Leave it to the Marvel Cinematic Universe to keep raising the bar on almost everything they touch. They showed the world how superhero movies should be done in the modern era and built a multi-tiered film franchise across over a dozen films. Then, just this last year, they pushed into series television on Disney + and truly pushed the envelope in fantasy/adventure episodics. Now, the MCU has done it again with a new animated series that starts streaming today called WHAT IF…?” It’s clever as hell, daring in its alternate realities being served up, and produced with the state-of-the standards you’d expect from Marvel and Disney.
The first three episodes were made available to critics for screening and the trio is a doozy. If you thought the film SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE and the series LOKI pushed the idea of the parallel planes imaginatively, wait till you see what they’ve done already on WHAT IF…? Each one considers an alternate storyline where an action occurs that sets off a new chain of events in the MCU. Sometimes it can lead to wonderful things, and in other ways, it showcases the Avengers’ worst nightmares becoming a reality. Oh, and in one of the episodes, Thanos is a good guy. Almost.
Indeed, that’s the kind of 180 degree turns, WHAT IF…? traffics in. The new take on the big, purple hulking villain comes in the second episode. There, the story starts with wondering what would have happened if T’Challa and not Peter Quill got picked up by Yondu as a child and became the conning rogue known throughout the galaxy as Star-Lord. It’s hilarious on that premise line alone, knowing how earnest and moral the Wakanda King grew up to be, but the series runs with this new take on him and his alternate world.
Watching T’Challa quip back and forth with the sleazy Yondu is a hoot, as are his schemes involving Nebula and a host of other MCU stalwarts including Thanos as the muscle in the group. Show creator A.C. Bradley, director Bryan Adams, and head animator Stephan Franck, et al. know just how to serve up the familiar in characters and situations yet change them at every opportunity to have fun with the premise and keep the audience guessing.
The creative team has also ensured that the characters bend without wholly breaking, remaining recognizable even when their personalities have shifted demonstrably. It helps that they’ve brought back most of the original actors to voice the characters, including the late, great Chadwick Boseman who clearly had a lot of fun giving T’Challa his new, playful wickedness.
The very first episode in the series imagines Captain Carter (Hayley Atwell) turning into the super-soldier during WWII instead of Steve Rogers. That isn’t too much of a stretch as that idea has been talked about before all over the Internet, and her superhero actions in the half-hour story don’t feel too different than what Wonder Woman did in WWI. What does stand out in that episode is how sexist most everyone is towards her, even when she’s become the Allies’ most valuable asset. Bradley Whitford’s vocalization of a skeptical colonel is one of the series’ best performances thus far. Additionally, Atwell does wonders with each of her line readings and proves yet again she’s one of the most exceptional actresses working today.
The third episode is the most dramatic and usurping of them so far. (There are nine episodes due this season, and Disney has already made a two-year commitment to the series.) To say too much about it would be to spoil the many outrageous twists and turns in the plot. Suffice it to say, however, it’s nice to see Nick Fury finally take center stage in a story, and it’s made all the better by having Samuel L. Jackson along for the ride. His voice glowers just as distinctively with an animated face versus the actor’s human one.
The amount of detail in each scene is eye-popping – the perspective drawing needed alone to translate all the various interiors boggles the mind – and the takes on all the characters captures their likenesses beautifully. The animation style appears to utilize rotoscoping (drawing over live-action shot first) and it gives the human characters a very life-like look, quite akin to their big-screen counterparts. My only complaint in regards to this show is a bit of oddness found in some of the mouth animations. At times, they appear to be taking a page from the old CLUTCH CARGO kids cartoon series in 1959 where real mouths were filmed talking and then embedded into the animated characters. It looks strange here at times, and I’m not talking Doctor Strange.
All in all, WHAT IF…? is a terrific series, and as the filmmakers in the MCU have proven over 25 features and four Disney series so far, that they’ve got the imagination to take it in all kinds of fascinating directions. I’m anxious to see if they’ll attempt to reboot X-MEN or THE FANTASTIC FOUR in upcoming episodes, considering that those parts of the franchise could use some genuine re-imagining. If the MCU could do something extraordinary there, that would truly be something to see.