With Episode 4, “Hawkeye” May Have Bitten Off More Than It Can Chew

SPOILERS FOR HAWKEYE EPISODE FOUR AHEAD!

Hawkeye is doing an awful lot of meandering and walking in circles for a show that only has two episodes left in its first season and about a dozen subplots and mysteries currently ongoing, none of which is any closer to a satisfying resolution now than they were last week. And rather than checking items off the list in preparation for the finale, Hawkeye just keeps adding more, clarity and coherency be damned. One-upping last week’s Kingpin tease, this week it’s Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) who enters and exits again just as quickly, apparently realizing that she’s so far removed from the actual plot that there’s no reason for her to be here.

Hawkeye
Clint Barton and Kate Bishop | leisurebyte.com

Of course, I’m sure Hawkeye will find some role for her to fill in the finale, because you don’t hire Academy Award-nominee Florence Pugh for a single action sequence in which she’s only unmasked for roughly twenty seconds (well, you shouldn’t; I wouldn’t put it past Marvel to do so, though). But unless it’s revealed that she’s somehow connected to Kingpin or is also going after the mysterious Rolex wrist-watch that everybody and their mother suddenly wants, I feel pretty confident that her only purpose is to continue the storyline set up in the Black Widow post-credits scene.

And that’s great and all, and I am interested to see where that story goes, but…can it wait until after we’ve finished the story that’s actually going on right now? Leaving aside the fact that Yelena will mean nothing to people who haven’t watched Black Widow or its post-credits scene, in-universe she still has no personal significance to Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) or Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld) either, so she’s just another mystery for them to add to their steadily growing pile.

Perhaps the even greater issue is that with all these story threads hopelessly tangled up together like Christmas lights, the writers and directors can’t seem to decide on just one that takes priority over any of the others, even for a single episode. The aforementioned Rolex wrist-watch that is so crucial to this episode’s final action sequence, and which Kate recovers from Echo (Alaqua Cox)’s apartment after a harrowing home intrusion? This is our first time even seeing the damn thing again since episode one, and we still have no clue how it connects back to the plot.

Just for fun, let’s play along with the mystery being built around this wrist-watch, which actually does seem to have personal significance for Clint at least. He claims it belongs to an old colleague of his who’s been off-the-grid for a while, and that it could blow their cover if it fell into the wrong hands. Whoever sent Echo and the Tracksuit Mafia to specifically locate this watch in episode one (probably Kingpin) is presumably also aware of this, and there’s a strong chance that Echo now knows the wrist-watch’s secrets, having been in possession of it for a while.

But does the wrist-watch’s original owner have any relevance to the narrative of Hawkeye, or is this another tease for future MCU storylines? My immediate assumption was that the watch belonged to Steve Rogers, because the question of where he went in the aftermath of Endgame is not only hotly debated among fans but apparently in-universe as well, something that we saw in The Falcon And The Winter Soldier. I’ve also seen it theorized that the watch belonged to Bobbi Morse, better known by her alias Mockingbird in both the comics and in Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., or to Laura Barton (Linda Cardellini).

The latter theory is intriguing, because from a storytelling and thematic standpoint it makes more sense for the wrist-watch’s owner to be Clint’s wife, running from her own past as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, than for it to be a completely new character to the MCU like, say, Mockingbird (much as I want to see the latter character return, played by Adrianne Palicki of course), or a character we likely wouldn’t ever see on Disney+ to begin with, like Chris Evans as the elder Steve Rogers.

But I also have a hard time believing that Clint wouldn’t have returned speedily to be by his wife’s side if he suspected she was in that much danger, or that Hawkeye will turn out to be centered around a character who has only appeared in the show on the other end of phone conversations, or that someone of Kingpin’s high status would go to such great lengths to try and find one retired S.H.I.E.L.D. agent – unless Laura is in possession of some highly-classified information. And if that’s the case, then what is the point of everything else going on in this show?

While Clint has an obscure connection to this wrist-watch, a personal connection with Echo and through her a tangential connection to Kingpin, it’s Kate Bishop whose sprawling subplot feels like the heaviest baggage that this slim series has to carry. Even though the murder of Armand Duquesne has been completely forgotten, and Kate has yet to do any real sleuthing into her soon-to-be stepfather Jack Duquesne (Tony Dalton), we’re constantly being reminded in casual tones that Jack is possibly a murderer, probably the Swordsman, and definitely a corrupt and shady businessman regardless.

