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What If…? explores the roads not taken for better and worse

What If Watcher

Marvel Studios rolls out its most insular effort to date on Disney+ with plenty to please the fans.

Marvel’s latest Disney+ series, What If…?, seems likely to be the biggest “for the nerds” MCU endeavor since Tony Stark first built Iron Man in a cave with a box of scraps. It should present an interesting test of just how completely Marvel superheroes have permeated our current pop culture landscape.

For comic fans, the What If…? moniker is a familiar one. A long-running concept that ran through several series, the idea comes from a thought experiment. What if, instead of what happened, this slightly different thing occurred. For instance, What if…Spider-Man had saved Uncle Ben? The joke answer for years to any What if…? was, “Everyone would die,” as the series often ended up a weird sort of exercise in radical acceptance. They almost always suggested, “What ‘actually’ happened in the comics had to happen in exactly that way. If anything else did, it would’ve been so much worse.”

The first three episodes provided to critics largely eschew the bloodshed for a more profound bittersweet feeling. In both episode 1—which you could call What if…? Peggy Carter Got the Super Soldier Serum—and episode 2—What if…? T’Challa Became Star-Lord instead?—things largely seem to work out better than they did in the “real” MCU continuity. People avoid tragedies, deaths dodged, monsters redeemed.

T’Challa (voiced by Chadwick Boseman) rings The Collector’s (voiced by Benicio del Toro) bell. (Disney+)

Nonetheless, the knowledge that it didn’t happen this way undercuts the good feelings; we know the better path was the one denied. Additionally, they’re heavy with the perhaps more minor, but nonetheless still tragic, events the characters experienced. A father going years not knowing if his son was living or dead, two seemingly destined lovers never getting a chance—these sorts of non-cosmic heartbreaks abound.

The third episode, the only one not glimpsed in any trailers for the series, hews a bit closer to the comic book template. With an eye towards spoilers, we’ll hold back on the central “What If…?” but will say it features far and away the most death and, perhaps not coincidentally, also feels the flattest. There’s a mystery at its core that gives it a bit of juice, but as the body count rises, the emotional stakes quickly seem to fall away. It might be the cleverest of the first three in terms of tracing a single differing event to its widespread consequences, but the MCU is always at its best when it isn’t just quick-witted but heartfelt in that cleverness.

[What If…?] should present an interesting test of just how completely Marvel super heroes have permeated our current pop culture landscape.

The series achieves that with the other two far more successfully. The T’Challa—who you know probably know as Black Panther—centered episode, in particular, works, in small part due to how it ends up accidentally doubling as a tribute to Chadwick Boseman.

Boseman voices T’Challa, and there’s something both comforting and deeply sad about hearing him as the character he helped make a massive icon. There is a depth of warmth to the work that sells what might otherwise feel like a stretch. You can believe that simply by being Star-Lord, T’Challa can improve the entire universe. So when Korath the Pursuer (a never-funnier Djimon Hounsou) fanboys out in Star-Lord’s presence, it gets a laugh, but you can understand it.

The films of the MCU have, almost to a one, been four-quadrant crowd-pleasers built to showcase the characters, but not to expect the average movie-goer to then dive deep into the concepts therein. That’s not to say some fans haven’t, but you don’t get, say, Captain Marvel over a billion dollars without a lot of casual fans who are just there for the two hours of blockbuster entertainment and little else. Even as Disney+’s previous series like WandaVision or Loki have wrestled with thornier subjects, they’ve still kept the barrier for entry relatively low.

Captain Carter (as voiced by Hayley Atwell) takes aim with the Howling Commandos, including Buck Barnes (as voiced by Sebastian Stan) and Dum Dum Dugan (as voiced by Neal McDonough), at her back.

What If…?, on the other hand, demands a more significant commitment. It requires a viewer to engage with hypotheticals. To not just want to see Captain America again, but to see Steve Rogers never become Captain America. To be a touch reductive, the series asks you to be a bit nerdy in your commitment to the material.

That said, the show certainly isn’t slumming it. Many actors—Hayley Atwell, Josh Brolin, Paul Bettany, and Tom Hiddleston, to name but a few—lend their voices to their animated counterparts. While several—Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans—do not, it’s frankly stunning how much easier it is to realize how many more came on for this show than didn’t. Adding Jeffrey Wright’s Rod Serling-esque voiceover as The Watcher further demonstrates how seriously the What If…? team takes the project.

As I noted earlier, it also, more often than not, manages to capture the tone of the MCU as its best—character-driven and humane. For those that have craved a bit more grimness in the Marvel properties, the third episode is probably the least quippy the MCU has done big superhero action. Without Coulson (Clark Gregg), it would be a joke-free affair.

In the end, though, What If…? is primarily an exercise in preaching to the converted. If a viewer doesn’t have an existing emotional investment—or intellectual interest, I suppose—in the MCU, it is difficult to imagine this series doing anything for them. And to be clear, I am a critic who typically finds fault with the idea that the MCU is insular or that you can’t jump in on almost any movie without watching the rest and still find plenty to enjoy.

For those already on board, What If…? will, more often than not, play as an enjoyable, if thin, bit of television. For those unfamiliar or actively skeptical of the MCU, nothing here will persuade them to reconsider.

What If…? ushers the multiverse to Disney+ beginning August 11th.

What If…? Trailer:

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Tim Stevens

Tim Stevens is a freelance writer and therapist from the Nutmeg State, hailing from the home of the World’s Smallest Natural Waterfall. In addition to The Spool, you can read his stuff in CC Magazine, Marvel.com, ComicsVerse, and The New Paris Press. His work has been quoted in Psychology Today, The Atlantic, and MSN Ireland. And yes, he is listing all this to try and impress you.