“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 6 Proves Why Nakia Is Crucial To Black Panther

SPOILERS FOR WHAT IF…? AHEAD!

For the past few weeks, with Marvel’s What If…? on a hot streak, I had begun to hope that the series’ worst episode was well behind us. As disappointing as it was to see Captain Carter’s potential wasted in a shallow and unimaginative recap of The First Avenger, I genuinely believe that the first episode was always to some extent going to play like the tutorial level of a video game, giving general audiences a taste of what the series had to offer before it could jump into bigger and bolder concepts. And we’ve got four straight weeks of good or great episodes to prove that What If…? isn’t afraid to go big.

What If...?
Tony Stark and Erik Killmonger | cnet.com

But it seems the show still has a couple of clunkers left in store for us too.

And the downside of What If…?‘s anthology format is that without an overarching storyline to pull viewers through these rough patches, audiences are gonna drop off and they won’t necessarily feel compelled to come back each week. Technically, the characters in What If…? are supposed to meet up and fight a big bad at some point, and there’s even talk of some appearing in live-action sooner rather than later, but we’re six episodes deep into a nine episode series, and there’s still no sign of that happening.

That puts the pressure on each new stand-alone episode to try and outdo the last, and unfortunately this week something just doesn’t click. On paper, the basic premise is intriguing enough: what if Tony Stark (voiced by Mick Wingert) never got kidnapped by the Ten Rings, never became Iron Man? That alone could be the Nexus Event of a million new realities, but throw in the seemingly random twist that it’s Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) of all people who rescues Stark, and we could have had a good old political thriller weaving across the globe between the United States and Wakanda.

But in execution, episode six is an awkward mash-up of Iron Man and Black Panther that struggles to add anything meaningful to either movie’s mythology in just thirty minutes. Tony Stark’s inclusion, at least in such a prominent role, feels especially unnecessary. He’s really only there to be Killmonger’s pawn in a game of three-dimensional political chess, but roughly half of the episode is spent fleshing out their relationship. The story actually nearly finds its footing when the action finally shifts away from his mansion to Wakanda, but because we still need to catch up with Stark’s supporting characters, the problem of split focus doesn’t get solved.

Also, I totally get wanting to capture the tone of Iron Man and Marvel’s other Phase One movies…but did the plotline need to be ripped from the Phase One movies too? I just really need Tony Stark’s genius to be utilized for something other than building an army of faceless, easily hackable robots. I’m begging Marvel to think of something else, anything else, that they can do with this character’s tech.

The scenes in Wakanda, meanwhile, suffer from a lack of thematic cohesion. The nuance of Ryan Coogler’s writing simply isn’t there to foster potential for multiple interpretations on different levels, or to provoke a very meaningful discussion, and the episode falls completely flat when tackling the complexity of its central character, Killmonger. Sure, we learn that he’s a big fan of anime, which is a cute humanizing detail I’m not entirely sure what to do with, but What If…? doesn’t actually seem to understand his motivations except on a surface-level.

What If...?
Nakia | syfy.com

And part of that is because What If…? drops the most crucial (and underappreciated) character from Black Panther – Nakia. This isn’t something acknowledged in the episode, nor is any correlation drawn between her absence and the ease with which Killmonger takes over Wakanda in this timeline, but the loss of Nakia is felt. She’s the antithesis to Killmonger – both come from a place of wanting to help the African diaspora, but while Killmonger only has a vague idea of how to achieve that, informed by his experience working with destructive imperialist institutions such as the US military and CIA, Nakia wants to use Wakanda’s resources to help the world, and she has cohesive strategies about how to do so.

That’s what makes one exchange in What If…? stand out as a particularly bizarre moment that betrays a misunderstanding of Killmonger’s purpose as a villain. In place of Nakia’s radical empathy, What If…? uses James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) as the mouthpiece for a very different moral counterpoint to Killmonger’s message. “You’ve gotta be part of the system to change the system”, he says at one point while defending his service in the US military, before Killmonger strikes him dead and responds that he’s gonna “burn it down”, referring to “the system”.