Hawkeye
Jack Duquesne and Eleanor Bishop | tvinsider.com

Meanwhile, Vera Farmiga’s Eleanor Bishop is taking a long time to properly materialize into the criminal mastermind that we all know she is behind her warm and friendly fa├žade, and it’s starting to get a little embarrassing for both Farmiga (she’s doing the best she can with this role, I’ll give her that) and especially for Hawkeye‘s writers, who seem to think they’re being very clever by using Jack as an obvious red herring and an ineffective distraction from Eleanor’s evil antics, when in fact the only real question at this point is whether Eleanor murdered Armand herself or got Jack to do it for her.

The link between these tales of two cities is Kingpin, who stands in Colossus fashion with one foot in the dark and treacherous underworld in which Clint operates, and with the other in the glittery high society and intrigue into which Kate was born. But my fear that he would overshadow the entire series as more and more of him was gradually revealed each week proved to be unfounded, as he’s entirely absent from this episode. Now I find myself longing for any character who could bridge the gap between Hawkeye‘s split narratives.

At the very least, we still have Clint and Kate themselves…well, at least until the end of this episode, when Clint decides to send Kate away and reject her help because now and only now, after being beaten half to death by the Tracksuit Mafia and stealing a car and jumping off a bridge together, he’s finally decided that it’s too dangerous for Kate to continue playing at being a superhero. There’s a touching moment where Clint nearly loses Kate in similar fashion to Natasha Romanoff that helps sell the big dramatic break-up, but we all know they’ll reunite in the finale to take down Echo, or Eleanor, or Jack, or Yelena, or all of the above.

In the meantime, I fear that without the light-hearted banter between Clint and Kate, Hawkeye might not work as well as it has up until this point. Kate on her own has proven to still be every bit as entertaining as she is when paired up with Clint (she’s the one with the Pizza Dog, after all), but Renner’s Clint sucks the joy and energy out of even comedic moments, and without Kate to keep him on his toes, I fear he’ll be back to the same old routine.

And I mean that in more ways than one. Clint’s got the precious wrist-watch now, and the Ronin suit and sword that he came for in the first place. But after this episode, his objective has changed from evading Echo and the Tracksuit Mafia to stopping them once and for all. And although theoretically it’s to save Echo herself from straying down the same path that Clint took after Infinity War, I can’t help but wonder if this mission will dredge up any of the bloodlust and reckless desire for justice that powered Clint while he hid behind the Ronin mask for five years. Maybe what Echo needs is to see firsthand what she could easily become.

Yelena is the wild-card in the middle of all of this, because she’s on her own totally separate misguided mission for vengeance against Clint, and she seems a lot more ruthless than Echo – based on what we’ve seen from her character in Black Widow, and on how she handles herself in battle here, during the epic four-way fight that caps off the episode. Hilariously, she and Echo land a few blows on each other, neither realizing that they share a common goal. Echo is soundly defeated, which is a little unfortunate. So far she hasn’t had that awesome action beat I think we all want from her, and that I know Alaqua Cox can deliver.

But after her incredible introductory scene, Yelena spends a few seconds onscreen out of her spider-eye mask (which I’m extremely happy to see in live-action, although it doesn’t look quite as good as it does in the comics) before vanishing into the night. And even though I love Yelena, I don’t feel satisfied by this random tease that could just as easily have been inserted into any other episode or cut completely for all the difference it makes. It’s merely a reminder that Yelena is going to appear later, probably in a post-credits scene where this sort of story development ought to have happened anyway because it has nothing to do with this story.

Hawkeye
Yelena Belova | gadgets.ndtv.com

Hawkeye is an advent calendar of character reveals and plot twists, but all the boxes have been opened at once, without rhyme or reason. Hopefully the show remembers that it has just as many boxes to close now, and that it’s running out of time to do so.

Episode Rating: 6.5/10

“What If…?” Episode 9 – A Hollow And Hectic Finale

SPOILERS FOR WHAT IF…? AHEAD!

Marvel Studios has churned out three live-action series’ for Disney+ this year, and it didn’t take them long to match or frequently surpass the quality of many of their movies. What If…?, on the other hand, has had scattered moments and two full episodes that I’d rank right up there alongside the best of WandaVision, The Falcon And The Winter Soldier, and Loki, but if this series is going to be a multi-season commitment for Marvel’s fledgling animation department (and it’s intended to be), then it’s going to need a little more work.

