It’s 2021, we’re almost done with the year yet Marvel continuous to have this choke-hold position on its fans as we talk about the MCU yet again (and twice more after this) with ‘What If…?’. This boldly animated show takes to the multiverse to explore a reality far different from the one we have been following. On occasion, these tales end in dark and bitter fashion giving the show some much-needed uniqueness. This is one of the few times the MCU actually commits to a dark story and follows through till the very end. It ponders the question, “What If Marvel Didn’t Resort To a Clean-Cut, Happy Ending?” which it usually almost always does. That being said, while the show gives its all to explore different sides of the MCU, I cannot say I was really invested in a show that felt like a gamble with each episode it aired.
major spoilers for the MCU and Marvel’s ‘What If…?’ are featured in this review.
Marvel’s ‘What If…?’ is perhaps the most frustrating and unnecessary project to come out of the MCU. It’s becoming very clear with every new MCU Disney Plus show, that Marvel isn’t really cut for the small screen. Every show features a strong, compelling concept that is executed in pretty mediocre fashion (with the exception of ‘WandaVision’) and ends in an underwhelming and ultimately dissatisfying manner. ‘What If…?’ was a change of pace in many ways with a new storytelling medium and the freedom to go as crazy as it wants to be and yet the finished product rarely ever lives up to the exciting promise. This show has the entire twenty-four movie franchise in the palm of its hands and mostly utilizes it to show off how many cameos and random characters it can fit into a single episode. It kills off plenty of iconic characters purely for shock value and it got old really fast. However, perhaps the most frustrating factor of this failed promise is that out of the entire goddamn MCU, Tony Stark is still pretty much in every other episode and they use Thanos for shock value at least once every couple of episodes. We get it, we all saw ‘Avengers: Endgame’, can we please move on?
Naturally, the episodes that do feature the newer heroes instantly feel fresher and more enticing. My favourite episodes are in fact, Episodes 4 and 5 (Doctor Strange’s episode and the Zombies episode). They both explored new elements of this franchise that we’ve never really seen before. The Doctor Strange episode genuinely blew me away, I was never even aware the MCU could pull off something so dark and tragic… oh wait never mind he’s back to normal in the season finale. Jokes aside, that episode was incredible and definitely a storytelling high in this grand franchise. I hope Season 2 offers more of it. The Zombies episode, while extremely entertaining, ended up feeling incomplete with an ending so bizarre and unfinished that it ultimately hinders the quality of the episode. They have so many great concepts and ideas and they either never know what to do with them or they never know when to leave them alone. Every fucking MCU project has to end with a huge, third-act level boss battle sequence and at this point, I’m incredibly over it. The only times it works is when it is earned, a great example being ‘Shang-Chi’, this did not feel earned. It rushed the concept and threw in as much nonsense as it possibly could’ve. I feel like I’m the only person who actually did not enjoy the finale all that much. Ultron’s rise to power felt incredibly rushed and nonsensical. The show tried to cheat by using an established villain and essentially overpower him and remove any depth that was left. This version of Ultron didn’t really have any impact on me because he was essentially devoid of any character. He was just this incredibly evil and intensely powerful being that wanted to end all life. Sounds original, doesn’t it?
The things this show does get right are the characters. The only aspect that got me excited to see these characters interact was the fact that realistically, this is how these characters would interact in an MCU movie. They nailed the personalities, motivations and feel of the characters perfectly. I have never, even found Natasha and Clint this compelling and enticing as characters. It’s a goddamn shame the live-action movies never even gave us a fraction of what this show did. Also found it incredibly ironic that Natasha’s Black Widow was done more justice in a couple scenes of a show rather than her own movie. The entire group of heroes in the ‘Zombies?!’ episode shouldn’t have worked so well and yet it did! It was so fun seeing these newer characters interact. Spidey’s moments were just as great and charismatic as Holland’s in the movies. I feel like they nailed the humour more often than not and given the bizarre character choice, that’s a pretty solid feat. The voice-cast did a great job, for the most part. You can definitely tell who is cut out for voice-acting and who is not. Who knew Chris Hemsworth would be such a great voice-actor! He totally replicated Thor’s energy and charisma for this show and it was incredibly impressive to behold. The late Chadwick Boseman’s final performance as T’Challa brought up some bittersweet and emotional moments as expected. His kindness and genuineness radiated off the screen through T’Challa. Benedict Cumberbatch is aiming for the Voice-Over Emmy with his tragic performance in Episode 4. His pain was palpable and striking in ways I didn’t even the MCU could achieve. It was shocking. He came for critical acclaim! The other MCU actors who returned to voice their characters were fine, some were stiff in their delivery but still decent enough to carry an episode. The replacements however were excellent! I could’ve sworn that was Tom Holland playing Peter but apparently, it’s not! Kudos to you, Hudson Thames!
Back to the criticism for a moment to talk about the animation. While it doesn’t look horrible, I cannot believe that this is the level of animation we got from Disney. There really was no excuse for such a lazy, uninspired look because ‘Star Wars’ is out here getting a whole anime anthology with a different style every episode. This is a show for Disney Plus like they have the money but apparently, all of it went to getting the MCU actors because it sure as hell didn’t go to the animation department. I would’ve much-preferred something hand-drawn or anything two-dimensional really. Again it wasn’t the worst thing in the world but I would consider it feeling a bit cheap coming from such an esteemed place in the animation industry. It also bothered me intensely that we got the Party Thor episode but we didn’t get the Gamora / Thanos episode. One of the episodes from the season had to be cut because of covid-related production reasons, yet they stuck with the incredibly unnecessary teen sitcom trope-filled episode with Thor. It was just weird, especially with the way they tied the ending to the two-part finale to try and justify its existence. We did get more Thor and Loki though so I can’t complain that much!
Overall, ‘What If…?’ feels like something the MCU superfans would enjoy and even then, it’s still pretty inconsistent. Despite being animated, it oddly enough chooses to hold back more often than go all out. The cast is mostly great, the writing goes through some compelling highs and abysmal lows and in retrospect, this show honestly is the perfect representation of a mixed bag. If that is something that you are willing to try then go ahead but it does feel a bit redundant when the entire show essentially feels like a gamble each episode.
Marvel’s ‘What If…?’ is now streaming in full on Disney Plus.
Rest in Peace, Chadwick Boseman. Your Legacy will Forever Live On Through Your Huge Impact.