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.
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.
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.
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