Marvel Mondays – What If…?: Episode 5

Plot summary: A zombie virus overruns the world, with a small group of unlikely survivors desperately trying to find a cure.

Notes

Episode Title: ‘What If… Zombies!’

Air Date: September 8th, 2021

Directed: Bryan Andrews (5)

Written: Matthew Chauncey (3)

A.C. Bradley originally pitched a Spider-Man story where Peter begins transforming into a spider, but Marvel rejected it for being too dark, so they went with zombies instead, which aren’t dark at all. Bradley had no clue there was a Marvel Zombies series of comics when she made the pitch.

Danai Gurira’s most famous role outside of Marvel is of course Michonne from The Walking Dead, which is presumably why she plays such a major role in events here.

This marks the first explicit acknowledgement of Uncle Ben in the MCU.

T’Challa being held prisoner to use as food for Wanda mimics Hank Pym doing the same to him in the Marvel Zombies comics.

You apparently cannot get a train to New Jersey from Grand Central. Garbage tier show. 0 stars.

Recap

Bruce Banner crashes down to earth as at the start of Infinity War, but finds the streets deserted. Members of the Black Order arrive but when Iron Man, Doctor Strange and Wong appear to combat them, Bruce is disturbed by their violent response.

The reason for this is quickly revealed, as they are all… zombies. Banner cannot transform into the Hulk, but is rescued by Strange’s enchanted cloak, The Wasp and Spider-Man.

The Watcher informs us that during the events of Ant-Man and the Wasp, Janet Van Dyne brought back with her a ‘Quantum Virus’. The Avengers responded to the outbreak, immediately fell, and most of the world was lost not long after.

Banner is treated to Peter Parker’s homemade zombie apocalypse orientation video starring fellow survivors Happy Hogan, Kurt (from Ant-Man), Winter Soldier and Sharon Carter.

Okoye reveals another camp of survivors have reached out with claims of a possible cure, so the group haul ass to Grand Central Terminal… and are quickly set upon by the undead horde.

Happy is turned at the hands of Zombie Hawkeye, while Okoyoe and Bucky decapitate Zombie Falcon, and Peter is barely saved by the cape but manages to get a train moving in order to take them to New Jersey.

The ride over isn’t exactly smooth, with Zombie Captain America forcing his way aboard to infect Sharon, forcing Bucky to cut him in half with his own shield. Wasp obliterates Sharon from the inside in gnarly fashion, but gets infected in the process.

Hope asks to be put out of her misery, but Peter insists she hold on until they reach the alleged cure, imploring the others to share in his optimism.

Running out of fuel with a wall of zombies between them and the facility, Hope grows giant and carries them to safety before being overrun and collapsing into the sea of flesh-eaters.

Bucky notices the zombies are not advancing despite a gap in the perimeter fence. Vision reveals himself as the one who sent the signal, and that the Mind Stone repels the undead, so he has been using it to try and engineer a cure, with Scott Lang, now a head in a jar, his first successful test subject.

Excited about the cure, the group plan to head to Wakanda, safe behind its shields and capable of distributing it en masse. Vision grows shifty, and it is revealed he is keeping Zombie Wanda captive and feeding survivors to her, as her powers let her resist his cure.

Bucky accidentally frees her while rescuing a one-legged T’Challa, and she kills Kurt and Okoye. The group struggle to subdue her, with Vision committing suicide by tearing the Mind Stone from his head to give to them.

This of course lets in the horde, and Wanda kills Bucky during their escape. Banner hurls himself into the pile, emerging as Hulk to fight off the legion and Wanda.

The distraction allows Peter, T’Challa, Scott (and the cape) to take off in a stashed jet, narrowly evading giant Zombie Wasp and heading for Wakanda… but The Watcher immediately implies Zombie Thanos slaughtered them all and ended the universe with the Infinity Gauntlet.

Review

Do you like zombies?

Honestly, I feel I could leave it there, because there’s really not much more to it than that. Personally, I don’t at all, so found this intensely dull. I have seen a few people who clearly love them praise the episode, so it may boil down to that one question. I should mention that there is a series of Marvel Zombies comics, which has a decent following, so that may help your enjoyment too. The episode references it pretty heavily, more so than any other episode has a comic.