What If...?
Guardians Of The Multiverse | mcutimes.com

Leaving aside the fact that some episodes could be better described as mashups of two or more Marvel movies than actual “what if…?” scenarios, or the occasionally awkward facial animations and voice acting, What If…?‘s most consistent issue is that almost every episode is trying to squeeze an entire movie’s worth of plot and character development into the span of about twenty-five minutes, a good amount of which is often credits. This problem doesn’t necessarily have to be solved by making every episode forty to fifty minutes long, either. More focused writing would do wonders for What If…?.

For instance, this season finale didn’t need to be almost entirely an action sequence pitting the newly-formed “Guardians of the Multiverse” against Ultron (voiced by Ross Marquand), for several reasons. Firstly and probably most importantly, because it’s largely pointless. The Watcher (voiced by Jeffrey Wright)’s plan to defeat Ultron doesn’t actually rely on fighting him for a prolonged period of time, so this sequence feels like a waste of screentime that could have been better spent formulating a more efficient plan; perhaps one that would have given The Watcher something to do in this episode after how active he was last week.

And the longer this pointless sequence drags on, the more it robs Ultron of all the fear and awe he commanded in last week’s episode. Wielding all six Infinity Stones and possessed of reflexes and mental capacities beyond human comprehension, Ultron was capable of devouring entire galaxies last week – the only opponent who should logically stand a chance against him in battle for very long, out of this line-up at least, is Doctor Strange Supreme (Benedict Cumberbatch). I love seeing underdog characters use their unique skills to bring down an enemy twice their size, like when Star-Lord (Chadwick Boseman) gracefully snatches an Infinity Stone from Ultron’s collection using his “sticky fingers” technique, but Ultron is already depowered even before that, and it makes the whole battle less interesting.

The stakes are also surprisingly low for a series that’s so far been almost sadistic when it comes to killing off our favorite characters. For a moment, I hoped that Party Thor (Chris Hemsworth) at least would get to go out in a blaze of glory, after having served his only real purpose – unwitting bait for Ultron. But in fact, nobody dies. Technically not even Ultron, although it’s hard to describe what really happens to him: his body, or rather Vision’s body, gets taken over by the mind of Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), and his armor gets transferred to Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who wants to use it to conquer the universe with the Infinity Stones, and both of them get locked up in a pocket dimension for all eternity, fighting over the Stones.

What If...?
Gamora | looper.com

The Killmonger twist is one of many plot beats and character moments in this episode that required more time to develop organically. The entire build-up to Killmonger’s betrayal is one or two shots of him silently staring at an Ultron droid’s helmet. Similarly, Captain Carter (Hayley Atwell) sees one photo of Steve Rogers and suddenly wants to leave her timeline to go back and live with him. She ultimately decides against it, which I’m choosing to interpret as a jab at Steve’s out-of-character ending in Avengers: Endgame, but the whole scene feels too rushed to make this conflict or its resolution particularly interesting.

This feeling that we’re racing against the clock is compounded by another problem: none of the Guardians of the Multiverse actually know each other prior to this episode, and we don’t know them all that well – heck, this is our first time even meeting Gamora (voiced by Cynthia McWilliams), Destroyer of Thanos, because for some reason her individual episode got moved to season two – so they’re building relationships entirely from scratch, and without even so much as a common understanding of the universe to unite them.

The episode could have played on the radical differences between them to build bonds or create rifts and divisions, but this is an idea we only see realized through Captain Carter’s relationships with the two Black Widows (both voiced by Lake Bell). In her own timeline, their flirty banter is identical to that of Steve Rogers and Black Widow – which would be a lot more surprising and refreshing if it didn’t feel like What If…?‘s Captain Carter is literally just a reskin of Captain America. When she meets the haggard Black Widow of last week’s episode, she tells her things about herself that this timeline’s Widow wouldn’t have told a soul, proving her trustworthiness and unintentionally revealing that she and Widow are closer than Steve and Widow.

But that’s it. Other interactions, which could have been just as emotional if not more so, are ignored completely. Killmonger seeing T’Challa alive after murdering him in episode six should have been a humbling moment for him. Gamora talking about killing her timeline’s Thanos could have caused a clash with T’Challa, who successfully persuaded his timeline’s Thanos to see the error of his ways. And although zombie Wanda Maximoff shows up to fight Ultron and seems briefly confused by something, it would have been nice – and even more heartbreaking – to have explicit confirmation that she recognized her beloved Vision’s face on the android’s body.

