Marvel Mondays – What If…?: Series Review

With the Multiverse now in play following the events of Loki, it’s time to look beyond the events of the MCU we know and take a look at what might have been in a series of animated tales that ask ‘What If…?’

Bullet Point Review

  • Choosing to closely follow the MCU set this show up for failure, with a limited scope, the inability to debut new characters, and the celebrities reprising their roles turning in mixed voice work.
  • Underlined the problem with having a single director working on every episode of a show, which will be changing going forward.
  • A two-person writing crew and misguided hypothetical scenarios led to compromised quality from start to finish.
  • The backgrounds and action scenes were well done, but the character models and general art design were controversial to say the least.
  • Did not merit weekly episodes, and to pretend the show was as important as the previous ones seems disingenuous.

Too Wedded to the MCU

Despite being one of the bigger MCU Stans out there, I have become increasingly frustrated with Marvel’s singular vision for their films and shows. DC’s live action movies have divested themselves from the ongoing universe concept, the CW shows are in their own private corner, and their animated projects have multiple distinct continuities. Conversely, everything Marvel put out must fall in line with the MCU, with voice actors doing impressions of the more famous film stars, and character designs and backstories brought in line with any changes the movies make. I get it in terms of brand synergy, but they’re really tying one hand behind their backs by doing so.

The reason I bring it up for What If…?  in particular, is that it dramatically limited the scope of the show. The Fantastic Four, X-Men, Daredevil and more are off limits because their debuts must be saved for hundred-million-dollar movies. Giving a chef fewer ingredients to choose from leads to less interesting dishes if you ask me. More on that later.

They have also made things unnecessarily ambiguous by interchangeably using timeline, reality and universe across the various properties, bringing into doubt if the events of Loki truly led to all of these episodes, or if that particular universe now has multiple timeline branches within it. For example, the Infinity Stones are non-functional in the TVA, which some took to be part of the fact they only work in their native universe… but then the finale of What If…? showed that they work in other universes, just slightly differently to each other. Two Time Stones cancel each other out. The Infinity Crusher doesn’t work on Ultron’s stones etc. It’s all so uncharacteristically clunky.

Mixed’ Voice Work

A side effect of hitching their waggon to the movies was the decision to bring back as many MCU actors as possible to reprise their roles. This became one of the major marketing bullet points, with Chadwick Boseman, Chris Hemsworth, Samuel L. Jackson, Josh Brolin, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch and more signing on, and even minor characters like Crossbones, Christine Everhart, Carina, Dum Dum Dugan, and Topaz saw their movie actors return.

While that’s theoretically cool, it became immediately apparent it was actually a problem. Firstly, anybody they failed to convince stuck out even more by comparison, with Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Brie Larson, Chris Pratt, Tom Holland and others nowhere to be found. That first trailer with an obvious RDJ soundalike did not help sell the show.

More importantly, many of the famous folk simply did not take to voice acting. Sebastian Stan, Hayley Atwell, Mark Ruffalo and more proved what many already knew, that full-time voice actors are better at their jobs than their higher paid brethren. Boseman was a definite highpoint, but the rest were okay to decent at best.

I honestly would have preferred they recast EVERYBODY, and re-invested some of the money they’d save (voice actors should be paid more) in the…

Disappointing Art Style

For better or worse, Disney are THE animation studio, with dozens of classics spanning decades, the works of Pixar, and the renaissance of the last decade. With all of that at their disposal, it should be considered malpractice that Marvel opted to form their own animation studio and that this was the end result.

I understand you can’t make Pixar drop everything to make an ongoing cartoon, but could they not have made an episode or two? This should have been treated like Star Wars Visions or Batman Gotham Knight, with multiple studios being handed a couple of episodes each to present their own unique takes on Marvel’s material.

Instead we got what looked like low budget video game cutscenes, reminiscent of the works of (the now defunct) Telltale Games. The character models… mostly? resembled the celebrities, but even then, Party Thor was hideous in my opinion. But none of them looked great when having casual conversations. At all. Some of that may be time, some of it may be budget, but this is a Disney product!

The background environments were gorgeous, with the concept art shown during the end credits often being the highlight of the episode, so it’s a real shame that this wasn’t reflected in the characters. They were also able to deliver action scenes that were arguably better than what the MCU is capable of, thanks to not having to conceal things with quick cuts and extreme close-ups, as well as not having to rely on Second Unit pre-vis and green screens. Instead, you get things like Captain Carter smashing through a cockpit window, taking out Hydra agents, and then skydiving from the roof. They also highly stylised the action with Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel, Thor and Ultron, bleeding into anime territory. This was all a good thing, and only underlined the wasted potential.

Limited Creative Team

All of the Marvel Disney+ shows so far have seen a single director helm every episode. That will be changing with Hawkeye and carrying on in seemingly every show thereafter. While I understand the economic reasons for what they’ve done to date, I think it’s good they’re making the change, because it should mix things up and ideally stop a show from falling into a rut. Kate Herron had a clear vision for Loki and it worked out, but imagine if WandaVision had brought in multiple names from the world of sitcoms, or as I mentioned above, What If…? were an anthology.

Worse than the direction, a measly TWO writers penned the entirety of What If…?, so it quickly became clear the quality of the scripts wasn’t going to take a giant leap. Based on my rankings (below), I would say Matthew Chauncey is the slightly better scribe, but neither of them are exactly names to watch. The scenarios themselves are one thing, but the minute-to-minute dialogue was a clear step below what we’ve come to expect of the MCU.

Fundamentally, I am of the opinion that most endeavours benefit from multiple perspectives. While ‘Too Many Cooks’ is definitely a thing, if you’d told me heading into this show it would have one director and two writers, I would have set my expectations even lower, which is saying something given it seemed a little dead on arrival due to a limp trailer and poor promotion. It just never felt as important as the other shows, and it was immediately obvious it probably should not have been given the weekly drop treatment.