The best moment was basically a rip-off of Zombieland, as Peter’s training video is a copy of Jesse Eisenberg’s rules for survival. It’s definitely charming and they put their on spin on it, but there’s no escaping the lack of original ideas presented in an episode already centred around an overdone trope. I did enjoy the small chunks of Spider-Man pathos, addressing his relentless optimism in the face of tragedy, and the continuation of him applying pop culture to the fantastical situations they find themselves in as superheroes.

Beyond that, I found it somehow both rushed and plodding. The cause of everything? “A quantum virus”. The resolution? A smash-cut to Zombie Thanos with the almost complete Infinity Gauntlet. It was a very jarring ending after a bit of an ‘and then, and then, and then’ structure that failed to adequately create a sense of urgency in my opinion.

The part that did intrigue me was Vision’s sub-plot. The combination of him acting as a walking invisibility shield and his dark secret, disregarding humanity to cling on to a deluded hope of saving Wanda, made for a kernel of an interesting story that I wish was taken further.

But I spent almost the entire run-time furrowing my brow at the ‘rules’ presented with these zombies. Most stories present them as dumb, feral creatures. Some are slow and shambling, some are fast. I have no preference there. But personally I take issue with them having the higher brain function to cast magic, operate Pym-tech, and seemingly perform the same feats they did when alive. You can argue it’s pure instinct, but having that level of intelligence/capability breaks the entire thing for me. I know that Marvel Zombies can talk and think, but them adhering to the source material doesn’t make it any less dumb IMO.

Most Marvellous Player

This is another instance of the famous people being mostly fine and not many of them really standing out. I think I’d go with Paul Rudd, who brought some doofy enthusiasm and dad jokes to Ant-Man’s head-in-a-jar. Chadwick Boseman was good even in this short appearance, but it wasn’t a patch on his featured episode. It makes sense that Paul Bettany was solid, given how often he’s performed his role entirely in a sound booth.

Danai Gurira, Emily VanCamp, Evangeline Lilly and Jon Favreau were all perfectly decent. Mark Ruffalo felt a little stilted to me, and while Sebastian Stan was better at the moodier version of Bucky compared to his awful appearance in the first episode, he’s still not great. David Dastmalchian is super game, and I enjoyed the call back to the Baba-Yaga stuff, but he goes off the deep end.

Notably, Tom Holland is replaced by Hudson Thames, potentially because of some of the fine-print of the Disney/Sony deal regarding Spider-Man’s film rights. While I thought Josh Keaton and Lake Bell were excellent stand-ins, I was not as impressed with Thames, and was left wondering why they would even include the character if they couldn’t get the actor… unless they were convinced they could until late into production or something? The other re-cast characters were necessary to their stories, but they had free rein to pick absolutely anybody for their band of survivors, so why choose somebody you can’t get the original actor for?

Villain Watch

Basically, everyone? Like I said, the Zombies maintaining their higher brain function irks me, but it does give you Avenger vs Avenger action, and every time a new familiar, rotting face was revealed it is reasonably dramatic. Zombie Cap and Zombie Wanda were probably the two most individually impactful of these, even if the former dies in seconds at the hands of Bucky. Zombie Wanda tears through the survivors, refuses to stay down and the teased Boss Fight between her and Hulk at the end was cool, continuing Disney+’s Scarlet Witch rehabilitation campaign.

You can make an argument for Vision as a villain, filling the obligatory role of a survivor our heroes mistakenly trust but then learn he’s snapped. It’s born of his inability to kill Wanda, but in the process he lost the humanity she helped teach him, luring in the non-infected and keeping them alive long enough to feed to her piece by piece. Worst of all, even though his cure works, he seemingly had no intention of even trying to share it with the world, presumably as it would rob his beloved of a food supply or something.

Plugs

Check out The Matt Signal Beyond, in which I recap episodes of Batman Beyond every Saturday and Sunday. This weekend Inque makes her debut and Terry battles an anime character.

There Will Be Movies continues each Wednesday, as Ben Phillips and I talk about 25 of our favourite movies from the 90s. This week we travel back to a time when Tim Burton and Johnny Depp were tolerable with Ed Wood.

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Matt Waters

Brit dude who likes both things AND stuff and has delusions of being some kind of writer or something. Basketball, video games, comic books, films, music, other random stuff.

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