Nonetheless, What If…? aims for an unearned heartfelt tone in its final minutes, as the Guardians go their separate ways. Obviously, the two endings that most fans will be talking about for weeks to come are Captain Carter’s and Doctor Strange Supreme’s: in a mid-credits scene, the former discovers the derelict HYDRA Stomper suit from episode one and is informed that someone is inside, setting up a Winter Soldier-type storyline for season two, while the latter is put in charge of protecting the pocket dimension where Zola and Killmonger are being kept, establishing him as The Watcher’s right-hand man and a being of infinitely more power than he could ever have obtained on his own. But neither ending really moved me.

What If...?
Gamora and T’Challa | butwhythopodcast.com

What did tug at my heartstrings was Black Widow being given a second chance by The Watcher, being dropped into the timeline that lost its Black Widow back in episode three, and helping Captain America and Captain Marvel take down Loki (Tom Hiddleston), even though I thought somebody ought to have warned her that Hawkeye, Thor, and Bruce Banner had also died in that timeline. What did break my heart was seeing T’Challa fly off to save the galaxy once again, this time with Peter Quill (voiced by Brian T. Delaney) by his side, and knowing now that Marvel wanted to give the character his own spin-off series.

These characters, even their alternate versions, are what we fall in love with, they’re why we watch, and my only hope for season two of What If…? is that Marvel gives them the space and time to really shine.

Episode Rating: 6.5/10

“What If…?” Episode 8 Fixes The Worst Part Of Age Of Ultron

SPOILERS FOR WHAT IF…? AHEAD!

Marvel’s What If…? has been working overtime to try and rectify the faults of some not-so-great or downright bad MCU films, from Thor to The Incredible Hulk to Ant-Man And The Wasp, and in today’s episode they’re tackling Age Of Ultron. Even when they’ve succeeded at doing so, I can’t say I’ve been strongly tempted to go back and rewatch any of these movies, but I’ve always been especially conflicted about Age Of Ultron because it’s a movie that has no right to be as bad as it was, and yet in hindsight it’s so obvious why it failed.

What If...?
Ultron | cnet.com

On the one hand, there’s a lot to like about it. As the only Avengers movie taking place between the team’s formation and their disintegration, Age Of Ultron gave us some much-needed insight into the Avengers’ family dynamic, and the relationships at play within the group. It introduced us to Wanda Maximoff and Vision, both enduring fan-favorites. It brought us that epic opening action sequence that spun directly out of events on Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., and which is still the closest the MCU ever came to linking up with Marvel TV.

But…for every great character moment came a cringeworthy interaction between Black Widow and The Hulk, laced with misogyny. Despite introducing us to Wanda, she was burdened with terrible writing and a ridiculously bad Eastern European accent, while her character’s Romani heritage from the comics was erased and has yet to be restored in the MCU. And apart from that one opening action sequence, the battles were largely unmemorable, and the villain Ultron was a comical caricature with no depth or nuance to his motivations.

Unsurprisingly, most of these problems can be traced back to director Joss Whedon. The extent of Whedon’s reprehensible behavior on multiple sets throughout his career is still just being brought to light, thanks to people like Ray Fisher and Charisma Carpenter speaking up about his abuses of power. Whedon’s tyrannical arrogance is how we ended up with a theatrical cut of Justice League so bad that Warner Brothers had to release a better version of the same movie earlier this year, and it’s how we ended up with an Age Of Ultron movie so bad that What If…? had to at least try and fix it.

So of course today’s episode of What If…? is perfectly suited for me, or anybody who’s ever wished that the best elements of Age Of Ultron could be isolated and transplanted into another, better, movie (or in this case, a thirty-minute long animated episode of streaming television), discarding everything that didn’t work…which is most of Whedon’s movie, to be honest. The first and foremost change is that in this new timeline, Ultron (voiced by Ross Marquand) is actually a legitimate threat.

