What If...? Season 1 Episodes Ranked Worst To Best

Over the past two months, "What If...?" has proven to be the most inconsistent production in Marvel Studios' history. While Marvel's other shows, like "WandaVision" and "The Falcon and The Winter Soldier," maintained a singular tone and told one story over their runs, meaning that casual viewers could get an idea of what the series was about from a single episode, "What If...?" is an entirely different beast. For better or for worse, each episode provides a different experience. That leads to some real duds. On the other hand, it also makes it much easier to determine which alternate-universe romp reigns supreme.

The nine episodes that encompass the 1st season of "What If...?" are ranked here based on their overall quality, how they mitigate the series' flaws, and how well each one uses the show's general premise. Is the scenario creative? Is the resulting story engaging? Does the episode flesh out beloved characters in new and exciting ways? From all corners of the brand-new multiverse, these are all of the episodes of "What If...?" ranked.

9. What if... The Watcher Broke His Oath?

Marvel Studios struggles with endings. It's a problem that cropped up during its first year of Disney+ original series, and it's a problem that has plagued its films since the very beginning of the MCU. But not even "WandaVision" takes the wind out of its sails as profoundly as the crossover that brings "What If...?" to a close. 

It's not simply that the season finale embodies all the problems present in the show since the pilot, like rushed pacing and odd animation. "What if... The Watcher Broke His Oath?" also introduces some new, unique flaws. For example, the episode's climactic moment is built on a narrative detail from the previous episode that doesn't align with said episode's plot. It's a blatant storytelling hiccup that should've been addressed in the script's first draft, yet it's used in the final product as a falsified payoff.

In addition, Sakaarian Gamora joins the "Guardians of the Multiverse" despite lacking an episode of her own. Obviously, Gamora is no stranger to the MCU proper, but when every other alternate-universe member of the team is a known quantity, her appearance feels like canonical cheating (to be fair, her introductory episode was delayed by COVID-19-related obstacles). More egregiously, the Watcher is given absolutely no agency or development, despite the characterization doled out in the previous eight episodes. A season finale is supposed to close its show on a satisfying note. This one did the opposite, ending "What If...?" Season 1 on its lowest note.

8. What If... Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark?

The two main issues that plagued the 1st season of "What If...?" were a consistent abruptness in pacing and an unhealthy obsession with cliffhangers. Despite a really interesting premise and a few killer moments, Erik Killmonger's brief stint at Stark Industries is an unmemorable episode that rushes through predictable plot points and ends on a bewildering and frustrating "To be continued." The episode also struggles with staging and blocking — at one point, two characters are positioned in a shot in a way that removes any sense of spatial dimensionality, amounting to two character models shuffling around a piece of 2D concept art.

There are bright spots. Incorporating Michael B. Jordan's love of anime into Killmonger's characterization is a genius move (and implies that his outfit's similarity to Vegeta's armor in "Dragon Ball Z" is not a coincidence), and reintroducing T'Challa as a much more hardened and regal character than his Star-Lord counterpart shows off Chadwick Boseman's excellent range and Marvel's detailed facial animation. The climactic battle between Stark Industries' drones and Wakanda's military forces is sight to behold, but it all feels repetitive. By its 6th episode, "What If...?" had already shown plenty of heroes being killed and villains reigning supreme — at this point, the novelty had worn off. King Killmonger's rise to power is a pleasant 30-minute distraction, nothing more.

7. What If... Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?

She may not have laid down her life to save the world like the Sacred Timeline's Steve Rogers, but Captain Peggy Carter still made a huge sacrifice of her own, giving up her origin story so that it could be transformed into the dull "What If...?" pilot. It's not her fault. There has simply never been a TV show that retreads history and creates a new canon from an already-existing film franchise. Marvel Studios clearly streamlined the first episode to smoothly communicate how "What If...?" would function to casual viewers. The intent makes sense, and the message was certainly received. It's just not fun for those who were already paying attention.

