“What if…?” is an all too familiar question in fandom. When any idea can become an internet theory or fanfic, fans are always speculating or coming up with their own versions of stories.
Now it’s also a question Marvel Studios has decided to answer with its first animated series, What If…?. The show comes from director Bryan Andrews (Samurai Jack, Star Wars: Clone Wars) and head writer A.C. Bradley (Trollhunters, 3Below).
Taking inspiration from the classic Marvel Comics series of the same name, the anthology show reimagines events from the films of the MCU to explore new storylines. Given the franchise’s shift to multiversal storytelling kicked off in earnest by Loki, it’s arguably the perfect time for the show.
Based on the three episodes made available to critics for review, the show delivers on its promise to explore the MCU in a way never seen before.
Although Loki gave us a peek at a multitude of variants, it ultimately served the larger purpose of setting up the multiverse in the MCU. What If…? provides a unique opportunity for fans to just enjoy what’s being explored and not worry about what’s being set up.
Because it doesn’t serve the larger MCU (at least that we know of), the episodes get to take even bigger swings than you might be used to from Marvel.
Same Characters, New Adventures
Several stories for the season like “Captain Carter” and “T’Challa Star-Lord” were already teased through the trailers, giving fans a vague idea of what to expect. As you can guess these stories do repurpose some familiar beats from the films, but there are enough unexpected twists that they never feel too paint-by-numbers.
Like the live-action MCU, each story has its own tone and theme while fitting into the broader multiverse. The series may be animated, but it’s not a show made specifically for a younger audience and can range from light-hearted to heavy.
Without spoiling any major plot details, I can guarantee you’ll want to pay attention throughout the entirety of each episode even if you think you know what will happen next. Some of the surprises are hilarious and bizarre while others will leave you reeling over where they chose to take the story.
At the heart of all of these stories though are the characters. What If…? manages to stay true to the emotional core of the characters featured even while exploring them in a different scenario than we’ve seen before.
Peggy Carter is still the brave hero we met in Captain America: The First Avenger and grew to adore even more on Agent Carter. T’Challa is still every bit as charming as in his live-action appearances, helped by the fact he’s voiced by Chadwick Boseman (the late actor’s final appearance as the character).
Reimagining feature-length films in a 30-minute story is a challenge. Using the Watcher (voiced by the perfectly-cast Jeffrey Wright) as a narrative device to frame the “What if…?” of the episode helps get the audience up to speed.
If you thought your MCU watch marathons were impressive, imagine being a cosmic being whose whole life is devoted to observing the Marvel multiverse. The Watcher is also a handy guide for a less fanatic audience tuning in who may not remember the key plot points of all 20+ Marvel Studios films.
In addition to adapting the main storylines of the MCU’s past, each episode incorporates Easter eggs and references that will reward the most devoted fans of Marvel films and comics without alienating a broader audience.
The episodes are strongest visually during their action sequences. These scenes successfully blend Marvel’s typical blockbuster action with a comic book flair using an animation style that leans more realistic than cartoony. Given director Bryan Andrews’ background as a storyboard artist for Marvel, it’s not a surprise the show’s style nods to the live-action films.
The new character designs are also something Marvel fans are sure to latch on to, for example, Peggy Carter’s Captain Carter costume. (It’s no wonder merch lines hit shelves before the episodes even aired.)
Minor Stumbling Blocks
As engaging as the storytelling and world-building are, the show isn’t without a few weaknesses.
Although the animation is enjoyable, it’s not particularly groundbreaking when compared to other studios’ recent offerings, for example, Sony’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Fans expecting more given Marvel Studios’ vast resources may be a little underwhelmed.
The voice acting in What If…? is also uneven across the cast, varying by episode. Having actors from the films return for the project sounds like a great idea in theory but occasionally turns out to be a double-edged sword.
It’s obvious some actors came into the project without any voice acting experience and could have used some additional coaching before entering the recording booth.
The mix of actors from the films with non-film actors can be jarring at first, such as is the case in the first episode starring Hayley Atwell. Captain Carter’s story is missing one notable Captain America: The First Avenger actor among those returning to their roles. This blend won’t completely take you out of the story, but it does take some getting used to.
Once immersed in the stories fans might be willing to overlook some of these minor issues.
It’s too early to tell if What If…? will have implications for the future of the live-action MCU, but it’s an impressive offering as a standalone show. The series is sure to leave Marvel fans excited after each episode to see what story the anthology tackles next.
What If…? is a can’t-miss show for both casual and devoted fans looking for a captivating journey into Marvel’s multiverse.
The first episode of What If…? premieres on Disney Plus on August 11.