The MCU’s foray into the world of animation was one I approached with some form of scepticism. Not that I thought it looked bad or anything, just that it was one more step into me feeling like I am on the way to Superhero burnout.
With the pandemic induced break from superhero stuff, its return has been thick and fast in 2021. Maybe a little too fast for me to keep up with, because the MCU’s beginnings into the waters of multiverse has been less a dipping of the toes and more of a cannonball.
What if… as a concept has been around in the world of comic books foe decades. Alternate stories told over the years posing different ideas and interpretations of the characters. Having some fun with the setting and just telling one-off stories that didn’t really impact the greater narrative that was unfolding in the mainline universe.
What if…? The animated series is fulfilling that role within the MCU, as well as a couple of others. One of the cool things about this series in my eyes is that it only exists as a result of the events of the final episode of Loki earlier this year. Them breaking the timeline so that it isn’t a single “sacred” line anymore.
Now we see the result and how it might not necessarily be a good thing for the prime timeline we’re all intimately familiar with. That concept needs to be explained to the not so learned members of the fandom though. The whole idea of a “multiverse” is old had to many of the more nerdish people among the fandom. But your mom who really got into the MCU is going to need the concept explained to them.
So we get What if…? A series that very clearly and simply explains the concept through the helpful narration of Jeffrey Wright’s The Watcher. A series of alternate stories that make either minor or massive changes to the events of the MCU as we know them and show us the stories that result.
And for the grand bulk of the series, I felt like it was an up and down experience. Personally, I felt like the episodes that diverged from established timelines the most were the most effective in my mind. Taking these characters and putting them into essentially brand new stories, as opposed to them sticking to established events with minor tweaks.
While I adore Hayley Atwell, her premier episode as Captain Carter just felt like a condensed (rushed) retelling of the first Captain America movie only with her at the helm instead of Steve Rogers. I felt similarly about the T’Challa as Starlord and Killmonger focused episodes.
As opposed to the Dark Doctor Strange, the Zombies and the party Thor episodes which just felt like totally new stories that just so happened to feature familiar interpretations of the characters we already know and loved.
And that’s really what I thought this series was going to be right up until the end. A collection of one-off stories, totally disconnected from one another that have us a bunch of scenarios. Some would be hits and some would be misses. As is the very nature of this kind of storytelling. And then I came to a realisation: The final two episodes of this series were going to do the thing that literally everyone else is trying to do right now, thanks to the success of Marvel and what they’ve achieved with the MCU.
They were going to bring them all together.
With the sudden realisation that this is where the series was going, I was pretty resistant to the idea. I liked the stories in this series being separate from those of the mainline MCU timeline. Like in the comics they were based on, the idea of the two stories intermingling was… messy. I didn’t really want that mess finding its way into the MCU proper.
Which seemed suddenly far more likely once the stories told in these episodes starting crossing over with one another. It feels like inviting the fandom to start demanding to see these characters show up in the main timeline. While I wouldn’t be against seeing Hayley Atwell playing a live action Captain Carter, it feels like there is so much on Marvel’s plate right now that it doesn’t really feel likely to happen.
It sounds like weird gatekeepy energy doesn’t it. Well, it probably is, because once I saw the final two episodes of the series, I ended up enjoying it. While the future of these characters showing up again in any future project in the MCU remains in the air, as a secret connected story, this ended on a pretty high note.
First of all, it was very nice to see them going back and making Ultron the big bad of the two part finale.
Ultron was a character that got done dirty in the second Avengers movie. As a character who has been one of the most threatening villains of the entire Marvel universe, his MCU interpretation paled in comparison.
This Ultron felt like one big apology to make the villain not only as scary as he was always meant to be, but go one step farther and make him the biggest threat to the entire multiverse. One that lead to a multiversal brawl and the creation of the “Guardians of the Multiverse”, a hero team that felt like it was being hard carried by the darkness empowered Doctor Strange.
It was a very climactic and satisfying finale to the series. But that’s just the nature of modern Television these days isn’t it. A finale needs to be an event, one that can get people talking and excited about the prospect of a continuation of the story.
Honestly, I would have been happy if the series had been a collection on-off stories that never did interact with one another. But had that been the case, I guess the greater audience would have criticised it for lacking punch in the finale. My only question is that, if these characters do remain in their own, separate corner of the MCU, only to show up again in a second potential series of What if…? where there hell do you go from here?
Avoiding multiversal extermination by a sadistic killer robot seems pretty much as bad as it gets. The rules of escalation tell us next season’s villain might need to bust out our televisions only to be dragged back through the screen at the last minute for it to go further than the previous series.
I liked What if…? As much as my wry complaints might say otherwise. Disney and Marvel produce a highly entertaining and engaging product for the people like me who are already drinking the Kool-aid. It also stays on brand that this year’s best Marvel stuff has been the TV shows, which have been far better than the two movies we’ve gotten so far in 2021.
No matter what I thought of it though, the success of this show is a big step into Marvel further investing time into creating more animated series within the MCU continuity. While I can’t imagine the actors coming back to reprise their roles in long running series aimed at little kids, the replacement actors they got in did a great job.
It’ll be interesting to see what Disney and Marvel do going forward in regards to mixing animation with the MCU and if they branch out to tell any more stories like this, multiversal or not. I’d also be interested in knowing how this actually fared and if a general stigma against animation from the general audience could be overcome by more Marvel content.