Will Marvel’s What If…? Continue its Steady Descent into Darkness?
Spoiler warning for the first five episodes of What If…?
When I started watching the What If…? animated Marvel show on Disney Plus, I was pretty sure I was going to be in for an easy going, fun filled time. I wasn’t wrong as the show has been highly enjoyable so far, depicting various “what if” scenarios for well-known Marvel Cinematic Universe superheroes. The show explores various major Marvel movie events but looks at how they would have played out if a few things had gone differently. What I wasn’t expecting was guts, gore and an astronomical amount of death. This was in no way a negative for me, just a bit of a shock. Episodes three, four and five felt very different, with a darkness to them that surprised me considering the cheery and positive nature of the first two episodes. With that in mind, I wanted to look at the differences between the first two episodes and the recent three and speculate on whether these were just one off occurrences or whether this is what the show is ultimately going for. Keep in mind that at the time of writing, episode five is the latest release.
All Images Courtesy of Marvel Studios and Disney Plus.
Episodes One and Two
The first episode of the show- “What If…Captain Carter Were The First Avenger?”- sees Peggy Carter donning the iconic Captain America shield after she is injected with super soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers. Despite the intense fight sequences between Peggy and the bad guys, the episode is arguably lighter than the actual movie. For example, Bucky- who we see fall from a train in the actual film – is saved from the grizzly plunge and Steve- who becomes the pilot of the “Hydra Stomper” suit in this reality- gets a fake out death scene where we think he is dead only to come back not long after. The episode is pretty tame and light hearted, with the most gruesome event being when Red Skull gets squished by a giant tentacle monster.
Episode two– “What If…T’Challa Became a Star-Lord?”- is equally so, bordering on wholesome at points as we see T’Challa taking the place of Peter Quill from Guardians of the Galaxy and effectively bringing about a sense of harmony to the galaxy, even going so far as to convert the Mad Titan Thanos to the side of the righteous. This episode feels like a testament to the strength of T’Challa as a character and how he not only commands respect, but is also able to bring out the best in everyone he encounters. The episode also acts as a touching end to T’Challa’s character in a main role (though so far he has also made one more smaller appearance in the series) due to the untimely passing of Chadwick Boseman, who played him so brilliantly. Again, it’s a joyful kind of episode which feels right for the final leading performance for Boseman as T’Challa. But with that being said, the three episodes since these two have felt incredibly different in tone.
As I sat down to watch episode three of What If…?, I was expecting another PG-13 adventure. If I had paid attention to the title, then I probably would have gotten more of an idea of what was coming. The third episode is called “What If…the World Lost Its Mightiest Heroes?” Everything that particular name suggests is exactly what we get and in morbid fashion too. The plot here revolves around a serial killer who is taking down the Avengers one by one, starting with Tony Stark/Iron Man. It’s not even like we get these deaths off screen or anything. We see Tony in the moment in the movies where he first sits down to discuss The Avengers Initiative properly with Nick Fury and Natasha Romanoff a.k.a Black Widow. Tony suddenly collapses and dies after being injected by Black Widow, who inadvertently gave him a fatal jab. Thor is accidentally shot by Hawkeye in the moment from his solo film where tries to pick up his hammer after breaking into the SHIELD compound to retrieve it. Hawkeye is then found dead in his cell where he is being held for Thor’s death. Then there is Bruce Banner/ The Hulk. This was a disturbing one. Like, super disturbing. If a kid who was a Hulk fan watched this I would expect tears and screaming. We’ll get back to Hulk’s death in a moment when I talk about who was behind these murders. After the Hulk, we have Black Widow herself who is trying to find out who the murderer is whilst knowing that she is next on the list. Eventually, she too meets her demise she but gives Fury the information he needs to find out the killer. Turns out, Hank Pym a.k.a the original Ant-Man- has gone rogue and become the villain Yellow Jacket. His daughter Hope Van Dyne was a SHIELD operative in this universe and she died whilst on a mission, leading to Hank becoming bitter and twisted and inevitably leading to him unleashing his rage onto SHIELD by taking out their heroes one by one. Cap gets spared as he is still buried under ten tons of ice at this point so I guess it is a bonus that we don’t have to watch all of The Avengers die horribly. Just five of the six. That is one sixth less traumatic then it could have been. Gotta maintain that positivity.
That’s where we come to way in which they are killed. It’s unpleasant to say the least. Pym shrinks himself down to infiltrate the three of the Avengers and kills them from the inside. He sneaks into the syringe that Natasha uses to inject Tony to get into his bloodstream, murdering him from within. Disturbing right? Well it only gets worse honestly. He manipulates Clint Barton a.k.a Hawkeye’s bow to make him release his arrow to kill Thor but he then enters Clint’s head through his ear. You don’t see what he did but it’s safe to say that at the very least, he turned his brain to mush. This is a guy who has a wife and kids, remember. Then there is the Hulk. Hank manages to get himself shot into the Hulk and then uses one of the Pym particle disks to enlarge his heart, causing the giant green rage machine to explode. Yes, he literally explodes. Not a great way to go. Natasha then faces off against Pym and it looks like he uses a particle disc to murder her by shrinking her into nothing, which is just as horrifying as Hulk’s death in a different way. The episode ends relatively positively, with hope not being entirely lost as Fury makes plans for a new set of heroes- including a thawed out Cap and Captain Marvel- to save the world but it also ends with a shot of the coffins of the characters that we have come to know and love. Oh and Loki also takes over the planet after coming to Earth to avenge Thor’s death. So there’s that too. I was genuinely shocked at how jarring this tonal shift was in comparison to the other two episodes, but it was a good kind of a shock.
