I reserve the right to revise or retract this observation after we have more data to sift through, but for the time being, it looks as if Marvel Studios is developing a bit of a pattern with its Disney+ MCU shows. And I guess if I had to sum up that pattern in one pithy sentence, it would be: “One weird one, then one safe one.” It doesn’t take a lot of math to figure out that, as the fourth such series, the animated What If . . ? unfortunately falls into the latter category.
WandaVision not only debuted as the first new Marvel show on the platform, but also kicked off Phase 4 of the MCU, and it was enigmatically brilliant, nutty, poignant, and quite unlike anything we’ve ever seen before in the superhero domain. Marvel followed that with The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, which was a perfectly OK geopolitical action/adventure romp that really should have been filmed as the fourth Captain American movie instead of stretched out over six episodes. Next up was Loki, which was every bit as weird as WandaVision but in its own distinctive way. (Weirdness, after all, loses its novelty quickly.) At its best, Loki came across as something akin to a Franz Kafka comic book adapted for the screen by Terry Gilliam at the peak of his form.
What If . . ?, is, by contrast almost entirely paint-by-
WHAT IF . . ? AT A GLANCE
Given its origins, this latest entry in the MCU could have been as adventurous as WandaVision but is strictly by the numbers.
Disney+’s Dolby Vision presentation is simply jaw-droppingly gorgeous.
The Dolby Digital+ 5.1 soundtrack is also topnotch, with oodles of appropriate surround activity and a good amount of LFE.
numbers. And that’s a shame, really, because this series had the potential to be the franchise’s most risk-taking outing yet. By all rights, it should have been, given the concept. If you’re not familiar with that concept, by the way, it’s easy to explain: Take a variable or two at the heart of a popular comic book series and give them a twist. Off the top of my head, some of my
favorite what-if scenarios from my youth included, “What if
. . . Spider-Man had never become a crimefighter?” “What if
. . . Conan the Barbarian was stranded in the 20th century?” and “What if . . . Gwen Stacy had lived?”
This new MCU riff on the concept starts with a similarly interesting premise: “What if . . . Captain Carter were the First Avenger?” In other words, what would have happened if Peggy Carter had received the super-soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers, aka Captain America? In the lead-up to that first episode, my brain took that prompt in a million different directions. The problem is, every single one of those directions was infinitely more interesting than the answer we’ve been given.
When you get right down to it, this ends up being a 33-minute retelling of the plot of Captain America: The First Avenger with some character swaps and a gaggle of non sequiturs thrown in for good measure. Peggy becomes Captain Carter, Steve becomes Iron Man . . . err, I mean the Hydra Stomper, but nothing of any real consequence changes, despite the fact that the entire arc of Steve’s story
in the MCU has been about the fact that his unique character, temperament, and morals literally changed the course of history.
It’s really disappointing that the story falls so flat, because Marvel Studios obviously spent a lot of time and money on the animation for the show. It’s a neat mix of cel-shaded 3D and what appears to be hand-drawn 2D that’s vibrant and polished and a heck of a lot of fun to look at. True, there are times where the facial animations are a little stiff, but that’s about the only
criticism you could level at the look of the show.
Disney+’s Dolby Vision presentation is also simply jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Colors are rich. Contrasts are nigh-perfect. Lighting effects and shadow depth are stunning. And there’s a level of detail here that you just don’t expect from direct-to-streaming animated projects. The Dolby Digital+ 5.1 soundtrack is also topnotch, with oodles of appropriate surround activity—especially in the action sequences—and a good amount of LFE.
But, at least as of the first episode, the execution of the series simply doesn’t live up to the expectations set by its premise or its presentation. This is not the title Marvel Studios should have played it safe with. Of course, there are still eight episodes left to go, and What If . . ? could prove to be the genuinely interesting thought experiment it has the potential to be. But I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
Don’t get me wrong here: This isn’t a bad show. Far from it. It’s fun and entertaining and gorgeous to look at. But it could and should have been so much more than that, right from the giddy-up.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.