Warning: This review contains spoilers.
What If ...? is the latest Marvel show to hit Disney+ and serves as Marvel’s new push into the multiverse that was set up at the end of Loki. What If is an anthology show in which The Watcher (Jeffrey Wright) hops around the multiverse, showing viewers how stories in the Marvel Cinematic Universe played out differently in various timelines.
The show is supposed to re-create the feel of comic books, where the multiverse gives writers the freedom to recreate characters however they wish. But unlike comic series, where writers are given a few issues to explore the storyline and introduce their iteration of beloved characters, each episode of What If is a half-hour one-shot, meaning there isn’t really any opportunity for character development. As a result, the show relies heavily on viewers’ previous knowledge of the MCU, putting the stories on a bit of a knife’s edge. You don’t need to explain a person’s backstory or motivations or personality if everyone knows them coming in and it can be fun to see a character you know and love (or hate) in a different setting. Stay too familiar and the story feels stale. But change a character too radically, that prior knowledge becomes useless.
Take, for example, the second episode, “What If ... T'Challa Became a Star-Lord?” In the episode, T’Challa—better known as the hero Black Panther—is kidnapped off of Earth as a child by the alien pirates who were supposed to capture Peter Quill of Guardians of the Galaxy. T’Challa stays true to the character we learned about in Captain America: Civil War and Black Panther and the later Avengers movies. Those around him, not so much. The alien pirates become alien Robin Hoods for an easy laugh, while, most egregiously, Thanos becomes a goofy dad who joins T’Challa’s heroic gang all because T’Challa made a wholesome argument as to why he should give up his plan to kill half of all life in the universe. Years of fleshing out Thanos in various films are tossed out the window in one line just for a joke.
As a result, the story feels rushed and thin. There’s no substance to many of the characters beyond the nostalgia of seeing familiar faces and hearing familiar voices. Without the traits and behavior viewers know to back up that nostalgia, these characters are too different to truly be familiar, and need a level of character development for them to feel anything more than two-dimensional. But the limitations of What If’s format prevent such development from actually happening.
The first episode of the show falls on the opposite end of the spectrum: It’s too familiar, exploring what it would have looked like if Peggy Carter had received the super soldier serum during World War II instead of Steve Rogers. The answer? Basically the same as if Steve Rogers had taken the serum, with a slight feminist twist. The most successful entry in What If thus far has been the most recent, in which the Watcher explores a universe in which each of the first Avengers is killed as they’re being recruited to the team. Nick Fury and Natasha Romanoff are left to play detective in the the MCU’s take on a murder mystery that changes not the characters, but their circumstances, allowing a new take on the Avengers that still operates within the confines of the show.
Disney has long been the leading purveyor of nostalgia in film, churning out remake after sequel after reboot with no end in sight. What If is the logical continuation of this, not even bothering to truly recast or reboot characters, merely placing them in different timelines. But what if instead of relying on old properties, Disney produced original content? That’s a “what if” worth exploring.