The problem with this is that Killmonger always was part of the system – even in this alternate universe, it’s made pretty clear that he’s been working with the US military and the CIA for some time. That’s where he learned how to be such an effective agent of chaos, and where he became enamored of the imperialistic ideology he tried to implement in Wakanda. Killmonger didn’t ever want to “burn down” the system – he wanted to force it to work for him because being part of that system had taught him to equate bloodshed with strength, and oppression with power.

This scene, which tries to sever Killmonger’s connections to the US military and position him as an outsider with radical opinions, feels like What If…?‘s counterpart to that episode in The Falcon And The Winter Soldier where Karli Morgenthau accidentally started making some good points, so the series stopped talking about her cause and doubled down on why her methods were too extreme and she had to be stopped.

The most interesting thing about the episode, at least to me, is the different reception that awaits Killmonger when he finally reaches Wakanda. Having killed T’Challa (voiced once again by Chadwick Boseman, in an especially touching performance), his path to the throne is seemingly wide open: but while he could easily strike down the elderly King T’Chaka (John Kani), Killmonger chooses to keep the man alive instead and manipulate his grief to obtain a spot in the King’s favor, ultimately being chosen to succeed T’Challa as the new Black Panther.

What If...?
Killmonger | engadget.com

Not everybody is fooled by his act, however. Visiting the Ancestral Plane, Killmonger is warned by the spirit of T’Challa that he will pay a terrible price for his crimes – which segues nicely into the final scene of Shuri (voiced by Ozioma Akagha) discovering that Killmonger is behind the murder of Tony Stark, and meeting with the new president of Stark Industries, Pepper Potts (voiced by Beth Hoyt) to discuss a plan. I haven’t forgotten that shot from the trailer where Pepper was fighting alongside the Dora Milaje, and although I expected to see it in this episode I now feel certain we’ll pick up this storyline again.

At the moment, I’m not sure if that idea actually excites me. This episode isn’t bad, but it brings very little to the table that wasn’t already done (and done better) in Black Panther or Iron Man. Hopefully in part two, Nakia shows up and becomes the Black Panther in this universe like she deserves.

Episode Rating: 5.9/10

“What If…?” Episode 5 Gives Us The Wasp We Always Deserved

SPOILERS FOR WHAT IF…? AHEAD!

If any consistent throughline has emerged in Marvel’s What If…?, it’s that the Ant-Man films are more important than you think. The animated anthology series hasn’t always been kind to the franchise, necessarily – Hank Pym turning into a serial killer and Janet Van Dyne unleashing a zombie virus on the earth could both be considered character regressions – but ironically, these dark twists on what has always been considered the most lighthearted subdivision of the Marvel Cinematic Universe might finally get people to go back and rewatch the Ant-Man films.

What If...?
Hope Van Dyne and Bruce Banner | thedigitalfix.com

And with Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania shaping up to be an Avengers-level crossover event, that’s a perfectly reasonable ulterior motive for What If…? to have. Now we just have to hope that under Peyton Reed’s usually lackluster direction, Quantumania can handle its core cast of characters as well as What If…? does in only thirty minutes. For me, as a fan of Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) especially, I’m gonna be honest: What If…?, more so than either of the Ant-Man films or Endgame, finally gave us the Hope Van Dyne we were promised when she first suited up as the Wasp, and the Hope Van Dyne we deserved.

Being a fan of Hope Van Dyne isn’t easy. Even with so much comics history to draw from in her case, the MCU has never really had a clear idea of what to do with her character or how to realize her full potential – something which the Civil War debacle made very clear. In case you missed it, the Russo Brothers were initially going to work the Wasp reveal into their script for Civil War, including her alongside Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) in the iconic airport battle. And it probably would have been awesome.

But Peyton Reed wasn’t too keen on that idea, because he wanted to introduce the Wasp and define the tone of her action sequences. He got his way, the Russo Brothers relented, and Wasp waited until Ant-Man And The Wasp for her next appearance…which was massively underwhelming, because – surprise, surprise – Peyton Reed is kind of terrible at directing action. And by the time the Russo Brothers finally did get to work with Wasp, they had too many characters on their plate to do anything substantial with her, so she got relegated to a background role in Endgame.

