Television Review: “What If…?” — Marvel’s Alternative History

By Sarah Osman

There’s plenty of amusement to be found in exploring “what could have been” in the Marvel universe.

A scene from What If…?

The past year has felt like 12 months of Christmas for Marvel fans: Disney Plus has been privileging the brand, with three Marvel shows, a movie, and an additional Marvel series locked and ready to launch before the end of 2021. Still, there is a good reason that Christmas only comes once a year — as too much of a good thing (even presents) can start to drag. But Marvel/Disney Plus is on a lucky streak. Their latest show, What If…?, is a gift worth having. So far we have not been gifted the proverbial pair of ugly socks.

What If…? explores how the Marvel universe would be different if certain events played out differently. The alternative history premise (a device often used by novelists) turns out to be a lot of fun. Partly because of the variety: the tone of each episode will most likely change given that a different character(s) will be spotlighted.

The first installment centers on Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) who, in my opinion, has always been way cooler and more kick-ass than Captain America. What would have happened if she had become Captain America instead of Steve Rogers? It’s far more satisfying than your conventional macho fest: Carter (aka Captain Carter) takes down Nazis as she proves to her sexist boss that she is indeed “more than a girl.” Carter stomps down battlefields, using her mighty shield to annihilate Nazis who run from “The Fraulein ” in abject terror. Disappointingly, Carter’s adventures aren’t all that different from those of Rogers. But Carter turns out to be the much better superhero. Rogers gets in on the stomping Nazis action as well (he’s plugged into a prototype Iron Man suit; he looks like the Iron Giant). The episode sets up a possible Captain Carter movie (or at least TV show), which would be a welcome addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe considering that the TV series Agent Carter was so unfairly cut short. Still, considering the dark subject matter of the What If..? episode, this is not the best introduction to a future series, given its dull color scheme and bleak dialogue.

The animation of the episode is a bit unconventional, to the point of being jarring at first. The cel-shaded style brings to mind the visuals of rotoscoped animated films that drew on far more disturbing material, such as A Scanner Darkly. The intent was to imitate the drawings in a comic book, but some of the characters look too much like their real-life actor counterparts. The verisimilitude pulls us out of fully accepting the story. However, the visual shock wears off quickly, and the style becomes impressive, especially during epic fight scenes.

While Captain Carter is a great female superhero, her empowerment has not been the most exciting episode of the series. The second episode, which focuses on T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman, RIP) as Starlord, the leader of the Guardians of the Galaxy, is far more pleasurable. Ironically, it turns out that T’Challa, aka Black Panther, makes for a better Starlord than the original Starlord. On the debit side, the T’Challa version of the honcho doesn’t interact with the Guardians all that much. But the story line — which examines the idea of family and who truly is your family — is far stronger than what’s found in either of the Guardians movies. Because this episode takes place in Marvel’s “Space World,” the visuals are far more vibrant than Captain Carter’s drab WWII look. A highlight: when T’Challa/Starlord and his posse arrive at The Collector’s. (You’ll have to watch to find out exactly what happens, but let’s just say The Collector’s collecting days might be over.)

It’s unclear whether or not What If…? will embrace the timeline-jumping world posited by Loki or even the multiverse of Spiderman (knowing the Disney corporation and its ability to exploit any franchise for money — yes). For now, this looks to be an anthology series, and it takes advantage of the fact that each episode can stand on its own; the result is the emotional power of a good short story. Hardcore Marvel fans will be delighted by the various references and callbacks to the Marvel universe. But, because the series doesn’t tie each story back to a previous film or plot line, casual viewers will be able to enjoy the episodes as well. Even those who have never watched a Marvel movie will be comfortable.

Disney Plus’s next Marvel outings focus on two superheroes of color: Shang-Chi and Ms. Marvel, two welcome additions to the overwhelmingly white world of Marvel. Given the popular and critical success of Black Panther, arguably one of the best films in the Marvel canon, Disney will no doubt strive to handle their new superheroes with appropriate artistry. Until then, there’s amusement to be found in exploring “what could have been.”

Sarah Mina Osman is a writer residing in Wilmington, North Carolina. In addition to writing for The Arts Fuse, she has written for Watercooler HQ, The Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, Young Hollywood, and Matador Network, among other sites. Her work was included in the anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences in the Trump Era. She is currently a first year fiction MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. When she’s not writing, she’s dancing, watching movies, traveling, or eating. She has a deep appreciation for sloths and tacos. You can keep up with her on Twitter and Instagram: @SarahMinaOsman

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