The episode itself isn't bad by any means — in fact, Captain Carter's action holds up, even after the eight episodes that followed. But the pilot episode stumbles in its deviations from the norm — or, rather, its lack thereof. Between the excessive montages and the returning cast, Captain Carter's origin story is too close to Captain America's. Sure, Howard Stark creating the first Iron Man suit for Steve is a fascinating change, and confronting Red Skull and teleporting to the present via the Tesseract is a clever way to circumnavigate Steve's arrival in the 21st-century. But it all leads to the same outcome — Red Skull is still defeated by his own hubris, and S.H.I.E.L.D. still finds the Captain 70 years after her disappearance. Captain Carter is set to continue her storyline next season; here's hoping that Marvel gives her follow-through much more punch than her wimpy windup.

6. What If... Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?

Across its 2021 production slate, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been hit with a curiously consistent case of heartache. "WandaVision," "Loki," and "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" all deal with lost life and love in ways that connect thematically (and, in a rare change for this franchise, only thematically). Not to be left behind, "What If...?" contributes to this trend in the episode centering on Doctor Strange, in which the moment that sends the selfish surgeon on his path towards sorcerer supremacy isn't damaging his hands beyond repair, but instead losing his beloved Christine Palmer. 

Stephen's spiraling grief is anchored by his unyielding resilience, using the Eye of Agamotto to rewind time again and again in a doomed effort to save Christine from the grave (or to the refrigerator, if you prefer). His fall to darkness is well-supported, and his transformation into Doctor Strange Supreme is paced perfectly, conveyed through an eerie montage that shows Stephen absorbing interdimensional monsters over hundreds of years.

The episode's strengths lie in its commitment to its tone. Not satisfied with building up the Strange Supreme only to depict his defeat at the hands of his heroic, time-spliced duplicate, "What If...?" takes the show in an intensely dark and morbid direction, climaxing with Strange Supreme absorbing Stephen and accidentally obliterating his universe. The episode feels dated in its treatment of its most important female character, but the rise and fall of Doctor Strange Supreme is still a gem of an episode, improved in hindsight by its refusal to leave any dangling threads behind.

5. What If... Thor Were an Only Child?

"What If...?" is especially significant as the very first animated series from Marvel Studios, but it wasn't until the 7th episode of the series that Marvel's first cartoon decided to act like one. Borrowing heavily from the "college party" comedy sub-genre, Thor's planet-wide rager is "What If...?" at its most lighthearted. Characterizing the lone son of Odin as a brash dimwit with an unquenchable thirst for celebration instead of a hot-headed brat allowed "Party Thor" to introduce the greater galaxy to planet Earth, leading to extraterrestrial characters like Korg, Surtur, and Howard the Duck interacting with humans like Darcy Lewis and Jane Foster.

When S.H.I.E.L.D. and its secret weapon intervene, the episode's true gimmick shifts into focus. As soon as Gioachino Rossini's "Call to the Cows" plays, the college comedy mask falls away, revealing a face that recalls Tex Avery or Chuck Jones. The majority of the episode is spent on a superbly animated fight between Thor and Captain Marvel, with punches that send the heroes careening through the sky and into nearby countries. Not every joke lands, and the vibe is killed by a dark cliffhanger, but Thor's episode of "What If...?" is nonetheless a Hel of a time.

4. What If... the World Lost Its Mightiest Heroes?

For all of its faults, one of the most consistent qualities of "What If...?" is the show's eclectic collection of stories and scenarios. Outside of classic superhero fare, the series also dips its toes in genres completely unexplored in the MCU. The Watcher's third trip through the multiverse leads to Marvel Studios' very first murder mystery, in which the victims are the Avengers themselves. The episode warps the oddest canonical detail in the Marvel timeline — that the majority of the Marvel's Phase One films occurred over the course of a single week — into a series of gruesome and tragic murders, spurning Nick Fury and Black Widow to grab their Sherlock hats and hunt for clues.

The star of the episode (and arguably the whole show) is Lake Bell as Natasha Romanoff, taking over for Scarlett Johansson. "What If...?" has plenty of great sound-alikes for the MCU's most prominent characters, but none are as exceptional as Bell, who mimics Johansson's memorably coarse voice and authentically toes the line between confidence and indifference. 

Additionally, the episode's excursion through the oft-forgotten parts of Phase One is a surprisingly fun gimmick considering how long it's been since those films hit theaters. It also adds texture to Fury's behavior in the Sacred Timeline, as he flirts with using his '90s pager to summon his old friend Carol Danvers, an option that he really only had near the end of the "Infinity Saga." Aside from the regular pacing issues and an ending that's one shot away from feeling complete, Nick Fury's murder mystery is a great episode.

