The One Thing ‘What If’ Is Missing
The following post contains some minor SPOILERS for various episodes of What If...?
On any given episode of What If...? you’re likely to see as many superheroes as Avengers: Endgame and more movie stars than at an awards show. A recent episode included the voice talents of Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Kat Dennings, Samuel L. Jackson, Jeff Goldblum, Clark Gregg, Karen Gillan, Seth Green, Taika Waititi, and, of course, Jeffrey Wright as the omniscient Watcher. No other animated series in television history can hold a candle to What If...?’s star power. Few others can match its scope; its first season has taken viewers back to the days of World War II and out into the furthest reaches of deep space. One episode ended with the total obliteration of the universe. What If...? can do stuff that no other Marvel film or series can touch, and there’s something fun about that too.
Forgive me, though, if iI still feel like something is missing. As the series nears the end of its first season, What If...? consistently lacks an element at the core of every other great Marvel Cinematic Universe movie. What If...? is amusing, interesting, and clever. It’s loaded with Easter eggs, and animation is slick. But so far, it hasn’t told a single really good story.
Consider Episode 7, “What If...Thor Were an Only Child?” In this version of the MCU, Odin never adopts Loki and Thor grows up a spoiled only child. When his mother leaves for a vacation, Thor sneaks off to Earth and throws a globe-spanning party, over the objections of S.H.I.E.L.D. Eventually, they call in Captain Marvel to stop him.
Again, there are some very charming aspects to this episode. Chris Hemsworth is just as charismatic as a voice actor as he is in live-action. There are some amusing cameos, and Kat Dennings steals several scenes as the fast-talking Darcy Lewis. But “What If... Thor Were an Only Child?” barely holds together as a story. It takes about five minutes to establish the particulars of this alternate What If...? universe, and then another five or so are spent with Thor and his Asgardian pals partying in Vegas. At that point the episode is almost half over.
The payoff is not much better. Most of the plot’s second act is a lengthy battle between Thor and Captain Marvel. It’s nicely choreographed and fluidly animated. But it drags on and on, and by the time that’s done so is the episode. Jane Foster alerts Frigga to Thor’s shenanigans and she shows up to scold him and that’s it. There isn’t even a villain to fight or a problem to solve until the very last scene of the episode, when an Ultron with the Infinity Stones shows up for a cliffhanger that will likely never be paid off.
As a pile of fun moments and cute scenes, it’s a diverting way to spend 30 minutes. But there’s basically no stakes, no sense of rising action or tension, and a totally unsatisfying conclusion. And that issue isn’t isolated to “Episode 7,” it could be used to describe almost every What If...? this season. On the week prior’s “What If... Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark?” viewers witnessed a world where the Black Panther villain systematically took over Tony Stark’s empire and then used it become the new Black Panther. Episode 6 contained some surprising twists, and a seductively menacing vocal performance by Michael B. Jordan. But it felt more like an outline than a finished narrative. One thing happened then another thing happened, then another and another, and then the half hour was up and it just stopped. That episode ended on its own unresolved cliffhanger, with several surviving heroes agreeing to team up to expose Killmonger’s evil schemes.
Some of these problems might be baked into the What If...? premise and structure. It’s an anthology series, and every episode runs less than an hour. There’s just not much room for introductions, exposition, twists, turns, and action, and a complete three-act story too. The What If...? comics were sometimes like this as well. They would take an enormous crossover and turn it into a single comic — like What If...? #55, which told an alternate version of the ’90s Marvel storyline Operation: Galactic Storm. The original concept stretched across 19 different issues of Avengers, Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, Wonder Man, Quasar, and Avengers West Coast. What If...? #55 redid the whole thing as “What If... the Avengers Lost Operation: Galactic Storm?” in 36 pages.
At that pace, of course it’s not going to be a satisfying story. That’s the vibe of a lot of What If...?s on Disney+, like “What If...Zombies?” which boiled down several years of Marvel Zombie comics into 31 minutes that concluded not with the curing of the zombie plague, but with a couple of Marvel heroes headed to Wakanda to hopefully cure the zombie plague at some indeterminate point in the future that we’ll never actually see.
The best What If...?s are the ones that have been a little smaller in scale, where the writers and directors at least have a little room to explore their key characters. “What If... the World Lost Its Mightiest Heroes?” was powered by a successful mystery rooted in very personal superhero revenge. “What If... Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Heart?” still crammed in a lot of stuff into about 35 minutes but it at least narrowed in on Stephen Strange and considered what would happen to someone who could do anything except change the one thing they desperately wanted to fix.
If What If...? gets a second season, I hope the show leans into those kinds of character studies and away from cataclysmic adventures that are too epic to do justice to in half an hour of screen time. Otherwise, the big question I’m going to start asking each Wednesday is “What if... I just stopped watching this?”
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