Marvel’s Phase Four continues with the animated series What If…? – a collection of alternate timelines where decisions and events with which the viewer will be familiar are changed in one key regard in order to create an altered storyline. So we get to see what might have happened if Peggy Carter had taken the super soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers; we see T’Challa taken by Yondu instead of Peter Quill – and hence the man we came to know as Black Panther is instead Star Lord.
We are introduced to a world where the key Avengers are killed off before they can become Earth’s Mightiest Heroes; what might have happened if Doctor Strange had not been in that car alone, and Christine Palmer had been killed in the crash; what might have happened if Janet Van Dyne had brought back a zombie virus from the quantum realm; what if Eric Kilmonger had prevented Tony Stark from being injured in Afghanistan; what if Loki had been left to grow up with the frost giants; what if Ultron won against the Avengers; and, finally, what if the Watcher had put together a team of some of these alternate versions of our heroes.
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Now Elseworlds tales are not a new thing. In Superman: Red Son, Kal-El lands eight hours later, in the Ukraine, rather than Kansas, and becomes a tool of the Soviet Empire; we can see versions of Batman where he battles Jack the Ripper in the Victorian era, and there are any number of multiverse stories challenging our perceptions of established characters. Here Marvel has focused on differing events to subvert stories, primarily, and characters only as a secondary consideration. This is not entirely a good thing.
On the positive side, the lighting and the cell-shaded animation are both very attractive, with all stories having a lovely appearance. Many of the established MCU actors are brought back, with Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, Michael Douglas, Benedict Cumberbatch and late-Chadwick Boseman being only a few of the many star names to sign-on to this project. On the other hand, this simply makes it all the more jarring when it is not Brie Larson as Captain Marvel, and only a passable soundalike as Tony Stark. Thus, the product ends up feeling prestige yet like a cheap knock-off all in one.
The focus on changing events we’ve seen, rather than reimagining characters in situations that, perhaps we have not seen, becomes a problem for a couple of reasons. First, events unfolded as they did in those films as they were deemed the most interesting way to tell the story, so when we get a version that has changed, those changes are inherently less interesting, and, in some cases bizarre. For example, Kurt Russell’s Ego character, presenting as a white male, and having had a child with a white woman in rural North America, sends Yondu to go and retrieve the boy – and he decides to head to Wakanda and come back with T’Challa: the episode has to call out its own logical fallacy, and to compound this it turns out that T’Challa really doesn’t work as Star Lord. It just feels… off.
Where characters fundamentally change as a result of the different events, results are very mixed. The Doctor Strange episode is a really interesting look at obsession and a man’s inability to accept a lack of control (leading to the question of who exactly this is for, as this is not really kid-friendly fare), whereas Thor as an only child just leads to a character that is little more than an insufferable fratboy. The episode is unwatchable. Captain Carter works as an idea, but this just leads to a variation on Captain America: The First Avenger, only in a quarter of the running time. So even when the story is interesting, it is rushed, with dialogue consisting almost entirely of the zinger lines beloved of the likes of Josh Whedon in his entries yet lacking any of the quality.
The season comes alive a little with episode three, and the killing of the Avengers, and both the Doctor Strange and Zombies episodes are genuinely enjoyable. That represents merely a third of the episodes presented, most of which are disappointing and, in fact, often boring, as we watch a perfunctory playthrough of events that have been changed for the worse for no other reason than ‘wouldn’t it be cool if?’ While there is clearly some confidence at Disney that this property has legs – with a second season already commissioned, this run of What If…? merely confirms the impression that Phase Four is shaping up so far to be an identity-free mess of ill-fitting ideas. Hugely disappointing.
What If…? is out now on Disney+.