Episode four leaned more into the realms of depressing rather than shocking, following Stephen Strange (Doctor Strange) as he embarks on a quest to change an “absolute point in time”. In this universe, Strange loses the love of his life-Christine Palmer-rather than the use of his hands (“What If… Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?”).His grief leads him to try and reverse that which is irreversible. At first, Strange uses the Eye of Agamotto (the Time Stone) to go back and try to stop Christine’s death from happening. After watching her die over and over again, he is told by The Ancient One that her death is that aforementioned “absolute point in time” and so there is no way to reverse it. Strange refuses to let it go, absorbing the power of various mystical creatures and studying dark magic, turning somewhat evil in the process. After a battle with himself (literally. It’s a long story), he eventually succeeds, bringing Christine back but eliminating the entire universe in the process. Unfortunately, this includes Christine who- as she fades away- simply asks “what have you done?” Strange pleads to The Watcher to not let the universe pay for this mistakes as he has now become powerful enough to feel the presence of the omniscient cosmic being who narrates the series. Of course, The Watcher denies his request and Strange is forced to remain in a hellish purgatory of his own creation for eternity. See what I mean when I say it’s depressing?
I love how subversive this episode was, with every element pointing towards a more pleasing conclusion but ultimately going for the worst possible ending imaginable. The literal destruction of the universe. More than just a little depressing if you ask me.
The latest episode in the series is “What If…Zombies?!”, loosely based on the Marvel Zombies comic book series. I was looking forward to this one as I have read the first Zombies book and I really enjoy its inventive take on the zombie genre and how brilliantly it is combined with the standard superhero comic book fare. Again, even though I knew this episode was coming I assumed it wasn’t really going to be too similar to the comics in terms of violence and dark themes. I was wrong. Very wrong. The episode adapts the comic in a way that fits in with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, switching around characters and keeping some in a way that would make sense if this were actually one of the movies. But the episode is way gorier than I was expecting, though the blood and guts are a murky dark grey and blue rather than red. We get exploding characters (yes, another one),decapitations, heads in jars, zombies feasting on characters, dead characters, dying characters, zombified characters, characters with limbs missing because their body parts were being used to feed captive zombies and much more. I was amazed at how much the show got away with to be honest, as well as being surprised that this was the same show that I started watching a month ago. There is a hint of optimism at the end- with Peter Parker, T’Challa, Doctor Strange’s sentient cape and Scott Lang’s head (he is that head in a jar I mentioned)- escaping to Wakanda to broadcast the energy of the Mind Stone across the world in an attempt to cure the zombie virus. But along the way, a lot of characters die. And I mean, a LOT. As in all of them except those three.
I mentioned the Mind Stone. Y’all remember who had the Mind Stone right? Guess who we have to watch getting it ripped out of their skull for like the fourth time? This time, Vision rips it out himself to atone for his sins (he has been keeping a zombified Wanda a.k.a Scarlet Witch alive by feeding her innocent survivors. These two characters just cannot catch a break in any universe). All of The Avengers are dead – minus the three escapees (four if you count the cape which you really should as it’s clearly the MVP here) – as are all of the other MCU characters that we see die in the episode such as Happy Hogan, Sharon Carter and Okoye. It’s a bloody and brutal episode that I think would have worked much better as a feature length film or as a series in its own right as I found myself completely gripped from start to finish. The humour worked, the horror worked and the action worked too. Side note: Chadwick Boseman gets a fair few lines here as T’Challa and it kind of pains me to hear him as he sounds so exhausted. T’Challa is supposed to be in bad shape- he’s missing a leg as Vision has been harvesting bits of him to feed Wanda- and Boseman was a terrific actor so perhaps he really is just that convincing in his role as a chewed up survivor. However, I get the feeling this might not have been the case. These voiceover performances were some of Boseman’s last before his passing and I can’t help but feel like he is struggling. It hurt my heart when he started speaking in the episode. Like I said, this could be because he was such an amazing actor and I hope this was the case. His last moments in the episode are also heart-breaking as he explains how death is not the end in his culture, which feels painfully poignant. We will always remember what Chadwick brought to the MCU and I’m glad that we are able to have a little more T’Challa in our lives thanks to this series. I loved this episode but it felt so far away from the show that What If…? began as. Is that a negative? Certainly not. But it does leave me wondering where the show will go from here.
The Final Three Episodes
We already know that the next What If…? episode is going to be about Tony Stark being saved from his ordeal with terrorists during the first Iron Man movie thanks to being rescued by Black Panther’s villainous Killmonger. But will the show keep continuing on its path of the dark and twisted or will it return to its PG friendly fun and shenanigans? Personally, I kind of love where the show is going in terms of dark craziness and I want it to go all in on it. I guess we will just have to wait and see how this one plays out. As the Watcher says, “I observe all that transpires here, but I do not, cannot, will not interfere”. The Watcher is all of us right now.
Make sure to check out What If…? streaming now on Disney Plus.