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Josh Reviews What If…? Season One!

October 20th, 2021
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What If…? is the latest Marvel TV series on Disney+, and the first animated one.  The show is an anthology, with each half-hour episode exploring an alternate timeline in which events from the MCU movies unfolded in a different way.  As with all of the other recent Disney+ Marvel shows, the series is directly tied into established MCU continuity, with many/most of the show’s characters voiced by the actual actors who played them in live-action.

I adored the classic What If comic book series as a kid.  I read the series for years in the eighties and nineties.  (For comic book geeks, this would be volume 2 of the original comic book series, which ran from 1989 to 1998.)  I loved the way the series depicted wildly different versions of familiar comic book stories; quite often including a high body-count of major characters who I knew would always survive unscathed in their regular comic book series, but who in What If often died terrible deaths.  That was mind-blowing to me as a kid!  And a great deal of fun.

I was super-excited when I first heard that What If was going to be turned into an MCU show for Disney+.  It still boggles my mind that this extremely comic-booky idea has been brought to life as a TV show!!!  I have some problems with the show, but it’s important to step back and remind myself just how wild it is that this show actually exists!  It’s very cool and I am very grateful.

The first nine-episode season of What If…? is enjoyable and fun to watch.  But it didn’t quite land with the impact that I’d been hoping for.  I don’t think the writing was quite at the level of the best MCU stuff.  There were a lot of jokes that I don’t think I found as funny as the show intended me to, and for a series whose core concept is about exploring the continuity of the MCU, the series often bungled its own continuity.  (Here’s an example: in the penultimate episode, we see Ultron leave Earth and destroy familiar MCU worlds, including Xandar… before encountering Thanos, who arrives at Earth bearing the Infinity Gauntlet as he did in Infinity War.  Except, oops: if Thanos has the Infinity Gauntlet, that means he’d already destroyed Xandar himself when he got the power stone, as established in Infinity War, so Xandar should have already been destroyed when Ultron got there… or how about how the Watcher tells the gathered heroes in the finale that he doesn’t know where Ultron is, except that Ultron was right there when the Watcher yanked away party-boy Thor at the end of episode seven… Oops again!)

I also wasn’t nearly as taken by the choices made at the end of the series as I think the makers of the show had aimed for.  SPOILERS ahead in this paragraph.  In what was meant to be a fun surprise, by the end of the season, the previously stand-alone episodes were connected, when Ultron broke out of his episode to wreak havoc on the multiverse and the Watcher was forced to pull heroes from the previously-visited alternate universes to defeat him.  This could/should have been a shocking twist — guess what, this show isn’t really an anthology, these episodes are actually connected to one another!  Except that so many of the individual episodes ended on an unfinished note that it seemed clear to me that the series would be revisiting those stories/universes.  So it wasn’t remotely a surprise when, just a few episodes later, it did.  And while the idea of Ultron breaking free of his universe was cool — and I loved Ultron’s universe-shattering battle with the Watcher in episode eight — the multiversal team-up felt disappointingly by the numbers to me, with the Watcher gathering familiar characters who are then able to defeat Ultron without too much trouble.  I wish the series had had more faith in its own concept, and been brave enough to stick with actually being an anthology series of stand-alone episodes.  (Perhaps holding onto the idea of a crossover until a second or third season.)

Still, while those late-season twists didn’t blow me away the way the show clearly hoped it would, I found a lot to enjoy in this series!

The animation is gorgeous.  It’s difficult to capture real-life likenesses in animation, while keeping the character designs simple enough to animate well.  While every now and then on the show there was a character who looked nothing like their live-action counterpart, for the most part I thought the animators did a great job of taking these live-action characters/actors who we know so well and translating them into animation.  I thought the animation was smooth and dynamic.  We get to see a LOT of different locations throughout the show, and I always felt they were able to bring those different locations (many of which we already knew well from the movies) to life.  The series really excelled in its action choreography.  There were some spectacular action sequences in this first season that were gripping and creative and delightfully epic.

I was very, very happy that so many of the MCU actors voiced their characters here in the series.  So much so that it was weirdly jarring the few times that they didn’t get the actors from the movies.  Why didn’t Dave Bautista, Chris Evans, Chris Pratt, Scarlett Johansson, Brie Larson, Tom Holland, James Spader, Robert Downey Jr., William Hurt, or Zoe Saldana voice their characters?  It was strange to hear different voices from those characters, when almost every other character seen on-screen WAS voiced by their proper MCU actor.  Bravo to the makers of this show for landing the participation of: Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Toby Jones, Samuel L. Jackson, Jeremy Renner, Josh Brolin, Michael Rooker, Danai Gurira, Michael Douglas, Clark Gregg, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Benedict Wong, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Paul Bettany, Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lily, Jon Favreau, Michael B. Jordan, Angela Bassett, Andy Serkis, Don Cheadle, Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Kat Dennings, Jeff Goldblum, Cobie Smulders, Taika Waititi, Kurt Russell, and SO MANY MORE beyond them!!!  It can’t have been easy (or cheap) to get all of these big name actors to be involved in this animated series.  But it’s super-cool that the Marvel team made this happen.  It makes the events of What If…? feel so much more real, like we truly are watching different versions of the events of the MCU movies, because we’re hearing these “right” voices for the characters on-screen.  This is key to what works about the show.