Basically, it’s a mess. But here, in What If…?, Hope Van Dyne is given pride of place in a story that revolves around her, and Lilly proves herself thoroughly up to the task of carrying the episode on her vocal performance. The Nexus Event of this week’s alternate timeline spins out of Ant-Man And The Wasp, with Hope’s mother Janet becoming the host body for a zombie virus that Hope accidentally unleashes upon the world when she brings Janet back from the Quantum Realm (don’t even get me started on Janet’s characterization – or lack thereof – in the MCU thus far). Hope’s grief and guilt drive her to lead the search for a cure, and it’s her brave self-sacrifice that ensures the survival of…well, hope.

This episode is filled with sacrifices, some a little more necessary than others. I was genuinely moved when Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) charged into the zombie horde, going head-to-head with the zombie version of Wanda Maximoff in a fight that actually seemed pretty evenly matched…at least long enough for the remnants of the Avengers to escape Camp Lehigh with a cure for the zombie virus. It was one of the few moments since the very first Avengers movie where Banner’s dignity and heroism have been fully visible. And then on the other hand you have Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) running at Wanda with a tiny pistol and getting catapulted into the stratosphere. The confidence, the total lack of braincells…an all-around himbo, even in death. We stan.

What If...?
Zombie Wanda | distractify.com

And that’s a big part of what makes What If…? so fun. The stakes are high, and characters die! They also die pretty horribly most of the time, especially in this episode, which is a nice change from how Marvel superheroes usually go, with a few aesthetically-pleasing facial scars and a bruise or two. This adds another layer to the suspense because nobody wants to see their favorite superhero devoured by zombies or worse, transformed into one – although Wanda fans will support her no matter what, and I appreciate that energy (she does cut quite a striking figure as she levitates above the battlefield, her telekinetic abilities still intact but fused with insatiable hunger).

And there’s just something so precious and romantic and not-at-all terrifying about the fact that Vision (Paul Bettany) has been keeping zombie Wanda alive this whole time by feeding her human captives to preserve her strength while working on a cure for her using the Mind Stone embedded in his head. Couple goals, am I right? But of course, there’s no timeline in the Multiverse where Vision doesn’t die tragically, so here he rips the Mind Stone out of his own skull and hands it over to the Avengers as atonement for his actions: which, to be fair, are probably the most villainous that we’ve ever seen from a Marvel hero. Wanda cradles his lifeless body, raising the question of whether zombies can feel emotion, and more importantly, what would a zombie WandaVision look like?

Whether or not Vision’s sacrifice was worth it is left a mystery. The Avengers – or rather, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), Peter Parker (voiced by Hudson Thames), Scott Lang’s disembodied head in a glass jar, and Doctor Strange’s levitating cloak – fly off to Wakanda with the Mind Stone and a new sense of purpose, but just before the credits roll it’s revealed that Thanos himself has become a victim of the zombies. Missing only the Mind Stone to complete his Infinity Gauntlet, Thanos sets his sights on Wakanda…and of course, the episode ends there.

What If...?
Zombie Thanos | cnet.com

What If…? has utilized this type of ending several times now, and assuming the series doesn’t have plans to return to these storylines at some point, I like the idea of offering fans a chance to write their own endings. Every week, this series hands the fanfic authors of the world another opportunity to expand upon the Marvel Multiverse in their own way, and that’s genius. This episode was already full of fanfic tropes, from unexpectedly wonderful crossovers (the payoff to that Baba Yaga gag in Ant-Man And The Wasp…*chef’s kiss*) to a scene of Bucky Barnes showering (although let’s be honest, most fanfics would leave out the Disney-mandated strategically-placed steam).

As of this writing, I am still waiting for that zombie WandaVision AU. Do not make me write this myself.

Episode Rating: 8.9/10

“What If…?” Episode 2 Is The Best Kind Of Marvel Storytelling

SPOILERS FOR WHAT IF…? AHEAD!

Come August 28th, it will have been a year since we mourned the sudden and shocking loss of Chadwick Boseman, the man behind the instantly-iconic character of Black Panther – and for many of us, the pain of that parting still feels raw and vulnerable. Boseman was so much more than an actor in some of our favorite movies: he made the most of every moment he had on this planet to inspire people around the world through his work and especially through Black Panther, and his full impact – particularly on the Black community – can’t be put into words by me.

