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What Does Marvel Want ‘What If…?’ to Be?

The latest MCU series on Disney+ is meant to explore alternate realities, but at times it comes off as simply an extended remix of the greatest hits

Ringer illustration
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“Time, space, reality … it’s more than a linear path. It’s a prism of endless possibility, where a single choice can branch out into infinite realities, creating alternate worlds from the ones you know. I am the Watcher. I am your guide through these vast new realities. Follow me and ponder the question, ‘What if?’”

The Watcher, voiced by Jeffrey Wright, narrates each episode of Marvel’s new animated anthology series, What If…?, and begins every story with this Twilight Zone–style introduction. Following the recent conclusion of Loki, the MCU’s Sacred Timeline is broken, allowing a new multiverse of alternate timelines and realities to fill the void. And right on cue: an onslaught of hypothetical branches from the narrative arc we’ve come to know over the past two decades. What If…? starts in a world where Peggy Carter takes the super-soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers, as the episode posits the question: “What if Captain Carter were the First Avenger?” And while the premise is intriguing enough, and while it’s very fun watching Peggy hurl Hydra vehicles, the premiere ultimately falls short of capitalizing on that promise of “endless possibility.” You’re left instead with another question: What does Marvel want this show to be?

In the three episodes that were sent to critics, What If…? yields uneven results, as anthology series often do. Without giving away any major spoilers, the show is at its best when it strays from its film origins in order to create original story lines, and at its worst when it does little more than alter scenes from past MCU movies. What If…? thrives when it positions T’Challa as the space-traveling Star-Lord in a new plot that wasn’t featured in any Guardians of the Galaxy movie, and it falters when it focuses on the original Avengers team in a way that starts to feel like an extended remix of Marvel’s Phase 1.

In the case of the Captain Carter premiere, the episode retreads the plot of Captain America: The First Avenger from the moment Steve is injected with the serum to his final goodbye with Peggy, albeit with the roles reversed and some other adjustments made along the way. The result is a 30-minute episode of TV that tries to fit in all the main beats of a two-hour feature film. Scenes like the Red Skull retrieving the Tesseract in Norway, Steve springing Bucky and the Howling Commandos from Hydra’s captivity, and the mission when Bucky falls off the train are all repurposed, with some of the same lines and shots carried over from the movie. Some changes differentiate the premiere from its source material, such as Bucky surviving the war without becoming the Winter Soldier and Howard Stark using the Tesseract to create an Iron Man–like suit well before his son. But between all of the time it takes to revisit scenes from The First Avenger and offer a heavy-handed emphasis on Peggy and Steve’s dancing date and the sexism a woman in the army would have faced in the 1940s, Captain Carter’s origin story has little chance to truly examine the hypothetical the episode proposes.

Despite the premiere’s shortcomings, though, it still shows glimpses of why the series was highly anticipated in the first place, and how it can improve. The cel-shaded animation flourishes during action sequences, such as when Peggy first dons her Captain Britain–style suit and shield to take down Hydra soldiers and vehicles with ease. Captain Carter, voiced again by Hayley Atwell, is a wonderful spin on a character who never received the love she deserved, as the underappreciated ABC show Agent Carter arrived too soon and was canceled too early. And although it may have been a bit out of place alongside the rest of the episode’s wartime setting, a highlight in the premiere is Captain Carter’s confrontation with a massive tentacled monster after she grabs a sword to pair with her shield:

Screenshot via Disney+

The story follows the structure of The First Avenger to the very end, but instead of simply replacing Steve with Peggy in hand-to-hand combat with the Red Skull on a crashing ship, Captain Carter gets to battle a mythical creature and step into another dimension years before any other character in the MCU would. The stranger, and more imaginative What If…? gets, the better off it will be. With the series already expected to return for a second season with Atwell’s Captain Carter back in the fold, Marvel will have another opportunity to branch further out from the narrative of The First Avenger, and hopefully provide her with a journey that belongs to her alone.

What If…? still has plenty of chances to prove itself in its initial nine-episode run, and every alternate timeline it explores will indicate what purpose it’ll serve for Marvel: Will it largely be a testing ground for new characters or an avenue to tell original stories in a new medium? For the What If…? experiment to succeed on its own, its creators will need to figure out where their anthology series fits in Marvel’s vast and ever-growing multiverse.