Within the first couple of minutes, we’re treated to an unhappy alternate ending to Age Of Ultron that’s arguably – no, definitely better than the actual third act of that movie. Ultron gets his hands on Vision and downloads his consciousness into the android’s body, before shortcutting his plan to exterminate the human race by simply cracking the world’s nuclear codes and raining fire from the skies. It’s a lot easier and less melodramatic than building giant propeller engines beneath a random Eastern European city, and trying to use said city as a meteor to cause global extinction.

But what do you know, it’s also less effective. Because while almost everyone on earth dies in the nuclear firestorm, two Avengers survive – Natasha Romanoff (voiced by Lake Bell) and Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner). Not exactly useless now, are they? How they survived the initial apocalypse is left a mystery, but it’s very clear when we pick up with them again that they’ve been on their own for quite some time, using their wits to scrape by. On their own, neither of them is strong enough to take on Ultron, but Romanoff comes up with a classic Black Widow plan to save the day, which involves breaking into the apocalypse-proof KGB archives in Moscow – and finding the key to resurrecting HYDRA’s own villainous AI, Arnim Zola (Toby Jones).

What If...?
Black Widow | thecinemaholic.com

Even though I’m pretty much indifferent towards MCU Hawkeye, there is something inspiring about watching these two characters in particular as they struggle to overcome an opponent they know is far too strong at this point to be dispatched with an arrow or a kick. Neither of them has a superpower (beyond Hawkeye’s precision), neither has a great weapon (Natasha finds her father’s shield from his days as Red Guardian, but that’s later), and neither should logically have survived a catastrophe of this scale in the first place. But they did, so they’ll be the ones to stop Ultron or they’ll die trying.

And rest assured that both heroes get to prove themselves in battle against Ultron’s hordes of sentry bots. Their fast-paced fight scenes make good use of What If…?‘s sleek animation style and fluid character movements, and Natasha in particular has some very cool moments, while Hawkeye makes the sacrifice play to save his friend (and Zola’s delightfully chatty consciousness in a robot body) in a scene evocative of Natasha’s self-sacrifice in Endgame. But in this universe at least, only another computer program like Zola has a chance of combating Ultron.

That’s something that becomes abundantly clear as Ultron leaves earth and sweeps through the universe, seeking out life in every corner of the cosmos and eradicating it as part of his objective to protect existence from itself. He obliterates Asgard, Xandar, Ego, and The Sovereign, killing the Guardians of the Galaxy in the process. He cuts Thanos in half with his laser-beam like a slice of salami meat, and takes the Infinity Stones from his corpse, adding them to his already impressive arsenal of weaponry. Captain Marvel (voiced by Alexandra Daniels) puts up a good fight, but Ultron kills her too, releasing a shock-wave that annihilates an entire string of nearby planets. He is without equal in the universe.

But the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a Marvel Cinematic Multiverse now, and Ultron becomes aware of that fact when he overhears What If…?‘s narrator, The Watcher (voiced by Jeffrey Wright), talking about him from outside the boundary of his own universe. Something similar happened in episode four when Doctor Strange Supreme (Benedict Cumberbatch) reached a level of power where he became capable of communicating with The Watcher through the boundary, but the difference – and what ultimately makes Strange Supreme slightly less of a villain than Ultron – is that he didn’t literally break the fourth wall to try and attack The Watcher. Strange Supreme’s greatest flaw was his humanity, but humans are capable of feeling regret and guilt, and even in rare cases of admitting wrongdoing.

Ultron is not human, however, and he has no conscience, which means there’s nothing to prevent him from trying what Strange Supreme would not. What follows is a clash of titans unlike anything we’ve seen in the MCU up until this point, and we just saw Captain Marvel go up against Thor last week. The Watcher is a cosmic entity of indescribable power and intellect, and Ultron is a mercilessly destructive computer program clothed in the synthetic flesh of Vision and spangled with Infinity Stones – when they throw punches, they break holes in the very fabric of reality. At one point, Ultron even goes full Galactus and swallows a star-system whole (but since he’s using Vision’s body, and Vision canonically doesn’t have a digestive system, that should have been the end of him).

The Watcher is a surprisingly good fighter, and Jeffrey Wright finally gets something to do in this show (not that the little motivational speeches weren’t cute and all), but even he is no match for Ultron and must ultimately run and hide. It’s only then that The Watcher realizes it’s up to him to stop Ultron, even if it means breaking his ancient oath to never intervene with the natural course of history. The countless tragedies that The Watcher watched and never did anything to avert apparently weren’t enough to make him question his oath, but losing a fight with a computer is the last straw.