What If...?
What If…? | sportskeeda.com

But while today’s episode of What If…? obviously can’t fully accomplish that gargantuan task either in just thirty minutes, it does a beautiful job of bringing Boseman’s legacy of kindness to life onscreen, assisted by luscious animation and a brilliant performance from Boseman himself, who recorded all his lines for What If…? before his death. Focusing on the repercussions of a change to the Marvel timeline that turns his T’Challa into the character known as Star-Lord, this episode is just as much a microcosm of Boseman’s own impact on the real world as it is of T’Challa’s impact within the confines of the Marvel Multiverse – a glimpse into those areas where the actor and the character overlapped on some level.

And where the two overlap is where the magic happens, and Boseman slips into the character of T’Challa so effortlessly that it doesn’t matter if he’s wearing the mantle of a Star-Lord rather than the solemn duties of Wakanda’s king: it’s T’Challa, the man underneath all the trappings, that we love. And that’s why this episode is a perfect encapsulation of what can make What If…? so rewarding to fans, because these stand-alone stories are supposed to shine a spotlight on the characters themselves, removed of their iconic gear and cool nicknames, placed in a wholly different scenario, but still themselves at their core; still making the decisions we know that character would make.

That’s exactly what the first episode of What If…? got so terribly wrong, using Peggy Carter to tiredly hit all the same plot beats as Steve Rogers did in The First Avenger. That episode could have been about almost any character in the MCU being injected with the Super-Soldier Serum, and it really wouldn’t have mattered because the writing was entirely plot-driven, leaving no room for the bold character choices we need from a What If…? scenario. It ceased to be a story about how Peggy Carter wears the mantle of Captain Carter and what she brings to the job, and became a recap of Steve Rogers’ movie, starring interchangeable action figures whose individual personalities matter less than a shield.

That’s always been a criticism of MCU movies, and I hated that the studio – which is, in fact, moving away from that mentality overall – gave its own detractors ammunition like that. This episode of What If…?, on the other hand, takes the cornerstones that make up T’Challa’s character – such as his dignity,  generosity, open-mindedness, and his desire to do good even when it requires him to upend the status quo – and uses those as the rock-solid basis for an original story that has similar vibes to Guardians Of The Galaxy, sure, but veers off in a completely different direction.

T’Challa being abducted from earth in place of Peter Quill (voiced by Brian T. Delaney) because the Ravagers were misled by Wakanda’s energy signature, him accidentally becoming the Star-Lord, and having a chance to share his kindness and pure spirit with the rest of the galaxy: that quite literally changes everything in the MCU – like, to the point where he doesn’t even form the Guardians Of The Galaxy in this timeline because he’s already averted most of the tragic events in each member’s backstories.

And the episode takes its time to reveal this, peeling back the layers so precisely that when the episode starts with T’Challa going about the exact same Power Stone heist that Peter Quill pulled off in the first Guardians Of The Galaxy movie, you might be wary that it’s a repeat of what happened with episode one. But the catch is that, while Peter Quill kicked off the events of Guardians Of The Galaxy by trying to sell the Power Stone on the black market, T’Challa plans to use it to solve an energy crisis in the Krylorian star-system.

We get to see the impacts of T’Challa’s actions everywhere he goes. For one thing, he and the Ravagers’ captain Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker) are actually close – and while their father-son dynamic still comes with conflict, T’Challa’s maturity and wisdom helps him navigate those rough patches, and facilitates an earlier redemption for Yondu. In this timeline, Thanos (Josh Brolin) runs a bar and gardens in his spare time – having been convinced by T’Challa that his plan for randomized genocide on a universal scale as a means of resource reallocation isn’t efficient or ethical (although there’s something eerie to Thanos constantly repeating that his plan would have worked).

As for Thanos’ adopted children, we only meet this timeline’s version of Nebula (Karen Gillan) – who is still mostly humanoid, having never been hardened into a sentient killing machine for her father. Side-note: It’s very weird seeing Nebula with any hair, much less a full head of wavy platinum blonde locks like a 1940’s movie-star. She’s still not on good terms with Thanos, which I appreciate because she has legitimate reasons to be upset with him besides turning her into an android, but she’s also funny, fashionable, and even a bit flirty around T’Challa (whom she calls “Cha-Cha”), and Karen Gillan does a great job selling the whole performance.