I have to make a special point of highlighting how wonderful it was to hear the late Chadwick Boseman once again voicing T’Challa here on the show.  T’Challa is the main character in episode two, in which it’s young T’Challa, rather than Peter Quill, who gets kidnapped by Yondu’s Ravagers and becomes Star Lord.  But T’Challa also pops up in a number of other episodes too!  It’s incredibly joyous to suddenly have all these new scenes in which Mr. Boseman is playing T’Challa!!  And that second episode is a particular standout.  It’s a wonderful salute to Mr. Boseman’s work as T’Challa, because the whole basis of the episode is how T’Challa’s innate goodness becomes a powerful force across the entire universe — he’s even able to talk Thanos out of his villainy and turn him into a hero!!  (Josh Brolin’s performance as good guy Thanos is a delight to behold!)  Truly, getting to see Mr. Boseman as T’Challa live again on-screen throughout this season was pure joy for me.

Other thoughts:

* We’ve seen a tease of the Watchers before on-screen in the MCU (in the mid-credits scene in Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2), but it’s fantastic to see this wonderful comic book character brought to life on screen in this show!  Jeffrey Wright is fantastic as the Watcher!  (I hope season two actually uses his real name: Uatu.)

* I enjoyed seeing Hayley Atwell get to take center stage as Captain Carter in the first episode, in which it’s Peggy who winds up being given the super soldier serum, rather that Steve.  Can we please get more seasons of an Agent Carter show, starring Ms. Atwell, on Disney+?

* I noted above that one of the hallmarks of the What If comic was the main characters dying terribly.  I wondered if this Disney+ show would go there.  The first two episodes didn’t, presenting what is arguably a BETTER version of events than what we saw in the actual MCU!  But I loved that episode three brought the mayhem, with a deranged Hank Pym brutally murdering most of the original Avengers.  Future episodes would continue to kill off characters (poor Tony Stark probably gets killed the most during this first season!), which was fun to see — and I bet this was a surprise to MCU fans who weren’t familiar with the original What If comic!  By the way, I loved Michael Douglas’ performance as the deranged, evil Hank Pym.

* Episode four, the Doctor Strange spotlight, was weird.  I really liked the episode, and the story of Strange’s increasing desperation at his repeated failures to save Christine Palmer’s life was very sad.  But I did not understand why the episode suggested that Christine’s death was a fixed point in time that could not be changed — because Christine DIDN’T DIE in the actual Doctor Strange movie!!!  That seems like a huge plot-hole to me.  So I was somewhat mystified by the basic premise of this episode.

* The first four episodes of the series each came to reasonably satisfying conclusions, whereas I was surprised how the fifth and sixth episodes basically just stopped in the middle of the action.  (Episode five ends when the few heroes who have survived the zombie apocalypse arrive in Wakanda… only to encounter Thanos, who has just arrived with a mostly-complete Infinity Gauntlet… while episode six ends just as Shuri and pepper Potts have teamed up to take on Killmonger.)  I assume we’ll get follow-ups to these episodes in future seasons.  I am OK with the show giving us sequel episodes as it moves into future seasons, but I wish these episodes were able to stand alone more satisfyingly.

* That being said, I liked that Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger was the centerpiece of episode six, and it was interesting to see a version of Tony Stark who never turned into a hero in the first Iron Man film.  It’s interesting to consider how much of the MCU rests on Tony’s turn in that first MCU film.

* I enjoyed the show giving us a mostly comedy episode in episode seventh’s look at a party-bro Thor who never learned his lesson about how to be a hero in the first Thor film.  I liked getting to see Loki as a full Frost Giant, and boy did Kat Dennings kill in all of the very funny Darcy stuff.  (I want to see a Darcy and Howard the Duck spin-off episode!!)  But that episode sort of fell apart at the end, in which somehow Thor’s mother Friga takes forever to travel to Earth, despite bifrost travel being depicted as nearly instantaneous in every single previous time we’d seen it.  I wish the writers had actually come up with a better device to keep Friga away from Earth for long enough to Thor to have time to (mostly) clean everything up.

* I liked the super-duper Infinity Stone enhanced version of Ultron we saw in episodes eight and nine… though it really hurt not having James Spader voice him.  Mr. Spader’s voice is so distinct; it was very noticeable having someone else voice Ultron.

* It was super weird how, in the finale, the Watcher gathered a group of characters from previous episodes in the season… and also a version of Gamora that we’d never seen before!  It turns out this first season was supposed to have had a tenth episode, featuring Gamora and Tony Stark, but the animation studio was delayed because of COVID and the episode couldn’t be completed on time; it will apparently air in the second season.  I have sympathy for events like that which were out of the control of the makers of this show… but it definitely hurt the finale not to have met this alternate Gamora before seeing her here.

* As I’d alluded to above, the finale was probably my least favorite episode of the season, which was a bit of a bummer.  It just wasn’t what I was looking for in this show… and I found the story to be very thin.  Why was Ultron physically fighting these characters?  Yes, the fight was cool… but Ultron has the Infinity Stones!  With just a thought he could eliminate these characters from existence!  There was no need for any sort of actual battle, which for me totally undermined the battle which was the center of this episode.  I wish we’d gotten to see more of the Multiversal Guardians characters actually interacting with one another… and I wish the show had actually allowed those alternate universe characters to be more different from their familiar versions.  I felt that all the characters in this episode basically acted exactly like their mainstream MCU selves.  That felt like a big missed opportunity.  (For example, instead of having Strange act exactly like his usual self, shouldn’t this Strange have been more conflicted and evil?  Wouldn’t that have been interesting?)  Also: the episode is called “What if the Watcher Broke his Oath?” but I don’t think the show does a good enough job establishing what exactly that oath is, and WHY the Watcher is forbidden from interfering in any of the events he witnesses.  Without that, there’s no actual drama to his breaking his oath and taking action to fight Ultron.  It feels more like, duh, obviously the Watcher is going to assemble some heroes to fight back.  That’s another missed opportunity for the show.

While this first season of What If…? might not have been everything I’d hoped it would be, I really love the concept and I had a lot of fun watching these episodes.  I’d love for the series to take what worked and build on that to be even better in season two…

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