To add insult to injury, the only place where The Watcher can hide is in the remains of Doctor Strange Supreme’s former universe. But in a lucky twist of fate, Strange Supreme might just be The Watcher’s best bet at defeating Ultron. We also know of several other characters who will join the unofficial Guardians of the Multiverse team in next week’s episode, including Party Thor (not sure how much help he’s gonna be, but okay), Killmonger, T’Challa as Star-Lord, and Captain Carter, not to mention survivor Black Widow and AI Arnim Zola. That’s a weird line-up of characters right there, the kind that could only come about via the Multiverse, and frankly I can’t wait to see how they interact.

What If...?
Hawkeye vs Ultron | Twitter @blurayangel

I’m also scared, because the stakes are unusually high going into the finale, and we don’t have any assurance that all of these characters will survive the confrontation with Ultron. The Watcher will presumably live to narrate another season of What If…?, and Captain Carter’s apparently headed for the movies, but everybody else is in serious danger. That’s a testament to the fact that What If…? is largely unafraid to kill off beloved heroes, and to the fact that Ultron is more threatening now than he ever was in Age Of Ultron. It’s never too late for redemption in the MCU.

Episode Rating: 8.5/10

“What If…?” Episode 4 Is The Coulson Content I Needed Today

SPOILERS FOR WHAT IF…? AHEAD!

I appreciate that the premise of What If…? would suggest that anything is possible if you simply let a timeline spiral out of control, but let’s be honest: there is no timeline out there where I don’t start this review by penning some kind of heartfelt tribute to Clark Gregg’s Phil Coulson. Once an Agent, always an Agent.

What If...?
Phil Coulson in What If…? | Twitter @shrutiraoart

It’s been a while since we’ve seen Coulson on our screens. The finale of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. was only last year, bringing a (temporary?) end to the adventures of Coulson and his crew after seven incredible seasons…but technically the original Phil Coulson died at the end of season five, and was then replaced by a Life Model Decoy with all of Coulson’s memories, so you could say the last time that we’ve really seen Coulson – like, the OG Coulson – was in Captain Marvel, where he showed up briefly in sequences set during the 1990’s. Until today, that had been his last appearance in the MCU proper (since Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is still considered to be on the fringes of MCU canon).

But the MCU keeps finding creative new ways to bring Coulson back, and at this point it’s getting mighty suspicious given all the recent rumors about Clark Gregg boarding the Secret Invasion Disney+ series (he skillfully avoided an interviewer’s question on the topic just the other day, using the kind of vague language that usually means the interviewee is wary of revealing too much). The MCU proper hasn’t ever addressed his first resurrection, the one that launched him from an untimely end in Avengers to a fresh start on Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., so all of his post-Avengers appearances in the MCU have been flashbacks, but things are starting to look up.

And who could resist bringing Coulson back into the MCU proper, after watching his performance here and seeing how his character continues to connect with fans? What If…? itself didn’t trend on Twitter this morning: but Coulson did, and even cracked into the top ten trends. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. fans like myself were just happy to see him again, and MCU fans who don’t watch the “non-canon” TV shows were enthused because they barely got to know Coulson in the movies. Clark Gregg, meanwhile, is at the top of his game in What If…?, delivering rapid-fire humor and characteristic charm.

One of the great things about Coulson’s character is that he’s constantly evolving. He’s died and been resurrected so many times he makes it look like an Olympic sport, but every time he’s been brought back to life Gregg finds something new to bring to his performance. Today’s episode of What If…?, for instance, highlights an unexpected story element that Gregg apparently had a lot of fun with – Coulson having a crush on Thor (this has led to a lot of confusion online because some fans jumped to the conclusion that he was gay. I can easily believe that Coulson is bisexual or pansexual, but I will not be accepting any erasure of his slow-burn romance with Melinda May).

Anyway, Coulson’s ability to cheat death time and time again is a quirky bit of meta-context to have going into this episode, which is centered around the subject of death, rebirth, and the encouraging thought that some hopes and dreams can never really die….even if all but one of the original Avengers are murdered in a string of killings that range from unsettling but family-friendly (like Thor being impaled by a rogue arrow) to downright freakish (I’m sorry, did The Hulk just inflate and spontaneously combust?). And in What If…?, the dead stay dead.

