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What If…? review: Marvel’s multiverse opens up and delivers some pleasant surprises

This new animated series is charming, and may have more of a central story than first appears.

What If
4.0 out of 5 star rating

In Marvel’s Disney Plus series Loki, fans were introduced to the concept of parallel superhero realities, “variants” and other worlds, where the Marvel stories we know clearly played out a little differently – and now we’re getting a chance to see those “what if” moments in, er, What If…?, a new animated series that riffs on the classic comic book series of the same name.

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While the comic reimagined the on-page continuity (e.g. what if Uncle Ben had lived and helped Peter Parker become Spider-Man), this version of the idea sticks to making changes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and for anyone immersed in all things Marvel Studios it’s a funny, satisfying and often quite interesting treat – albeit one with a slightly scattershot structure.

So how does it work? Well, the first episode recounts a reality where Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) becomes a super-soldier instead of Steve Rogers, which at first glance feels like a stretch but is fairly well justified by the logic of the story (which sees a small choice lead to a cascade of different outcomes).

The rest of the episode is essentially a rewriting of 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger with Atwell’s Peggy in the hero role, and it works surprisingly well. Obviously Peggy faces more sexist opposition to her role than Steve did, but still manages to become an efficient (arguably, more efficient than Steve at times) hero whose actions lead the story down a different path.

If there’s a criticism for the series opener it’s that cramming a two-hour film into a 32-minute episode sometimes means things feel a little rushed or passed over, but the episode largely makes up for it with its ingenuity (including Steve’s role as an Iron Man-like hero and how Peggy’s final clash mirrors the original Cap’s) and charm. And it’s less of a problem for the second episode anyway, which pulls off a similar character swap but for a more original story with an unexpectedly poignant feel.

That of course comes from the posthumous performance by Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, who stars here in a universe where he went to the stars instead of Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill and became Star-Lord. Recorded by Boseman before his death, it’s not the send-off anyone would have chosen for his character, but it’s still a reminder of the warmth and charm of his performance to date.

Chadwick Boseman voices T'Challa/Star-Lord in Marvel's What If...?
Chadwick Boseman voices T’Challa/Star-Lord in Marvel’s What If…?
Disney

In contrast to this emotional background, the episode itself is by far the funniest of the three available to press. As with Captain Carter, it’s clear that T’Challa would make a better Star-Lord than Quill – but here it’s less subtext than text, with the entire universe fawning over the famous, dashing and universally beloved hero who robs from the rich, gives to the poor and is legendary for his death-defying feats.

At times this elevated status becomes comical – watch out for some surprising additions to his crew – but it’s not unearned, as we see when he pulls off a daring heist alongside Karen Gillan’s Nebula (who in this universe, wears a femme fatale wig for some reason). It’s an episode full of outer-space escapades, cool Easter Eggs (more than the other two episodes combined) and double-crosses. And if the premise at its heart feels a little more laboured than Captain Carter’s arrival, well, you’re soon swept along for the ride.

Episode three, meanwhile, takes things back to more modern-day Earth, delving into the early years of the MCU to imagine a different path the Avengers could have taken. To say much more risks spoilers, but it’s a fun little mystery that looks to be related to a longer arc in the series. Despite appearances, What If…? may not quite be the series of one-off anthology stories it first appears…

Hayley Atwell voices Captain Carter in Marvel's What If...?
Hayley Atwell voices Captain Carter in Marvel’s What If…?
Disney

Overall What If…? was a pleasant surprise for me, full of clever little takes on familiar Marvel material that tells interesting short stories in the superhero sandbox. The fact that a lot of the original cast (including Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Ruffalo, Clark Gregg, Michael Rooker, Djimon Hounsou, Tom Hiddleston, Benicio del Toro and many more, often in tiny roles) are present helps sell the connection to the movies, and the imitators among the What If…? cast (including Ross Marquand and Lake Bell) representing those actors who’ve left Marvel do a good job of matching the original stars.

Of course, there are some caveats. As a short-form animation without an overriding plot What If…? is more interesting than gripping, and sometimes the animation style looks a bit stiff on-screen (though notably, less so in the excellent action scenes). Some of the twists also feel a little too removed from what actually happened in the MCU to fit the “one tiny choice changes everything” premise, even if they do include fun nods to original comic-book continuity.

Jeffrey Wright voices The Watcher in Marvel's What If...?
Jeffrey Wright voices The Watcher in Marvel’s What If…?
Disney

It’s also unlikely to be a fun watch for anyone but the most devoted Marvel fan, as a great deal of its appeal comes from remixing familiar characters and moments, which might be less entertaining to a casual viewer (though episodes two and three are probably more accessible).

Still, overall What If…? offers an entertaining new take on Marvel continuity that will fill the gap between the main Disney Plus series. And who knows? If Marvel’s multiverse adventures keep coming, maybe we’ll see some of these new variants in live-action themselves…

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Marvel’s What If…? debuts its first episode on Weds 11th August on Disney Plus. You can sign up to Disney Plus for £7.99 a month or £79.90 a year now. Check out our dedicated Sci-Fi page or our full TV Guide for more ideas of what to watch.