First released back in February 1977, Marvel Comics’ spinoff comic book anthology series What If…? gave the writers creative reign to explore different takes on key scenarios outside of the mainstream continuity. Much like DC’s Elseworlds tales, which explored stories based in alternative versions like Superman: Red Son or Gotham by Gaslight, What If…? used the cosmic being Uatu the Watcher to observe and narrate a point of divergence in a certain event, and how that small change affected the course of the main timelines. As Marvel Studios takes it’s first steps into animation using this fun anthology storytelling format, the writing team, lead by AC Bradley, can open the doors to infinite possibilities.
Disney sent across the first three episodes for review, and if you’ve been keeping up with the trailers, they delve into scenarios including what if Peggy Carter took the super soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers, what if T’Challa became Star Lord instead of Peter Quill and also Fury’s big week assembling the Avengers. Episodes one and two play out as surprisingly safe tweaks to main continuity, merely swapping characters in stories we’ve seen before, not really warranting their half-hour runtime per episode. However, it’s episode three which is the most intriguing so far, imagining a scenario so different to what we’re so accustomed to in the MCU now.
Episode one “Peggy Carter” is a fun adventure twist on Captain America: The First Avenger, which sees Hayley Atwell return as the fan favourite character, eventually transforming into Captain Carter after taking the serum. Peggy finally gets her time in the limelight, and it’s undeniably entertaining to see her suited up in a very similar take on the Captain Britain suit plowing into Nazis with the shield and a sword in tow. It’s clear that this character will probably be a keystone to the series, and I’ll wager that we may see her pop up in future live-action instalments. While it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, (keeping very close to the original film’s format) it’s a breezily paced and empowering episode, finally giving Atwell a deserving entry as one of the most beloved female Marvel characters.
Episode two will undoubtedly prove an emotional episode with Chadwick Boseman’s final take on his iconic T’Challa character. The actor truly excels in this scenario, bringing a more rogue inspired take on the character, but still proving just how regal and kind hearted he is. The episode follows a fun heist-esque narrative, which features more of the Collector in action (something which the character has been distinctly lacking) along with the formation of an intriguing band of rogues, which allows the writers to affectionately poke fun at certain scenarios in the MCU. However, it’s episode three which includes the more shocking moments, with the writers pushing boundaries and killing certain characters in surprisingly gruesome ways.
The vast array of returning actors Marvel has managed to assemble is a hugely impressive feat. So far, Hayley Atwell, the late Chadwick Boseman’s, Samuel L. Jackson and Tom Hiddelston prove the most adept at voicing their respective roles – but it’s also nice to hear more minor characters also return such as Seth Green’s Howard the Duck and Toby Jones’ Arnim Zola. However, due to the sheer amount of mainstay actors reprising their roles, it quickly becomes apparent when significant characters such as Black Widow and Iron Man aren’t voiced by their live-action counterparts. While Harley Quinn‘s Lake Bell does an admirable job of voicing Natasha Romanoff, it’s unfortunately clear that Scarlett Johansson is not involved with the project.
The animation from Squeeze Animation Studio is a truly unique style, pairing 2D background elements with 3D cel shaded characters, complete with distinctly thick lines, for a visual aesthetic which looks straight out of a comic book. While it does take a little time to get used to, it might not be for everyone, resembling animation from earlier series’ Spider-Man: The New Animated Series, along with the animated Star Wars offerings such as The Bad Batch. The animation team effectively carry over the iconic MCU character’s three-dimensional likeness, excelling in the more fanciful environments of the second episode along with the intro sequence featuring Uatu the Watcher.
While the first three episodes are a fun and intriguing watch for Marvel fans (particularly comic book readers), they undoubtedly only scratch the surface of the many mind-bending possibilities to explore – not really proving as groundbreaking or inventive as hoped. The creative animation style, paired with the impressive voice cast, elevates the short and snappy standalone episodes, which lack a distinct hook so far. However, with the promise of zombies and zombie-Hunter Spider-Man down the line, there’s still plenty to look forward to – even if you’re not initially won over.