What If…?

3 out of 5

Created by: A.C. Bradley

covers season 1

Over in comic book land, Marvel’s various What If series have often intrigued, and definitely entertained, but never really made any lasting impressions. That’s somewhat by design, of course, given their one-and-done nature, but it’s also something about the implication of the title: unlike, say, DC’s Elseworlds, in which you’re unleashed from any form of continuity, Marvel’s alternate takes are exactly that: they start with a singular “What if X?” and spin-out from some existing canon. Now, sometimes this can go deep into minutiae (as one can imagine, when a concept like this tops over 100 issues), and sometimes it’s just a tweak on some big event, but nonetheless: it’s just a question, and so you answer it in 22 pages. Compressing the space to explore even more – and this actually also applies to a lot of Elseworlds, because we love our fandom – is the need to either Twilight Zone things back to a status quo (because even in What Ifs, doing anything too drastic is taboo…!), or to include a whole bunch of What If-y cameo from other characters wholly unrelated to the titular question, because it’s cute to see our favorite heroes in some strange new costume or something. I’m not trying to brush off the potential quality of writing, or art, but the whole thing is very ephemeral, but then that nature is not used to necessarily push things – consistently, in a way that makes collecting the books a goal – in any wildly brave directions.

Now, Marvel also has its multiversal designates, which is another piece of the tonal puzzle: technically, all this stuff could be said to be canon since it’s just a different universe, which allows for the possibility of, like, something being popular and then getting a spotlight in the mainstream Marvel U, because, why not.

…And over in Disney+ MCU land in the year of 2021, creator A.C. Bradley has pretty much exactly replicated all of the above, ephemerality included, in animated form.

There are, essentially, two different variants across the 8-episode season: serious entries and silly ones. Given the aforementioned lack of impact, the “serious” ones – which also tend to be cameo heavy, natch, because they span events which alter several Marvel movies instead of just one main riff – are not so great, and that’s unfortunately where things start off. 30 minutes is just not enough time to rewrite the world meaningfully, while also trying to stuff in some requisite MCU humor and action, and so these come across as pretty empty attempts. However, these are rarer versus the more comedy-geared episodes, which are pretty enjoyable romps, and do tend to lean in to the flexibility of the format to get a little goofy. In both cases, though, we’re inevitably limited: this is only a large handful of movies to What If upon, and you’ve gotta sort of stick to the big hits in order to stay wholly MCU accessible, so I wouldn’t even say any of the concepts are all that grabbing in and of themselves; there wasn’t an episode description that necessarily made me want to watch it more than another. However, thanks to some quite beautiful mo-cap-like animation and consistent popcorn pacing, once any episode was started – serious ones included – they’re very watchable.

The mix-and-match of most of the actors returning, with some famous voices subbed, is a little weird, and the general criticism that not all of these name actors are great at VO is valid – you do feel like you’re just getting people reading at a screen sometimes, not sure how to play to the format. But again: popcorn. The eps pass by easily enough.

We also have the mighty Watcher (Jeffrey Wright) – he who witnesses these multiverse happenings – framing everything, which I’m glad was included, even if the series steps away from its anthological gist towards the end; it’s nice having a narrator, as it makes these feel more appropriately like the side stories they (sort of) are. And as far as that stepping away goes – each episode still stands on its own, and I can’t really fault the direction it takes, because that’s sort of been encoded in the MCU phase 4 stuff we’ve been seeing. That said, the Disney+ shows, thus far, have been rather hampered by this need to be so tightly tied to the movies, and given how much more fun the goofier eps of What If are – and those tend to really be the standalone ones – this could be a stronger show in a second season (and a potentially enduring one!) if the creators are allowed to carve it into its own thing.