Marvel Studios’ What If…? review: A fun, script-flipping take on MCU storytelling

Captain Carter (center) and the Howling Commandos in Marvel Studios' What If?... exclusively on Disney+. ©Marvel Studios. All Rights Reserved.
Captain Carter (center) and the Howling Commandos in Marvel Studios' What If?... exclusively on Disney+. ©Marvel Studios. All Rights Reserved. /

The MCU as we know it is about to be turned upside down, and that’s because Marvel Studios’ What If…? is heading to Disney+ on Aug. 11.

As part of the screening, I got to review three episodes of the new animated series, and it’s unlike any other Marvel project we’ve seen before. The biggest draw, of course, is that the events are anchored into the MCU’s canon. Compare that to some of the Marvel cartoons that have been released on Disney XD, for example, and you quickly understand how this is different.

Being based in the movie world means director Bryan Andrews (Star Wars: Clone Wars) and head writer A.C. Bradley (3Below: Tales of Arcadia) got to play in the world that made Marvel what it is today. And so it’s quite the enjoyable treat to see characters and scenarios that fans have loved for over a decade be completely flipped on their head.

What If…? shines when it gets wild

The series, unfortunately, starts out a bit slow — but it does pick up! The debut episode is the one that’s been most promoted thus far, the “Captain Carter” storyline where Peggy Carter takes the supersoldier serum. That episode in and of itself has a few pacing issues to iron out, and doesn’t really run wild with the “What if?” idea. It’s basically a retelling of Captain America: The First Avenger, but with Peggy Carter at the helm. Though, once you get to the next two episodes, the series picks up and takes a completely fun and engaging turn.

Episode 2, especially, is no retelling of any one Marvel movie. But it, in fact, creates a brand new narrative that pictures what the Marvel world would be like if T’Challa were Star-Lord (instead of Peter Quill). There are so many fun surprises in this story as you see how MCU events and characters are twisted in this story that anything more would be spoiling the fun of this episode. But the intensity does ramp up in episode 2, and it feels like the complete opposite of episode 1 — for the better.

Episode 3, for lack of giving away any spoilers, continues this theme of creating a brand new story using new takes on characters and events. (Though, if you want a hint about what happens, let’s just say it has something to do with the Avengers.) And the storytelling is so strong in episodes 2 and 3 that it’s quite hard for me to rank which of the two I think is better.

Of course, what also sets this apart from your standard Marvel cartoon is that most of the original MCU cast has returned to voice their characters in this series. But, even though this is supposed to be a highlight of the series, it just seems to draw more attention to the actors who don’t reprise their roles. Yes, it’s enjoyable to hear Samuel L. Jackson as an animated Nick Fury, but then you can’t help but wonder why someone like Robert Downey Jr. or Scarlett Johansson isn’t there to complement and round out that familiar cast.

Overall, the series itself is presented as an anthology. Each of the three episodes have been standalones, and they are all introduced by the Watcher (voiced by Jeffrey Wright), who is able to see the events of different universes play out like a next-level Heimdall. It’s a fun setup that primes the mind for the multiverse that Marvel has set up with Loki. (Though there’s been no indication that this series has a direct connection to Loki and the events of the finale.) And, all in all, it should be an enjoyable ride for MCU fans who are eager to see something completely unique take the stage.

Star Wars will soon see something similar with the anime series Star Wars: Visions coming in September, so it seems like Disney is embracing the idea of playing in a series’ canon while not quite altering the canon itself. (Maybe that’s why they’re still hanging onto the Star Wars Legends series despite pushing it out of the canon when Lucasfilm was acquired.)

B+. . . TV series (3 episodes screened). WHAT IF...?

What If…? premieres Wednesday, Aug. 11 on Disney+.