Asking “what if this had happened instead” is as much a part of the comic book tradition as it is a basic rhetorical exercise. Since 1977 Marvel Comics has produced hundreds of comics in the “What If?” line, exploring what could have been if a single choice had been made differently during pivotal storyline moments. What if Peter Parker’s daughter hadn’t been kidnapped by the Green Goblin and became her own heroine? Or what if heroes like the Fantastic Four or Doctor Strange hadn’t gained their powers or suffered their defining tragedy?
This practice has spawned at least heated debates amongst fans, and at most, new characters, and storylines with their own individual canons. And now, Marvel Studios is daring to ask the same question, regarding moments in the first three phases of its Cinematic Universe.
Much like the original comic runs, What If…? is framed by the Watcher, Uatu, voiced by Geoffrey Wright (The Hunger Games). From his hidden vantage point, he observes events in the MCU—as well as events in alternate realities which could have been if a single variable was altered. Wright brings the perfect tone and gravitas to the role, beginning episodes on a note worthy of The Twilight Zone or Beyond Belief.
“This episode of What If…? is a fun tale that holds a little tight to the source material.”
In the case of the first episode, the series presents an alternate version of Captain America: The First Avenger, where it’s Peggy Carter who receives the Super Soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers. This episode of What If…? is a fun tale that holds a little tight to the source material. It’s “Captain Carter” who turns the tide of the war instead of Captain America, and many plot beats from the film are essentially retold in this new continuity.
Like Steve did in the film, “Captain Carter” storms through an enemy compound with Bucky and the Howling Commandos at her back. What If…? is stronger, however, when it subverts otherwise familiar moments, except for one ironic joke that threatened to punch clean through the fourth wall or shows us other sides of canon events. Steve and Peggy are still drawn to each other, and it’s endearing to see their relationship budding in a different timeline when you know where we last saw them in Endgame.
Animation was a terrific route to go for this series—not only because of the inherent difficulty of recreating decade-old movies, but because it allows What If…? to explore some out-there scenarios. The episode’s climax breaks free of the original movie’s plot for a truly awesome finale, and an action montage plays up the comic book aesthetic. All in all, the series’ presentation is top notch.
“…the proper return of Hayley Atwell as Peggy and Dominic Cooper as young Howard Stark made this episode worth it for me alone.”
Many original actors have returned for What If…?, reprising their roles in voice only—and the proper return of Hayley Atwell as Peggy and Dominic Cooper as young Howard Stark made this episode worth it for me alone. I found myself hungrily pausing the credits to confirm who had been recast, because Josh Keaton had me convinced that Chris Evans had returned as Steve for one last dance. The performances aren’t completely solid across the board, as some recurring voices sound unaccustomed to voice work, but the number of veterans returning, even for minor roles, is staggering.
As a big fan of Atwell and the criminally cancelled Agent Carter, I was a little disappointed that her big chance to shine here was somewhat subverted by the origin of another alternate-universe hero. Without spoiling anything, it’s a minor personal gripe, but this addition stole some of Peggy’s thunder. This decision throws some of the retelling’s balance off, in my eyes.
All said and done, the first episode of What If…? sets up the ten-episode miniseries as a fun adventure for fans. You might not even need to have seen the first Captain America movie recently, or at all, to enjoy this individual ride, though your mileage with this series will likely depend on your overall investment in the MCU. The more you’ve watched, the more you’ll probably enjoy.
You may want to put aside the tin-foil hats and avoid looking for Mephisto everywhere, however. What If…? is more about enrichment and exploring a fun hypothetical situation than lasting characters or world-building, slightly enhancing the main universe by holding up a funhouse mirror to its events. Then again, after Loki introduced the idea of multiverses and variants, who knows what’s possible?
What will make or break the rest of this experience will be the strength of its premises—we could throw “wouldn’t it be neat if this had happened instead” scenarios at the wall all day, but not everything will stick. If this one doesn’t do it for you, I’d still recommend that you give the show another shot with episode two.