Marvel's 'What If...?' Review: The Multiverse Offers Mixed Results With Stylish Animation And Rushed Storytelling

In the world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, endless story possibilities have been unleashed by way of the multiverse, a perpetually branching timeline where infinite alternate universes put unique spins on characters and events we know from Marvel Studios. Loki sparked the mess that will soon be unleashed in the live-action Marvel movies and TV show, but before we get there, Marvel's What If...? animated series reveals exactly what kind of stories can be found within the multiverse. Unfortunately, in the first three episodes of the series provided ahead of the premiere on August 11, the results are mixed, and not just in the entertaining way you'd like to see in an alternate universe comic book anthology series.

Created by head writer A.C. Bradley and directed by Bryan Andrews, Marvel's What If...? animated series asks the proverbial question right there in the title. The series is based on a line of comics that imagines alternate realities where superheroes experience new stories that drastically alter their place in Marvel Comics. What if Loki wielded the hammer of Thor? What if Venom possessed The Punisher? What if Peter Parker's Aunt May died instead of Uncle Ben? These are the kind of stories Marvel's What If...? comics told. In Marvel's new series, that same premise is applied to the many movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and all these stories are being observed and presented by a cosmic being known as The Watcher.

A New Marvel Cinematic Universe Begins

Marvel's What If...? takes us back to the earliest story in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that we know so far: Captain America: The First Avenger. However, instead of seeing scrawny Steve Rogers receiving the super soldier serum and suiting up in the stars and stripes, a single decision made by Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) results in a completely different path. As the observing cosmic being The Watcher (voiced by Jeffrey Wright) explains in voiceover as the series narrator, the simple choice that Agent Carter makes to stay in the lab where the serum is being administered instead of heading to a separate holding room creates an entirely new branch in the MCU.

In this new universe, a Hydra operative still infiltrates the experiment, but the aftermath is much different. When this operative sets off an explosion in the lab, Steve Rogers (not voiced by Chris Evans) gets shot and is unable to follow through with the super soldier serum injection. Instead, Peggy Carter makes the split decision to hop in the chamber herself, despite the protest of her superior. The result is Captain Carter, but even with the skills and build of a perfect human specimen, she still struggles to gain the respect of her boss, John Flynn (Bradley Whitford), one of the commanding officers from the Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR).

Forced to go rogue as Captain Carter, decked out in a Union-Jack ensemble and shield, the rest of the episode puts a spin on the events of Captain America: The First Avenger in an abridged fashion. Red Skull, Bucky Barnes, Arnim Zola, and the Howling Commandos all have a part to play, and Steve Rogers even stays in action with the early introduction of a Mark I Iron Man suit created by Howard Stark in the form of a piece of military artillery known as the Hydra Stomper. And in true Marvel fashion, the episode's final moments would seem to indicate something more than an anthology series being at play here.

Increasingly Remixed

The second episode of Marvel's What If...? follows in a similar fashion by turning the man who would become Black Panther into Star-Lord from Guardians of the Galaxy. The late Chadwick Boseman reprised his role as T'Challa in what is now his final performance, but rather than becoming the leader of Wakanda, he's kidnapped as a child by Yondu's henchman and becomes one of the Ravagers. And instead of being a gang of thieves out to make quick cash, the presence of T'Challa in their lives has turned them into a band of Robin Hood-esque heroes who steal in order to help those who are less fortunate in the universe.

This installment of What If...? veers even more from Guardians of the Galaxy than you'd expect, especially after seeing how Captain Carter offers a mostly basic riff on Captain America's origins. This includes unexpected turns for familiar cosmic characters as the Ravagers carry out an Ocean's 11-like heist with a blonde-haired Nebula (Karen Gillan). It's easily the most complete story of the first three episodes, and it's the only one that feels like it could have been a viable big screen alternative to the real Guardians of the Galaxy, if given the opportunity.

Meanwhile, the third episode shifts the gears of the Marvel Cinematic Universe the most dramatically as it focuses on a perplexing murder mystery that completely shatters the events of Iron Man 2, Thor, and The Incredible Hulk. Without giving anything away, let's just say that the presumed assembly of The Avengers put forth by SHIELD director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is significantly threatened by a shocking foe, and it's this episode that paves the way for some kind of epic culmination that will presumably create a narrative tie between the episodes, despite initially appearing to be part of an anthology series where each episode stands on its own. To that end, each episode also ends with what amounts to a credits scene (not actually in the credits) that teases a larger lingering mystery.

Where the Branch Falls Too Far from the MCU

Despite putting a refreshing spin on familiar stories with some commendable attributes, there are some glaring shortcomings that permeate the entire series.

The show's animation has a 3D cel-shaded aesthetic that takes the comic book appearance of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and makes it a little more realistic in order to lean into the familiarity of the live-action MCU. The animation looks stunning when it comes to executing crisp action sequences that feel like a comic book brought to life without leaning too much into Saturday morning cartoon territory.

On the other hand, there are times when the show's animation feels embarrassingly clunky, especially when it comes to lingering on character faces. Moments in close-ups that are intended to be emotional and heartfelt are completely ruined because of this ongoing issue. It doesn't help that sometimes a character's lips don't quite match with the dialogue either. Even more of a disservice is the fact that many of the major Marvel Cinematic Universe actors and actresses who are reprising their roles simply don't have the same presence in voice acting that they do on the big screen. It's almost as if they have no idea how to act if they're not standing in front of a camera and physically putting in an entire performance. Honestly, supporting stars like Toby Jones as Arnim Zola and Djimon Hounsou as Korath the Pursuer who offer the best reprisals, with the latter having an absolute blast in a much more comedic performance.

Furthermore, since each episode is only roughly 30 minutes long, these are abridged stories that often don't provide enough time to fully engage with new versions of the characters we love from the MCU. Granted, they're helped by our history with them across 13 years of Marvel Studios movies, but the Marvel movie magic and heart that makes these movies so easy to love is sidelined for a fast-paced story. The humor especially struggles, and some of the cheeky winks and nods to what we know about the primary MCU feel awkwardly contrived.

And finally, we have The Watcher, our guide to these alternate universe stories. In these first three episodes, he doesn't seem to offer anything substantial other than pinpointing the exact moment when an entirely new universe is created. There's not even a hint of what his overall role is other than merely watching and filling in gaps when necessary, though publicity rounds leading up to the release of the show had the creators teasing that might change as the first season of the series goes on.

Unleash the Secrets

But perhaps the biggest complaint that I have about Marvel's What If...? is that the creators seem to be trying too hard to keep the secrets of the series instead of being more forthcoming about the exciting twists and turns within. With the trailer showing what appears to be an assembly of new Avengers, it feels misguided to hide that enticing prospect when the very first credits scene in Marvel Studios history had Nick Fury talking to Iron Man about the Avengers initiative.

Having said that, my curiosity will still get the better of me, and I'll be watching every episode of this series just to see how it all plays out. It's probably the first official Marvel Studios project (that Marvel Television had no part of) that doesn't immediately feel like necessary viewing, and it might have an uphill battle convincing general audiences to stick around. But for fans who are already all-in on anything that Marvel Studios does, Marvel's What If..? will be a satisfying remix, even with the show's frustrating shortcomings.

Marvel's What If...? arrives on Disney+ starting on August 11, 2021.