3. What If... Zombies?!

All the way back in 2013, Marvel Studios CEO Kevin Feige expressed interest in bringing the fan-favorite "Marvel Zombies" comic series to Marvel's cinematic universe, citing the company's younger fanbase as the hardest hurdle to clear. Eight years later, "Walking Dead" and "Invincible" creator Robert Kirkman's horror-comedy contribution to the House of Ideas finally arrives in the MCU as a hilarious and merciless take on films like "Zombieland" and "Shaun of the Dead." The episode wears its influences on its sleeve, grouping a bunch of less-powerful MCU characters together in a zombie apocalypse scenario, and allowing them to mingle and trade one-liners while each one is picked off, all while including the most comic book references of any single "What If...?" episode yet (including the MCU's first explicit mention of Peter Parker's departed Uncle Ben).

It's not easy to inspire laughter or hope against the backdrop of overwhelming zombified opposition, but "What If... Zombies?!" has a tone that ebbs and flows with the plot. It's all at once hysterical, horrifying, and heartwarming, and the way the story weaves through its ever-changing emotional circumstances is second-to-none. The number of returning cast members, which includes the likes of Paul Rudd and Emily VanCamp, is incredibly impressive too, as is Hudson Thames' remarkably accurate performance as Peter Parker. The only thing holding the episode back from taking the top spot is an infuriating and unnecessary cliffhanger that could've been easily forgone in favor of a complete ending, a common problem throughout the series. Aside from its final few seconds, the MCU's take on this popular alternate universe has a mean bite.

2. What If... T'Challa Became a Star-Lord?

Years from now, when the dust settles on "What If...?," the episode that will invoke the fondest memories will undoubtedly be Prince T'Challa's space odyssey. After a pilot that seemed afraid of coloring outside the lines, the Wakandan Star-Lord's assault on Taneleer Tivan's empire proudly fulfilled the show's promise, telling a compelling story and fleshing out a character in a context free from canonical constraints. Unlike most of the other episodes of "What If...?," Star-Lord T'Challa's is explicitly themed, with the Watcher himself positing how drastically a person's environment shapes their destiny, if it does at all.

The episode is stacked with returning cast members, from minor players like Sean Gunn's Kraglin and Chris Sullivan's Taserface to heavy-hitters like Josh Brolin's Thanos and Karen Gillan's Nebula. But the MVP is, of course, the late Chadwick Boseman, who gives a warm and inspiring turn as the prince-turned-Ravager. A galaxy in which the next Black Panther adopts the "Star-Lord" mantle instead of Peter Quill is one bursting with optimism. Though the series' recurring flaws, like rushed plotting and an allergic reaction to closure, are present, they are mostly mitigated and don't take away from the adventure. The creators of "What If...?" have claimed that Star-Lord T'Challa was supposed to receive his own animated series before Boseman's death — if this episode is any indication, the show would've been an instant classic.

1. What If... Ultron Won?

"What If...?" did not need an overarching story. Marvel could have rolled out nine individual episodes featuring different characters in different universes and it still would've fulfilled the premise of the show. But after seven standalone installments, a break from the familiar felt warranted, and thus came the two-part finale, the first chapter of which stands as the best the series has to offer. 

Ultron's grand return to the MCU succeeds because it embraces the best parts of the show and breaks established rules at just the right moment. Every corner of the episode is jam-packed with explosive action. Black Widow and Hawkeye's plan to overtake the almighty Infinity Ultron with Arnim Zola's digital consciousness is extremely clever, and cameos from the denizens of Sakaar, Sovereign, and Xandar underline Ultron's genocidal thoroughness.

The episode's highlight is when the cyber pseudo-son of Stark breaks through the multiverse and battles the Watcher in an amazing demonstration by the MCU's two most powerful beings. Ultron is so horrifically unstoppable that it almost feels like redemption for the villain of the much-maligned "Avengers" sequel. The Watcher breaking his passivity and taking a stand is something to behold, donning badass battle armor and (mostly) holding his own against the murderbot. "What If...?" took its most boring premise ("What if the bad guy won?") and spun it into its best episode.