Surreal as it is to say, What If…? has already reached the midway point of its first season. Plenty of intrigue surrounded Marvel’s first foray into animated series territory before its release. And, for the most part, it’s been largely well received by the studio’s fanbase.
With five episodes down, and another four to go, now seems like the perfect time to offer a half-term report on how What If…? has fared.
Below, we’ll discuss what we’ve liked about the anthology show, as well as what hasn’t worked, so far. Spoilers follow for What If…? season 1, so proceed at your own risk.
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- Here are 5 What If...? season 2 episodes we want to see
What works about Marvel's What If…? so far
As Marvel’s first in-house animated series, What If…? required a signature look: one that was comic book-like in style, but not so cartoonish that it wouldn't seem compatible with the movies it's based on.
The show’s chief creative team settled on an aesthetic influenced by classic US illustrators including J.C Leyendecker and Tom Lovell. But, with both artists’ works entrenched in the early 20th century, there was the potential for What If…?’s art style to appear outdated.
The series’ look, though, works. It brings a 2.5D, cel-shaded stylization to the MCU – one that offers an aesthetic that’s not only novel, but also familiar to audiences. Aside from some issues with character likeness (Rachel McAdams’ Christine doesn’t look like her real-life counterpart), What If…?’s art style fits well.
The animation, too, feels fluid and graceful. It exaggerates the movements of the series' characters somewhat, as all animated series do, but does so without being goofy. After all, What If…? is canon in the MCU, so creating a caricaturist style of animation wouldn’t have felt right, or likely been received well.
As for its episode ideas, What If…?’s various standalone stories provide a welcome opportunity to mix and match superhero team ups.
It’s been fun to see characters interact with those that they wouldn’t ordinarily meet. Seeing Star-Lord T’Challa joke around with the Ravagers, Nebula and even Thanos has been a particular highlight.
Other episodes have showcased potential Avengers line-ups in other universes, too – particularly those comprising lesser known heroes or side characters.
What If…?’s Zombies episode is a wonderful example of this, allowing underused characters to shine and lead from the front.
The Wasp, Okoye and even David Dastmalchian’s Kurt (Ant-Man’s friend from his solo movies) are given more prominent roles in proceedings, and it feels liberating for the MCU. What If…? affords Marvel with the opportunity to make its most popular heroes dispensable: unlike their live-action counterparts, the likes of Captain America and Iron Man can be killed off in these different realities. In doing so, new heroes need to step up, which allows them to deliver in ways that they haven’t been able to before.
Each episode’s cliffhanger-style ending is also a pleasing divergence from the MCU. Where most live-action projects have a definitive conclusion, What If…?’s entries are more open-ended. They allow viewers to decide the outcome of these alternate universes in their own minds, sparking some entertaining debate in the process. If specific episodes prove to be popular enough, their open-ended finales enable Marvel to revisit them in future seasons, too.
While Marvel has recently branched out into various genres with its movies, there’s one kind of movie it’s steered away from: horror.
Surprisingly, that hasn’t been the case with What If...? The series has leaned towards terror-inducing stories in all but one of its episodes so far, with its Captain Carter and Avengers murder-mystery entries supplying smatterings of horror.
Its evil Doctor Strange and Zombies-centric episodes, though, have given us a tantalizing glimpse into how Marvel could handle a horror-style MCU production in live-action. The episodes are darker in tone and slightly terrifying, yes, but still within the boundaries of a PG-13 rating – a necessity for Marvel productions as it stands.
For a studio that’s built its empire on PG-13 movies and TV shows, it’s been refreshing to see What If…? dive into unfamiliar territory for the MCU. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is likely to embrace some horror elements when it arrives in March 2022. After all, it’s helmed by acclaimed Evil Dead director Sam Raimi.
But What If…? has delivered a taste of how Marvel could implement more terrifying aspects as part of the MCU. Given that they’ve been received well by audiences, it’s something Marvel should consider expanding into further.
As experimentally fun as it is, What If…? hasn’t been without its flaws.
For one, its rigid 30-minute episodic runtimes doesn’t work for every story. Some, such as Star-Lord T’Challa and Zombies, have felt truncated. Shortening their runtimes has meant that they’ve felt rushed and, satisfying though they are, spending another 10 or 15 minutes with each wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Some tales just need more airtime. If Marvel adopted a similar approach to its movies – say, for example, every MCU movie had to clock in at two hours – half of them wouldn’t be as good. Plot points, character elements and set pieces would have to be cut and make for less well-rounded films. So there’s no reason why What If…?’s episode lengths can’t similarly vary.
Speaking of story structure, some of What If…?’s episodes are simply less fulfilling than others.
Captain Carter, for instance, feels like a retread of a story we’ve seen before in Captain America: The First Avenger. Aside from altering who received the super soldier serum and its slightly cosmic ending, it just wasn’t different enough. Star-Lord T’Challa was more enjoyable because it diverged from Black Panther and Guardians of the Galaxy’s narratives. So we’d like to see more variation with certain stories moving forward.
In tandem with their runtimes, some episodes are guilty of glaring plot holes, too. The Zombies episode, in particular, has a few. Does Bucky survive his encounter with zombie Scarlet Witch? Why does Vision sacrifice himself so soon when it’s unnecessary? What happens to the Hulk during his last stand with the zombie hordes? Maybe Marvel plans to answer them if it creates a sequel for this entry. Based on its foreboding final scene, though, don’t count on it.
The show’s humor can also feel off on occasion. Yes, What If…? retains the lightheartedness of the MCU – amusing moments and jokes are always welcome to break up the seriousness of its stories.
But some episodes are a bit too forceful with their quips, or are in danger of not having enough. What If…?’s Zombies entry doesn’t strike the right balance of when to tell jokes or let its more serious moments sit with viewers, while evil Dr. Strange is bereft of any notable humor. It's a disparity that the show could do without.
Disappointingly, not every MCU actor returns to voice their characters. Dave Bautista has been vocal about not being asked to reprise his role as Drax (something the showrunners have denied). Other MCU stars have remained tight-lipped on why they haven’t returned and, while there may be reasons for that, it’s obvious when one of them has been replaced. Stand-ins do their best impressions of Robert Downey Jr, Tom Holland and Scarlett Johansson but, ultimately, it’s distracting.
Our verdict so far
There’s lots to like about What If…?, but there is still room for improvement. It's Marvel’s first venture into the animation sphere, so there are bound to be some teething problems. Some hiccups, though, feel like they could have been fixed already with a few tweaks.
Despite the issues discussed above with plotting, pacing and some less imaginative episode ideas, What If…? is better than we thought it would be. It’s clearly resonating with Marvel’s fanbase and, with the multiverse’s arrival, there are a seemingly endless number of narratives for future seasons to focus on.
Providing What If…? can iron out the kinks in its story structuring, add more variation to its tales and bring more iconic MCU stars back to voice their characters, it could become the secret weapon in Marvel Studios’ arsenal.