Galaxy. It does posit the question about what would happen if T’Challa was abducted by Yondu’s Ravagers instead of Peter Quill. And the result: The universe would be SO MUCH better! In a way, it sort of makes you consider how much more of a garbage character Quill is (we still haven’t forgiven you for Infinity War, dude). I won’t spoil any of the surprises in the episode (of which there are many). But this one truly highlights the good heart, and logical mindset of a ruler and terrific character like T’Challa, and his effect on everyone around him.

Again, this one made me cry a bit because I will miss the character and his overall impact on the MCU. But the action is great! It’s super funny! And features some hilarious, amazing performances from Michael Rooker, Sean Gunn, and most surprising of all, Djimon Hounsou, who proves without a shadow of a doubt how truly under-utilized he’s been in the MCU. Plus this one has Easter eggs galore, including an extended role for a very popular duckbilled alien, that we’ve been wanting more of in the MCU.

I simply loved this one!

Mini-Score: A

(L-R): Nick Fury and Hawkeye in Marvel Studios’ WHAT IF…? exclusively on Disney+. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Episode 3

This one was my favorite simply on the basis of how seriously dark it was!

This is the most Twilight Zone episode of this anthology series, and it really seriously shakes you to your core.

I won’t spoil much, but it has to do with what would happen if The Avengers Initiative was destroyed before it could even come to life. It’s a mystery set during “Fury’s Big Week” — the era of the MCU that takes place between the events of Iron Man 2, Thor, and The Incredible Hulk. However the “what if” moment explores the effects of what would happen if some familiar characters we know from the MCU were recruited to S.H.I.E.L.D.

That’s all I’m going to give you.

I’ll say that Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg anchor this one. And Lake Bell does an amazing job emulating Scarlett Johansson. And of course any moments we get with Tom Hiddleston are always rich with charisma and charm. But the MVP will go to a very special guest star in a very chilling performance that I won’t discuss here for the sake of spoilers.

As dark and creepy as this one sort of gets, it’s also ridiculously funny! There are moments with Gregg and his perfect comedic timing with some ridiculously hilarious lines that rival the greatest comedic moments in the MCU ever. It really makes you miss Coulson.

The mystery is also really delicious, and the final moments are as dark as they come in any MCU project, and yet still somewhat hopeful!

Again hard to discuss without spoiling things, so all this sounds insanely cryptic. But it’s just super twisted and awesome!

Mini-Score: A

The Watcher (voiced by Jeffrey Wright) in Marvel Studios’ WHAT IF…? exclusively on Disney+. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

While the stunning animation and vocal performances are reason enough to check out What If, what really sells it is every episode’s ability to subvert and play with the mythology we know and love within the Marvel Cinematic Universe in surprising, suspenseful, and incredible ways! And that, I think, is a testament to how well developed and fleshed out this universe has been, and how we can see the effects of even the smallest choices changing the story in significant ways, and causing us to feel the impact of those changes. More impressively, the show plays around with genre so well. And given the procedural format of the series, it is allowed to go from War movie one episode, to Sci-Fi comedy the next, and dark suspenseful mystery after. It proves that good storytelling is good storytelling regardless of what medium it’s in; live action, animation, etc.

I also forgot to mention that each episode is anchored by Jeffrey Wright’s superbly enigmatic vocal narration, introducing us to various universes the way Rod Serling would invite us into The Twilight Zone. I love hearing his voice as Uatu. And I hope we get to hear him in the future outside of just this series as well.

What If is a treat for us die-hard MCU fans, and if you love this universe and all its characters, and know it inside and out, you will be richly rewarded! Get ready to have your MCU mind blown, and your universe shattered!

Overall Score: A-