Underbaked Scenarios

Not everyone is a stickler for The Rules, but I didn’t like how ambiguous the show’s entire premise ended up feeling. The idea is that one small change can have enormous consequences, with most of the marketing materials promoting that idea. But most of the time the one small change was difficult to pinpoint, or there were additional changes from before the fateful moment. For instance, the ‘one small change’ in Episode 3 was actually ‘What If… Hope van Dyne Were a SHIELD Agent?’, but they can’t tell you that up front as it ruins the mystery. Instead it’s about what would happen if the Avengers being removed from the board before Loki’s invasion, which we barely even get an answer to, but may revisit in season 2. Episode 4 is actually about what would happen if Doctor Strange were still with Christine Palmer. It goes on and on. I understand these are for convenience, but when you have a clearly defined concept, it shouldn’t be so difficult to stick to it.

In my opinion the best hypotheticals are the ones that take what is considered an unfortunate event in a hero’s life, something they would consistently wish they could take back… only to learn perhaps life would have been even worse. The death of Uncle Ben. The monstrous appearance of The Thing. Bruce Banner becoming The Hulk. These kinds of things. To my mind only two episodes fell into this category: Odin never adopting Loki, and Tony Stark never becoming Iron Man. Shockingly, the former ostensibly resulted in a better life for everybody involved, which is the complete opposite of the desired outcome.

The other good kind of scenario is taking a beloved character and dropping them into a wildly different setting to see how their presence impacts things. T’Challa as Star-Lord executed on this concept perfectly, with his superior moral fibre diffusing the Thanos situation before it even arose, fixing relationships and positively influencing everybody he comes into contact with.

All of the other episodes posed far less interesting questions, potentially because of how little capital the MCU gave them to work with compared to the comics, yet another reason why tying this directly to the movies was a mistake in my eyes.

Episode Rankings

From what I can gather, people are all about Strange Supreme, but I maintain the entire thing is built on a lie, addressed both in that episode’s recap and the above section about being too tied to the MCU. That relationship meant nothing, so to pretend stripping it away would send Strange down a dark – if admittedly visually interesting – path never really stopped bothering me. Actually that’s not true, because I would have predicted I’d have it land much closer to the bottom at the time.

Dubious last place honours go to the pilot, which committed the cardinal sin of being boring, and as I’ve said repeatedly that is often worse than being bad. Too committed to replicating movie moments, a lack of a compelling character, way too safe.

On the other end of the scale, it’s almost impossible to compete with Episode 2 due to the real world circumstances. Chadwick Boseman’s passing was devastating, and you can really notice how much extra care went into honouring him with script consultation from Ryan Coogler and James Gunn. The whole thing was a love letter to T’Challa’s popularity (as well as dunking on Chris Pratt), and told an original story in interesting locales.

I enjoyed the visuals of Ultron’s episode and the blending of multiple stories in Episodes 3 and 6, while Party Thor and Zombies were inescapably under-baked and inconsequential.

  1. ‘What If… T’Challa Became a Star-Lord?’  (Episode 2)
  2. ‘What If… Ultron Won?’ (Episode 8)
  3. ‘What If… the World Lost Its Mightiest Heroes? (Episode 3)
  4. ‘What If… Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark?’ (Episode 6)
  5. ‘What If Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands? (Episode 4)
  6. ‘What If… the Watcher Broke His Oath? (Episode 9)
  7. ‘What If… Thor Were an Only Child?’ (Episode 7)
  8. ‘What If… Zombies?’ (Episode 5)
  9. What If… Captain Carter Were the First Avenger? (Episode 1)

The Future

Some believe that elements of the show will find their way into the movies, with a few even speculating Strange Supreme would be the one who is responsible for the events of Spider-Man: No Way Home. The events of the finale dispel that idea, but more broadly I am of the opinion very little that happens in the Disney+ shows will have major ramifications as their top priority is the global movie audience, which dwarves their number of digital subscribers. I am doubly sure of that here, and while I’m not a gambling man, I would bet against seeing a live action Captain Carter for instance.

We knew before the series began that there would be a second season, with one episode moved from the first to the second, so it makes sense they’d leave a lot on the table. Almost every alternate reality ended up with some unfinished business, from Captain Carter discovering the Hydra Smasher, possibly teasing Steve as the Winter Soldier, to Wakanda and the USA at war, to whatever was going on with Ego. More than that, the show obviously culminated with Strange Supreme acting as a prison warden to Arnim Zola and Killmonger, each with a portion of Ultron’s body, fighting over a set of Infinity Stones.

Season Two is already in production, so we likely won’t see a huge amount of change, but after that wraps up, I’d like to see them shelf the show for a few years and come back when there’s more to play with. Give me Pixar’s version of Fantastic Four or Spider-Man! Let’s get some mutants and heroes for hire into the mix! Give. Me. Doom!

Unfortunately all of that is unlikely, as the show is likely an extremely convenient, cheap production for Marvel, as they can get the actors to record lines during movie shoots, the production house has likely been set up to prioritise churning out content as quickly as possible, and the MCU is founded on the notion of ‘hey, remember that moment?’, and that’s the whole damn show.

Plugs

Next up is Hawkeye, but we’ve got several weeks until then. I may take a break, I may drop a few listicles.

Check out The Matt Signal Beyond, in which I recap episodes of Batman Beyond every Saturday and Sunday. This weekend marks the season one finale and a showdown with Blight, as well as the start of Season 2 as Terry takes on some Jokerz.

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 head to Minnesota and North Dakota for some quirky crime drama in Fargo.

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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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