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Review: ‘What If…?’ is a light, fun Marvel thought experiment

“What If…” starts on a somewhat underwhelming note in the series premiere, but the second and third episodes escalate quickly and truly display the creativity and potential that the series has to offer. (Disney+)

Until two months ago, the idea of the multiverse was nothing more than a hope and a dream on screen for fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Of course, comic book readers have long been accustomed to different iterations of characters or events, but the idea of simultaneous timelines playing out in unique ways had never been witnessed on screen. That is, until “Loki” and its groundbreaking season finale blew the doors off the idea by introducing an overwhelming amount of alternate timelines.

Now, Marvel is venturing into the animated space for the first time in the MCU-era with “What If…?,” a show meant to help explore a handful of those mysterious branches. While it starts on a somewhat underwhelming note in the series premiere, the second and third episodes escalate quickly and truly display the creativity and potential that the series has to offer.

Hayley Atwell voices Captain Carter in “What If…?” (Disney+)

The show is narrated by a mysterious, all-knowing being known as The Watcher, voiced by Jeffrey Wright, who resides over all of the numerous timelines. Unable to interfere in any way, The Watcher can’t manipulate realities like Jonathan Majors’ Kang, but instead simply serves as a vessel to transport viewers into all of the “What If…?” scenarios.

The first of these comes in the form of the highly-advertised Captain Carter episode, in which Agent Peggy Carter undertakes the mantle of Captain America rather than the Steve Rogers fans know and love. Beyond this admittedly major change, though, the episode’s path still follows the same general premise of “Captain America: The First Avenger,” which came as a bit of a disappointment. Rather than a truly groundbreaking new reality to explore, the twist felt like it barely scratched the surface of what could be, instead simply settling to pose one question.

The rest of the questions come flooding out in the show’s second and third episodes, though, and they more than deliver. Both episodes make more than a singular change which sets into motion even more changes, ultimately creating an entirely new reality to explore. The second asks What if “Guardians of the Galaxy” ravager Yondu had actually abducted a young Prince T’Challa rather than Peter Quill? The result is overflowing with the same level of creativity seen when a young child mixes and matches their Marvel action figures during play time. There are cameos galore during the fun, inventive space heist episode.

The third features Nick Fury and Phil Coulson during the early days of the Avengers Initiative, only a string of mysterious deaths hampers the program’s foundation. In these two episode is where the show truly gets a chance to shine, leaning into the weirdness fans have now come to expect in the cosmic Phase 4 of the MCU.

Jeffrey Wright voices The Watcher, the all-seeing narrator of “What If…?” (Disney+)

As fun as the stories in this show may be, it seems as if they will ultimately never amount to much more than a thought experiment for Marvel fans, and that’s OK. While the show has been confirmed to be canon within the universe, it’s hard to imagine the contents of “What If…?” ever having too much, if any, impact on the main timeline featured in the films and shows. At a time when 24 films and three TV series are required viewing in order to understand every new installment, the freedom to explore with no strings attached comes as a welcome refresher. Obviously, a strong base knowledge of the MCU so far is required to enjoy all of the twists and turns featured in these alternate realities, but I wouldn’t expect too many consequential events to occur in “What If…?”

The show’s animation leans into the style of the comics, allowing for a fun and flashy visual experience that very much feels like reading a traditional comic book. Prior to the show’s trailer release, my expectation was something more stylistically in line with “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” but that’s certainly not the case here, which works. Instead, the visuals feel familiar enough, yet not a carbon copy of a pre-existing property.

Casual Marvel fans may find “What If…” to be a bit inaccessible or underwhelming, but the show will easily win over dedicated fans with its imagination, as long as expectations regarding future MCU projects are tempered on the front end.

Episodes 1-3 Star Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

“What If…?” premieres exclusively on Disney+ on Wednesday, August 11, 2021.

Zach Goins View All

Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.

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