Later it’s revealed that Drax (voiced by Fred Tatasciore, due to some kind of “miscommunication” behind the scenes) never experienced the crushing loss of his wife and daughter – which would have sent him down the dark path to vengeance – in this timeline. In a bizarre twist of fate, he’s now working at Thanos’ bar. Even Korath (Djimon Hounsou), a minor villain in Guardians Of The Galaxy, ends up joining the Ravagers team and abandoning the Kree zealot Ronan. And while some of these changes might seem over-the-top divorced from context, Boseman’s charisma makes it believable.

What If...?
T’Challa as Star-Lord | themarysue.com

Now…that’s not to say everything in the universe is magically fixed by T’Challa’s presence. Thanos retires from his life of evil, but the power vacuum he leaves behind is quickly filled by another tyrant – Benicio Del Toro’s Collector. This twist makes a lot of sense, and retroactively helps to elevate this bizarre character as a legitimate threat, something he never got to be in the movies before getting killed off. In What If…?, with the help of the Black Order, the Collector has already done pretty well for himself – nabbing a whole bunch of new trinkets to add to his collection, including Mjolnir, Captain America’s shield, and – most horrifyingly, to me – Hela’s telekinetic helmet.

Along with the fancy weaponry comes an element of action that was completely missing from the character’s previous appearances, and perhaps feels a bit jarring here because of that. He’s still drowning under several pounds of snazzy bling when we meet him, but he quickly sheds his outer layers to reveal an impressive six-pack, and show off some martial arts moves. Del Toro seems to be having a great time voicing the character and doing weird stuff with his line-readings, which totally works for the Collector.

Oh, and can we just talk about Carina (Ophelia Lovibond) for a moment? One thing I love about the Multiverse is that even the most obscure characters can return and get payback for how the films did them dirty. And Carina, the Collector’s abused servant, has deserved a second chance ever since James Gunn used her to demonstrate the destructive abilities of the Power Stone in Guardians Of The Galaxy by having her get blown to smithereens. Just as Gunn has gotten better at writing women, so too has the MCU slowly improved.

In What If…?, Carina finally gets revenge on the Collector for all the evil things he did to her, smirking as she slips on the bracelet that allows her to control his minions and turn them against him. I love how there’s no attempt to moralize about her actions, and we don’t even get to see what happens – we just hear the Collector squealing the word “Karma!” before he’s buried under the weight of his own monstrous creations. It’s so dark, it’s so powerful, and I don’t think enough people are as obsessed with this scene as I am.

Contrast that scene with Peter Quill’s non-reaction to Carina’s death in Guardians Of The Galaxy, however, and you’ll notice that this whole episode is pretty damning for Quill – whose time as Star-Lord has resulted in a lot less peace and harmony, and a lot more apocalyptic catastrophe. His swagger, braggadocio, and self-absorbed attitude have always teetered between endearing and irritating (no thanks to Chris Pratt being the absolute worst), and his casual sexism in the Guardians franchise was never cute. It’s a real shame, because we absolutely deserve the messy, dramatic, canonically bisexual disaster that is Marvel Comics Quill, and we’re probably never gonna get it from Pratt.

And that’s why I’m so intrigued by the new version of Quill we met today in What If…?, who never got off-world – and is not voiced by Chris Pratt – but instead ended up working at a Dairy Queen in Missouri while T’Challa took his place among the stars. The episode concludes with Ego the Living Planet (Kurt Russell) donning human form and reuniting with Peter, juxtaposed with scenes of T’Challa returning to Wakanda and introducing his biological family to his found family from outer space. I really hope we reconnect with Quill and Ego at some point, because that’s too big a cliffhanger to leave like that.

Across the board, this is a massive improvement on the premiere episode. The writing is more sophisticated, the action is even cleaner, the voice-acting is stellar, and even Jeffrey Wright’s The Watcher – while still a background character – gets to engage with the material a bit more, just as I’d hoped he would. Most importantly, What If…? knows, or at least I hope it knows, that at its core it has to be character-driven to work…at the very least in episodes where the central conceit is a role-swap.

What If...?
T’Challa and Yondu | insider.com

And that’s especially important with regards to characters like T’Challa, who mean so much to people because of the qualities that make them different from a lot of other superheroes, that can’t be treated as interchangeable or secondary to the plot. Hopefully, What If…? continues to keep that in mind going forward.

Rating: 10/10