What If …?: Season 1 (Disney +) — a review

As soon as I watched the first episode of this series, “What If . . . Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?” I knew that I was going to like it.

Although the movie Iron Man was the official kickoff of the MCU, it was the first Captain America movie that really set the tone of the Marvel Cinematic Universe for me. Any fictional universe set in our approximate present needs a Golden and Silver Age as part of its backstory, and the story of how skinny Brooklyn kid Steve Rogers became the World War II hero Captain America provided that for the MCU.

What If . . . ? delivers an alternate version of Marvel history in which Steve Rogers did not take the super soldier serum. Instead, Agent Peggy Carter received the full dose of Professor Erskine’s formula and became the shield-wielding hero known as Captain Carter, her uniform and shield emblazoned with the Union Jack. I wanted her to be called Captain Britain, but that didn’t happen. Steve Rogers, meanwhile, although still skinny, becomes the prototype Iron Man, in an Iron Giant suit designed by Howard Stark and powered by the Tesseract (what was once known as the Cosmic Cube in the comics).

The story was well-done and exciting, the animation style unique and dynamic. It covered some familiar territory from the movies, but put a new spin on things. In some ways, it was even more entertaining than the “real” story we’ve already watched. I’ve always been a fan of Agent Carter, so that’s nothing new. But, I’m interested in seeing more of the universe in which she, and not Steve Rogers, was the First Avenger.

Here’s the part where I admit that my first exposure to the theory of the multiverse came from DC Comics, not Marvel or quantum theory. I mean, DC had so many alternate universes on the books that they had to create a storyline to clean them up and make them less confusing, which is a creative well they’ve returned to time and again. Infinite worlds creates infinite possibilities for stories, which is something I’m all for.

In the late 1970s, I became a fan of the Marvel Comics What If? comic book series. In that series, comic book fans were given alternate versions of established comic book canon. Some notable entries in the series were What If? #11 “What If the Fantastic Four Were the Original Marvel Bullpen?” (October 1978) and What If? #13 “What If Conan the Barbarian Walked the Earth Today?” (February 1979).

That means this series is squarely within my wheelhouse. I know who the Watcher is (and think Jeffrey Wright does an excellent job in the role), and understand the concept of the show.

The Disney + streaming series applies the comic-book concept to the MCU, paving the way for the rest of Phase 4, which is obviously multiverse-oriented. In addition to an alternate history for Peggy Carter and Steve Rogers, we enjoy the late Chadwick Boseman’s final performance as the voice of T’Challa, only this time as a Guardian of the Galaxy, in Peter Quill’s spot. Then, Agent Coulson and Nick Fury have lead roles in a version of Earth where the original Avengers never formed and Loki invaded Earth with an Asgardian army behind him.

As we get deeper into the season, the Watcher is often visible in the background, especially in wide shots, unseen by the characters. Yeah, yeah. I get it. Uatu the Watcher gets to witness all of these alternate histories unfolding, but isn’t allowed to interfere. All sorts of hell gets unleashed when you go mucking about with the timeline. That’s true in both the DC and Marvel universes. It seems that Phase 4 of the MCU will largely be about just that issue.

But, it allows “dead” characters such as Vision and Loki to return to entertain us again. So, that’s a point in its favor. And if any of you can prove you predicted that Kang the Conqueror would one day be a part of a major superhero movie franchise, I’ll eat your hat.

Doctor Stephen Strange, the Sorceror Supreme, is poised to play a larger role in the multiverse drama of Phase 4. In this series, we get to see an alternate version of the doctor who didn’t damage his hands in the car accident, but lost his Great Love Dr. Christine Palmer instead. This version of Strange goes fully dark, consuming the life forces of other creatures to gain the power to change a fixed point in time. He even breaks the animated fourth wall and begins addressing the Watcher, the narrator of this series. It’s all very meta and psychedelic, like all of the best Doctor Strange stories.

If possible, the show goes even darker when it tells its zombie story. Hank Pym is successful at returning Janet Van Dyne from the quantum realm. Only, she brings a zombie virus with her. In short order, the Avengers are converted into zombies, leaving a handful of heroes to try to find a cure. At the end of the episode, there is hope for a cure. But, it feels like a “to be continued . . .”

The episode in which Killmonger saved Tony Stark, preventing his metamorphosis into Iron Man, was an interesting one. Mostly because I’m a Michael B. Jordan fan, I’ll admit, but also because it was fun to revisit Shellhead’s origin story from a new perspective.

The episode in which Thor and Loki weren’t raised as brothers was a fun, lighthearted one, reintroducing Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) to the MCU in advance of the next Thor movie. I’m also a huge Darcy fan, because—who isn’t, right? Plus, we get to see the Carol Danvers version of Captain Marvel kicking some serious booty as well. The ending intrigued me the most, as what appears to be the Vision wearing Ultron armor makes a last-minute appearance.

This leads to the episode “What If . . . Ultron Won?” This storyline posits that Ultron would eventually turn to the multiverse to satisfy his flawed craving for ultimate peace. This causes the Watcher to waver on his pledge of noninterference and eventually turn to the dark version of Stephen Strange for help. Since the next Doctor Strange movie is subtitled “Multiverse of Madness,” I can’t help but feel like this episode is teeing up that motion picture.

The last episodes of the series reveal that what I had supposed was a Marvel anthology series in a similar vein as Twilight Zone, in which the stories were episodic, not necessarily connected in any discernible way, actually had more in common with Black Mirror where all of the individual stories may exist in the same reality. In the end, it is the origin of a new superhero team, the Guardians of the Multiverse.

I do believe that this series has limited itself more than I would like, because it offers only variations of the MCU plotlines we’ve already experienced. I get it. That’s the bread-and-butter of Marvel entertainment these days. But, since we’re using the medium of animation, why not explore some of the deeper cuts in the Marvel Universe? The stories are already written, in comic book form. I’d love to see an episode about Conan the Barbarian being transported into the then far-flung future of the 20th Century, but there’s probably issues with securing the rights. It’s probably the same reason we won’t see an animated version of the late Jack “King” Kirby as the Thing, although that would be fun as well.

I guess I’m looking at the Disney + series called What If . . . ? as an extension of what I consider to be the golden era of Marvel Comics (although it was actually the Silver and Bronze Ages, if you’re a nerdish nitpicker) rather than an advertising vehicle for the upcoming spate of MCU movies.

I know that’s asking for a lot. However, since I’m a fan of the MCU, I don’t mind all the marketing, either.

I just want more.

Firewater’s The-Watcher-is-the-Ultimate-Peeping-Tom Report Card: B+

I know I’m a greedy bastard for wanting more. But, I’m just being honest. Gimme more.

I’ll be watching.

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