What If…? Season 1 Review – IGN
Spoilers follow for Season 1 of What If…? For more, check out our reviews of each individual episode below.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is changing. I can remember when there were serious questions as to whether or not 2011’s Thor would derail the budding franchise with its otherworldly trappings. How far we’ve come. Ten years and six Infinity Stones later, Marvel is doubling down on alternate timelines across both its movies and streaming shows, most notably in What If…? Disney+’s animated anthology remixes MCU canon, letting heroes and villains trade places and shuffling major events in the timeline. Marvel Studios’ first foray into animation has some new worlds worthy of your time, but inconsistency throughout every aspect of the show holds it back from greatness.
As is the nature of an anthology, What If’s first season has its hits and misses. Its strongest episodes see What If really testing our expectations for what kind of stories can be told in the MCU. Episodes 3 and 4 were an excellent one-two punch in that regard. The Phase One-set murder mystery and Doctor Strange’s bleak descent into madness were early indicators that genres or tones Marvel may not want to invest hundreds of millions on in live-action form not only have a home on What If, but can thrive. It’s a strength shared by Episode 7, which is a pretty hilarious rom-com between Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and an even less-worthy Thor than we first met in 2011. But as Thor would tell you, big swings do not a God make. What If’s zombie apocalypse episode, though inspired by Robert Kirkman’s beloved The Walking Dead comics, leans on the well-known horror tropes that it brings up, but completely ignores others (don’t go exploring alone!) at every turn. It also explains away zombies in the MCU as being the result of a “quantum virus,” which made me want to throw myself at the horde of somehow still-superpowered walkers.
The first two episodes opted not to throw us into the deep end too quickly, essentially just recasting and retelling celebrated MCU movies Captain America: The First Avenger and Guardians of the Galaxy. Captain Carter (Hayley Atwell) and Star-Lord T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman)’s first adventures display another area of unevenness. Episode 2 fully explores what effect T’Challa’s heart would have on a cosmic scale, and so acts well as the kind of morality play The Twilight Zone celebrated. Meanwhile, Captain Carter’s first appearance attempts to hit out at sexism, but a complete lack of nuance represents a huge missed opportunity for Peggy’s super soldier debut to hit even harder than it does. That leaves the most memorable moments of the premiere being those that see Peggy obliterating HYDRA soldiers and vehicles.
Too often, What If falls back on action scenes rather than spending that time exploring the new worlds it’s introducing in a more meaningful way. Now, I don’t think there are any bad action scenes in What If, taken on their own merits. Clearly, the animators have a reverence for the balletic combat of the live-action MCU movies and faithfully recreate it here. Moments like when the camera focuses on the dropped Soul Stone as the Guardians of the Multiverse battle around it show that a lot of care went into making these beats cinematic and inventive. The problem is that these scenes often feel like they’re interrupting the interesting new looks at familiar characters we’re enjoying with fight scenes that feel designed to pad the episode’s runtime. Next season, I really hope What If can shift the balance a little more towards character and genre, and maximize the short amount of time we have in these new branch realities. I’ve seen MCU action scenes, give me more weird Lovecraftian crap and investigations into dead masks (while I’m making requests, please bring Justin Hammer back so we can see how modern dance helped turn his life around in prison).