A Marvelous alternative universe: ‘What If … ?’ puts a spin on stories familiar in the MCU

Thor in a scene from Marvel Studios “What if …?” (Courtesy of Marvel Studios)

Each episode of the Disney+ animated MCU series “What If … ?” begins with Jeffrey Wright’s the Watcher delivering a Rod Serling-like “Twilight Zone” intro:

“Time, space, reality … it’s more than a linear path. It’s a prism of endless possibility, where a single choice can branch out into infinite realities, creating alternate worlds from the ones you know. I am the Watcher. I am your guide through these vast new realities. Follow me and ponder the question ‘What if?’ ”

The Watcher isn’t kidding. The question is raised again and again, e.g., What if Agent Peggy Carter is injected with the super-soldier serum in 1943, while skinny Steve Rogers winds up in an Iron Man prototype getup designed by none other than Howard Stark? What if T’Challa is abducted by an alien spacecraft as a child and is renamed Star Lord by his paternal mentor, Yondu? What if Thanos had renounced his evil ways and had joined the Guardians of the Galaxy, who constantly tease him about his never-realized plan to eliminate half the Earth’s population, telling him time and again, “That’s genocide”?

Shot in a cel-shaded animation style that reflects late 20th century comic books, “What If … ?” features dozens of familiar characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, drawn to resemble the actors that have portrayed them. Most of the main characters are voiced by the original actors, e.g., Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Josh Brolin as Thanos, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Hulk, the late Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa/Star Lord, but soundalike actors are used to voice Tony Stark, Steve Rogers and Carol Danvers. It’s a little strange to see an animated version of Robert Downey Jr. voiced by someone who is NOT Robert Downey Jr., but we get past that pretty quickly, and settle in for a relatively breezy and often humorous series that puts a quirky and borderline goofy spin on the Marvel timeline as we know it. (I’ve seen the first three of the 10 episodes of Season 1.)

Bucky Barnes, Captain Carter/Peggy Carter, Dum Dum Dugan and the Howling Commandos in Marvel Studios’ “What if …?” (Courtesy of Marvel Studios)

In the premiere episode, set in June 1943, wimpy Steve Rogers is about to be injected with the super-soldier serum when an unexpected development knocks him out of commission and Peggy Carter gets the injection. Boom! Just like that, Peggy is a muscled-up version of her previous self, but the male military hierarchy keeps telling her, “You’re lucky to even be in the room” until she proves herself to be a formidable obstacle to the Red Skull and Hydra. In this version of the MCU, Howard Stark is a comedic relief millionaire playboy; when asked if he speaks German, Stark quips, “I spent a weekend with Hedy Lamarr, (but) she wasn’t teaching me German.”

Episode 2 kicks off with a young T’Challa yearning to explore the world outside Wakanda, which leads to a mix-up in which a Ravager spacecraft that was supposed to snatch Peter Quill takes T’Challa instead, and then we fast-forward 20 years, by which time T’Challa has become Star Lord, a legendary Guardian of the Galaxy and protégé of Yondu. As mentioned, Thanos is now a good guy, but he still has some issues with his adopted daughter, Nebula. As one observer quips, “It’s a long story. I’m trying to get them into counseling.”

The jokes in “What If … ?” are hit and miss. It’s not exactly a cutting-edge moment when Yondo reminds T’Challa the Ravagers steal from the rich and give to the poor, “just like that Earthling folk hero of yours, Robin Leach.” Talk about dusting off an old reference, yikes.

More often, though, the humor hits the spot, as in Episode 3, when Tony Stark resists Nick Fury’s overtures by saying, “I told you, I don’t want to join your super-secret boy band.” But things take a dark turn in this particular episode when someone assassinates a number of Avengers before they even become Avengers, and that someone turns out to be …

Sorry, but not sorry, I won’t spoil that for you. Let’s just say almost anything is possible in the “What If … ?” universe.

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