Based on the events of that fateful week between Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, and Thor, today’s episode envisions an alternate timeline where a serial killer haunts S.H.I.E.L.D., specifically targeting each of the candidates on Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson)’s Avengers Initiative shortlist for mysterious reasons. This timeline’s Nexus Event is the sudden murder of Tony Stark (voiced by Mick Wingert).

What If...?
Loki and Nick Fury | sg.news.yahoo.com

Or at least, so you’re led to believe throughout most of the episode. The big twist is that this timeline had actually branched much earlier, but where the episode falls apart as a good whodunnit mystery is that the twist (which could have been really well-done) relies on so much information that is nowhere discernible through any previous clues that it just comes out of left field, and feels totally unearned and frustrating because how was anyone supposed to guess that in this universe Hope Van Dyne of all people was recruited by S.H.I.E.L.D. and killed on a mission, or that her father Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) went off the deep end because of it?

It’s no fun to try and play along with a mystery where the answer is designed to be totally random, but at least the lead-up to the twist is thrilling and suspenseful – largely thanks to Lake Bell voicing Black Widow with a nearly-perfect blend of the wry humor sported by Widow in her earliest MCU appearances and the nuance and depth that only crept in later. She still dies by the end, but at least that fate is shared by all of her teammates so she doesn’t feel quite as singled out in What If…?. The lack of Scarlett Johansson’s voice is noticeable, but Bell is an experienced voice-actor with a lot of flexibility and range, so it’s not egregious.

More than ScarJo, what’s missing from Bell’s Black Widow performance is a great animated action sequence that really puts you back in that 2010 headspace when Black Widow was still a lethal spy and assassin who used her wits to get the upper hand in a fight. She does break out of the back of an armored van, but we barely get to see her in action there. And her final one-on-one fight with Hank Pym in a darkly-lit library is eerie and intense, but not exactly flattering to the Widow given that she’s not able to land a single punch or kick on Pym before dying (and yet somehow in the Black Widow movie, she’s able to survive a fall from the stratosphere).

A more evenly-balanced fight ensues at the end of the episode, when Hank Pym suits up in the Yellowjacket armor to duel Nick Fury over his daughter’s grave, only to get more than he bargained for when he realizes that Nick Fury is actually Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in disguise. Out of context that probably sounds even weirder than Hank Pym turning into a serial killer (to be honest, that character regression totally tracks; it’s just poorly-handled), but the fight is well-established, allows for an interesting clash of science and magic, and highlights three characters who have never been very action-oriented in live-action.

But Fury’s alliance with Loki quickly disintegrates when the God of Mischief decides to stick around on earth and simply…take over. With no Avengers ready to challenge him, his conquest is swift and decisive, and it could have ended the episode on a really sour note were it not for another twist: Fury calls in Captain Marvel (voiced by Alexandra Daniels) as back-up. And just as things are getting really interesting, that’s where the episode ends abruptly.

Now, I know last week’s episode kind of did the same thing, but that was left a little more open to interpretation. The threat of Ego didn’t necessarily feel urgent. This plays like the first half of a two-parter, and I’m left wondering where’s the second half where Nick Fury and his new Avengers take on Loki and the entire Asgardian army. You can’t just tease the possibility of war between gods and mortals, and then not follow through with that! My desperate hope is that the episode of What If…? that was reportedly moved from season one to season two because of time-constraints is the one that picks up this story thread again.

What If...?
Nick Fury vs Loki | cinemablend.com

As is, this is a decent episode; nothing more. Seeing Coulson again made me happy, but honestly I think the people most likely to get a kick out of this episode are the three or four die-hard fans of The Incredible Hulk. Not only does What If…? recreate an iconic moment from the much-maligned Universal movie with Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner supplanting Edward Norton’s version, but the character of Betty Ross shows up for the first time in official MCU canon. Much to my dismay, Ross is not voiced by Liv Tyler (Stephanie Panisello takes the role instead), but hopefully this clears the last hurdle that prevented Tyler from returning in the She-Hulk series; her character’s disputed canonicity.

Ah, well. Perhaps, taking a page out of Coulson’s book, this storyline could pop up again somewhere down the line when we least expect it, and we might even get to see Nick Fury’s new Avengers in a future episode or season of What If…?, with Captain Marvel, Captain America, Betty Ross, and/or whoever else makes the cut. Never say never, am I right?

Episode Rating: 7.9/10