[TV Review] Marvel’s ‘WHAT IF…?’ a colorful twist, taking the MCU to ‘THE TWILIGHT ZONE’

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

WHAT IF…?

Episodes 1-3 (approx. 30 minutes in length)

Director: Bryan Andrews
Creator: A.C. Bradley Vocal Cast: Jeffrey Wright, Samuel L. Jackson, Hayley Atwell, Jeremey Renner, Clark Gregg, Michael Rooker, Josh Brolin, Dominic Cooper, Djimon Hounsou, Sebastian Stan, Benicio del Toro, Michael Douglas, Lake Bell, Mark Ruffalo, Bradley Whitford, and Chadwick Boseman

Beginning a sentence with “What if…” can be tricky. It’s the start of a question where nothing is definitive, where unpredictability takes the place of uniformity. What-ifs can also be quite the lightning rod to spark debate. Don’t give me the Doctor Strange came up with one possibility out of 14 million that had the Avengers win the Infinity War excuse, either. Indeed, there had to be other outside-the-box scenarios where Earth’s Mightiest Heroes could claim victory. Like, what if Scott Lang (Ant-Man) had been part of the war, miniaturized himself, and went inside Thanos and made himself big again? It would leave an enormous mess, but it could have worked.

While we’re not likely to see that what-if situation brought up during the first season of Marvel’s WHAT IF…?, I do know this much: fans of anthology shows and the MCU are going to have a blast with Marvel Studios’ first animated series. Given access to the first three episodes, I quickly saw the potential in going back to key events of the MCU (Steve Rogers becoming Captain America, Peter Quill nabbed by the Ravagers, and Nick Fury creating the Avengers) and having them turned inside out on account of alternate timelines in the multiverse – thank you, Loki?

Each episode is preceded with an introduction by Uatu (voice of Jeffrey Wright), better known as The Watcher. He observes the multiverse. He doesn’t interfere or takes an interest in what is going on. The Watcher provides the setup to what’s about to transpire. He is our host, not unlike John Kassir as the voice of the Cryptkeeper on TALES FROM THE CRYPT. However, Jeffrey Wright’s diction and delivery align with Rod Serling and THE TWILIGHT ZONE.

Without going into spoilerific detail of what to expect, it is no coincidence to see WHAT IF…? arriving so quickly after the conclusion of LOKI’s first season. By opening Pandora’s Box – in this case, introducing the multiverse – the animated series is vaulted to greater importance. Rather than be its own project, now with the idea of variants and timeline disruptions, the key moments explored on the show can be seen as canon to the rest of the MCU multiverse.

The premiere episode envisions what would have happened if Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) was the one who took the super-soldier serum and not Steve Rogers. Picking up at the moment from CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER where scrawny Steve is about to become Brooklyn’s brawny man, Peggy intervenes during a terrorist plot and goes from special agent to donning the Union Jack as Captain Carter. Some of the story beats from the film play the same, although Steve’s role is now as reinforcement to stomp Hydra’s tank battalions.    

For the second episode, Yondu’s (Michael Rooker) Ravagers make a whoopsie by nabbing the wrong kid in 1988. In this timeline, Peter Quill doesn’t grow up to become Star-Lord. Instead, the kid the Ravagers abducted was T’Challa. This was a bittersweet one. At first, I wasn’t certain Chadwick Boseman was the voice of T’Challa as Star-Lord. Come to find out, he was one of the first actors to sign on to lend his voice to the project. Compared to others who reprise their MCU characters, Boseman’s is one of the few to not come across as stilted in delivery.

This episode strays the most from the current MCU. T’Challa reforms Yondu and his gang into Robin Hood and His Merry Men, making the galaxy a better place with the help of some unlikely additions. Their time at restoring balance to the universe may be short-lived, however, as the team makes its way to Knowhere to steal an item from The Collector (Benicio del Toro). 

Finally, we revisit Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) idea for the Avengers Initiative. He already has Black Widow (Lake Bell) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and has a pager to ring Captain Marvel if he needs to. Unfortunately, setting his sights on others to join the team proves problematic. Potential candidates are ending up in the morgue. A mini-mystery unfolds as Fury and Widow try to discover who and as to why. The story presents the biggest Murphy’s law epigram of the MCU with a bold decision that would have quashed the cinematic universe entirely. (Warner Bros. and DC would have loved that.)  

If Marvel Studios were competing in the Summer Olympics, its sport would be pole vaulting. They continue to raise the bar on the television side for Disney+. Not since WANDAVISION has a Marvel series been so much fun at having a different look episode to episode. The anthology format is a mixed blessing, though. By allocating thirty minutes each episode, WHAT IF…? and its abridged stories lose some of the magic and heart that attracted millions of fans to the MCU in the first place.      

Still, I love the concept of taking the stories we love and putting them in altered states. If the remaining six episodes of the first season are as good as the three that I was able to preview, WHAT IF…? has the potential of being the best. T’Challa and the Ravagers is a surefire favorite.             

Grade: A-

Series Premieres Wednesday, August 11 on Disney+.


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